Linguistic Future: Ukrainians Who Do Not Speak Russian?

Posted July 26th, 2012 at 11:19 am (UTC+0)

Taking language politics to heart, a member Svoboda, a Ukrainian nationalist political party strong in Western Ukraine, sprays riot police with tear gas in Kyiv, Ukraine on July 4. Nationalists fought with police over a bill that would allow the use of Russian and other minority languages in official settings. Photo: AP/Efrem Lukatsky

LVIV — It’s a sunny summer evening here in Lviv, the café and cobblestones capital of Western Ukraine.

But a steady stream of young couples are ducking down a secret archway.

They rap once at a solid wooden door, then stand back.

The door opens half way to reveal a man in forest green uniform, an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder.

He shouts: “Slava Ukraini!”

Visitors call out the password in Ukrainian: “Heroyam Slava!” – Hail to Our Heroes!

And with that, they descend into the red brick vaulted cellars of Kryjivka – an underground restaurant in the theme of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This partisan group fought the Soviet Red Army for almost a decade, starting in 1944.

In that war, long hidden behind the Iron Curtain’s veil of secrecy, 35,000 Soviet officials and soldiers were killed — more than twice the number of Soviet troops killed in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In reprisal, about 600,000 Western Ukrainians were “repressed” – one third executed, one third imprisoned and one third deported to distant parts of the Soviet Union.

At Kryjivka, the cellar walls are festooned with ghosts from that guerrilla campaign long lost to history – handsome, sandy haired young men posing in the forest with vaguely familiar uniforms; copies of Ukrainian language posters and pamphlets from underground presses; and Russian language diagrams of forest encampments, probably from Soviet counter-insurgency manuals.

At the underground shooting range in Lviv’s Kryjivka restaurant, VOA video journalist Austin Malloy nailed Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief who directed the Soviet Union’s post WWII counterinsurgency campaign in Western Ukraine. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At the entrance, my American-accented “Heroyam Slava” prompted the armed doorman to give me a shot – of local vodka. Maybe thanks for the assistance — too little, too late — that Washington sent to the Ukrainian guerrillas in the early 1950s?

But at a table down below, I soon commit a linguistic faux pas. I ask for a beer in Russian. A Ukrainian dining companion at my table almost whacks my hand. She chides me: “No Russian spoken here!”

The gap between Russia and Western Ukraine is more than linguistic. Russia television regularly airs old Soviet movies showing Ukrainian guerrillas as fascist puppets of the Nazis, fanatics who fought on long after the war, ambushing heroic Red Army units.

At Kryjivka, where it was hard to find an empty table on Monday night, there were two traits common to the 100 or so patrons packed underground. Whether it was the young man proudly posing for souvenir photos with a (decommissioned) automatic weapon, or the two young women waiting for their turn to shoot an air rifle at a paper target of Stalin’s secret police chief, they were all in their 20s and 30s, and they were all speaking in Ukrainian.

Above ground, the linguistic landscape is the same. Over the last two centuries, the name of this city has shifted according to tides of history: from Lemberg (German) to Lwow (Polish) to Lvov (Russian) and now Lviv (Ukrainian).

Russia’s influence fades as you move from east to west in Ukraine. For centuries, the western quarter was ruled by either Poland or Austria. This western orientation was cut short by Stalin’s annexation into the Soviet Union in 1939.

Before World War II, this was a Polish-speaking city. Later, as a western colony of the Soviet Union, it was heavily Russian-speaking. But the influence of Moscow faded with independence two decades ago. Lviv is now an overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking city. On a national level, many linguists believe that Ukrainian language use is steadily spreading east.

Here, as in Central Asia, Georgia, the Baltics and in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet empire has meant a steadily shrinking footprint for spoken Russian. In Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian are linguistically so close, this subtle atrophying of Russian language skills has been overshadowed by fights over language policy in Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Once a Russian speaking city, Kyiv is now increasingly bilingual.

Outside Lviv’s World War II memorial, I stopped Andrei, a 23-year-old cook who was bicycling to work. Aiming to please, he strained hard to understand my questions in Russian. He then replied in Ukrainian. It was not a political statement. Here was a young Ukrainian who could not speak Russian.

Inside the memorial, Austin Malloy, VOA’s Moscow-based video journalist, asked a gardener – in Russian – if he could shut off his lawnmower in order to film. Standing 10 paces from a Red Army statue, the gardener barked back: “What’s your nationality?”

When he learned the request was not coming from a Russian, he shut off his lawnmower, and wanted to chat, at length.

Across town, at another World War II memorial, I stopped Sergiy, a 70-year-old retired engineer. A veteran of the Soviet Army, he spoke Russian well. He said he had used it every day at the factory where he worked. As we stood under a massive Soviet-era statue of a Red Army soldier holding a sword, I asked him when was the last time he spoke Russian.

He mulled. He answered: “It must have been one year ago.”

Linguistic Field Research: Marina, an architecture student from Odessa, Ukraine’s port on the Black Sea, tells James Brooke she feels uncomfortable speaking Russian in Lviv. Although she studied Ukrainian in school, she uses it rarely in Russian-speaking Odessa. VOA Photo: Austin Malloy

On a park bench, near a 17th century chapel, I talked with Marina, an architecture student from Odessa, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking seaport on the Black Sea. Embarrassed about making grammatical mistakes, she was using Russian in Lviv. She said that put her on the defensive here.

Part of that is geography. Eastern Ukraine has a 1,576 kilometer border with Russia. Central Ukraine has a 891 kilometer border with Russian-speaking Belarus. And Western Ukraine has a total of 2,200 kilometers of borders with Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

With the Polish border a one-hour drive from here, Lviv, Western Ukraine’s largest city, is closer to Warsaw or Budapest than to Kyiv. At Lviv’s International Airport’s new $200 million terminal, the daily flight to Moscow is lost among a long list of alternate destinations – Vienna, Munich, Prague, Warsaw, Krakow and Milan.

In town, the roll call of 16 foreign consulates includes the standard list of neighboring nations. But, there also are two unexpected ones, both legacies of Western Ukraine’s diaspora of the last century: Brazil and Canada.

Poland’s new steel and glass consulate – and the lines of visa applicants outside – testify to the fact that on May 1, 2004, Ukrainians woke up to discover that they needed visas to visit old friends and neighbors in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia — all members of the expanded Schengen visa zone.

But, for almost 150 years, Western Ukraine was administered by Vienna. Today, Lviv’s younger generation sees visas to the West as obstacles that will pass with time. When selecting a foreign language for study, Lviv high school students choose Polish, German or English, over Russian.

On Lviv’s Boulevard Dzhokhar Dudayev (named after the first president of secessionist Chechnya), I stopped by Oculus, an optometrist. I asked the receptionist in Russian, if she sold eyewash.

The 20-something woman struggled for a moment. Then, she asked hopefully: “Do you speak English?”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

46 responses to “Linguistic Future: Ukrainians Who Do Not Speak Russian?”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. The article reflects the nowadays reality.
    Before the demise of the Soviet Union, I chanced to share undergraduate fraternity with students who had been sent to my Russian university from some Western Ukrainian universities. From their heavy Ukrainian accent and demeanor there was felt the resentful, covered anti-sovietism and anti-communism. They were the bitter remnants of cruel Stalinists’ enforcement of alien to them ideology and way of life way back from the 1950-s.
    By their behavior the Ukrainian boys contrasted very much from their compatriots who had arrived to Russia from eastern Ukrainian universities. Since then years have passed, epoch has changed. But the chasm between western and eastern Ukraine didn’t cease to exist over the time.
    2. Ukraine is divided into the western and eastern parts not just by linguistic preference and mentality, but also by historical, cultural and economical differences. Unending and heated debate goes on if there aren’t two different countries: industrial East versus commercial West. From days immemorial eastern Ukraine has been highly developed and well connected with Russia. At some point it was the capital of prehistoric Russia. Hardly anybody can find an eastern Ukrainian family without beloved relatives in Russia and vice versa. They understand each other without any help. Actually they are two dearly-brotherly nations. Eastern Ukrainians see economic advantages from their cooperation with Russia. Unfortunately there is an anti-autocratic aftertaste to this idyllic picture as eastern Ukrainians enjoy more freedom and rule of law than their Russian counterparts.
    3. Completely different picture is for the pair of western Ukraine: Russia. From mediaeval times Western Ukraine was pro-polish and pro- West European and hated all eastern Slavonic.
    The Stalin-Hitler pact forced Western Ukraine into communist submission. Western Ukrainians dream of days of entering the euro-zone and it could have been expected they don’t speak Russian as the latter doesn’t facilitate the immediate advent of cherished future for them.
    With Russian science, technology, education and language in current deep crisis the knowledge of Russian language doesn’t convey them any benefits but reminds about bitter past. But some experts are unsure if the European Union with its own problem (Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy) will be in a hurry to embrace them within the common currency zone.

    • mykry says:

      The article is not all that incorrect. However, it there are two important point that are missing. First, after all of the empires which have subjugated Lviv, the language spoken in the hundreds of villages surrounding the city is the language now spoken in Lviv; and that is Ukrainian (which predates the languages of all of the empires).
      Secondly, it should also be mentioned that one of the main reasons why eastern and western Ukraine are divided stems directly from the fact that the Holodomor—the man-made famine—took place in 1933. That was the turning point. Millions of Ukrainians died and then replaced by Moscovites. I believe this to be the main reason that now there is a language, as well as a political and social identity, issue. Of course, planned provocations from Russia only inflame the issue…

    • Ukrayinets says:

      Actually West Ukrainians despise Poland, and there are a huge number of Poles who are under the delusion that “L’wów” is rightfully “theirs”.

  2. Ed says:

    Terrible, just a terrible article. Hope the budget cuts are kind to you.

    • greek lady says:

      You never give ONE REASON why it is a terrible article? Just because it does not support your view? Probably you are a Russophil or else an ignorant American. This is my very first comment to VOA, ever- so stop trying to block me.

  3. Oksana says:

    Jim, you were so much surprised to see Ukrainian-speaking people in Lviv. The same surprise is guaranteed for you if you go 20 minutes outside of Kyiv. This whole country is full of surprises. Jim, this whole country is Ukraine!

  4. Myron says:

    It is high time that Americans stop Russification and Learn Ukrainian and use the national language when travelling in Ukraine

    • Joe says:

      Learning languages is something which needs much time. This is true most of all for languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, whose grammar is rather difficult for a non-Slav. I’ve been studying Russian for 4 years, and only now I could say my Russian language skills are quite good.
      If you plan to stay in Lviv for a long time, of course you will need to learn Ukrainian. I lived six months in Estonia and I started learning Estonian, even though I could do almost everything using only English. But you could not require such a thing from a tourist who is planning to stay for a week or ten days. I understand that this an act of respect, but you came on holiday to Germany or the Netherlands, would you prefer to learn German or Dutch from scratch or speak English? And, if you would choose the latter, would you promote Anglicization of Germany or the Netherlands at the same time, just by speaking English?
      I’m sure you will understand me.

  5. Sea to sea says:

    Lviv is a Polish city (looks like one, was one for half a millenium) it’s just that it’s the farthest away from Russian speaking Ukraine so Ukrainian National identity is strongest there. The Polish Identity of freedom that it gave the city actually helped make it probably the most Ukrainian city today, even more so han Kiev.

    • Michael says:

      Sea to Sea,
      You will never find a city in Poland that looks like Lviv. Lviv is unique and not thanks to the Poles. The Polish government, when occupying Western Ukraine committed just as many criminal acts against the Ukrainians as the Russians did. That is why Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Natinals was created. To fight the Polish first, then the Russians, then the Germans and then again the Russians. We will continue to do that until we can rid ourselves of those who want our bountiful land. Keep that in mind!

      • Sea to Sea says:

        Actually you will not find a city in Ukraine that looks like Lviv simply because it looks like a Polish city (Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan, etc.) You say Poland occupied Ukraine. When was there a Ukraine before 1917? It was a Polish city since 1389. Everything you see in that city that makes it what it is is Polish. I’ve been there and nothing screams “UKRAINE” to me. Even during the Euro2012 Finals there was a sense of “Polish” in the air. You say Lviv is unique no thanks to Poles. Haha, wow! Talk about robbery. Every old building or statue in that city is POLISH. Lviv barely even became Ukrainian because the Russians used the Curzon Line A instead of Curzon Line B, which would have made Lviv, Lwow again. This mentality of stealing something that’s not yours is very “Russian-esque” and seems to be the Ukrainian mentality of today, especially when dealing with Lviv. I ask you Michael, how can a country occupy a city that belonged to them for centuries? Ukrainians took siege of Lwow, not the other way around. Keep that in mind!

        • mykry says:

          Lviv was a Ukrainian city before it was Polish. Lviv was founded by Prince Danylo Halytsky in the mid 13th century. It was a principality of Kyivan Rus—the direct descendants of current day Ukrainians. Actually, the first settlements go back to the 6th century. The Polish kings did not take control until of the region, including Lviv, until the late 14th century. In fact, the early chronicles call the city ‘LVIV’ which was changed to ‘LWOW’ when Poland took control of the city.
          Poland controled the city for a long time, and therefore had much influence on it, up until the the mid 1700’s when Austro-Hungarian empire gained control. However, the surrounding region Halychyna (or Galicia), throughout time, was settled predominantly by Ukrainians. Lviv is a Ukrainian city and it belongs to those who have settled it for thousands of years.
          Apparantly, and unfortunately, there are still some Poles who need to examine their own ‘Russian-esque’ attitude stemming from times of the Polish empire. Shame, shame.

  6. Tania says:

    Sea to Sea: Lviv is not a Polish city. It was founded in 1256 by a Ukrainian King, Danylo, and named for his son, Lev. The Poles invaded Ukraine, ruled it, persecuted and murdered so many of its people (serfdom, “pacification,” Aktsiya Visla — no, they ruled, they persecuted, they took the wealth. They still mourn the loss of their empire — Lviv and Vilnius (Lithuania). But these two countries were not theirs to take.

    • Sea to Sea says:

      I seem to remember Ukraine’s failed attempt to capture a real Ukrainian city, Kiev from Russia. When that failed, the Ukrainian army went to Poland and took siege of a Polish city, Lwow. It was the Ukrainians that attempted to capture a Polish city of a half millenium, was it not? It was the Ukrainians that murdered Poles/Jews/whomever in that “Polish” city. Ukrainians lived in Poland without persecution for centuries. Can’t say the same thing about Ukrainians in Russia. When the Ukrainians knew they were never going to defeat Russia, which Poland eventually did, they went after the Polish city of Lwow (while Poland was at war with Russia) behind the Poles back and kicked them while they were down and were fighting a war with the same enemy as Ukraine. Lwow wasn’t the cultural capitol of Poland for HUNDREDS OF YEARS for no reason. It’s just sad to take a city that was so culturally important to Poland and call it the cultural capital of Ukraine. It’s like the Ukrainians are searching for an identity and can’t seem to figure out that their ethnicity is somewhere in between Polish and Russian. Lwow is Polish and it always will be. Ukrainians need to work on their actual capitol of Kiev because the sole fact that so much Russian is spoken there is an embarrassment on the Ukrainian peoples.

  7. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Tania and Sea,
    Right — unless Sea’s map is dated 1938, Lviv is not a Polish city, but a Ukrainian city with many traces of Polish influence — churches, chapels, etc.
    The focus of my article was to look forward — where is Lviv going?
    Despite the (temporary) obstacle of Schengen visas, Lviv and its inhabitants seem on track to re-engage with the West — Poland, Austria, etc. The process seems unstoppable.
    It would be very interesting to see the latest statistics for foreign language enrollments in the high schools of Lviv City and Region.
    Students — and their parents — are gauging where the future will be — 10, 20 years down the road.
    best regards

    • Sea to Sea says:

      Actually Jim my map is dated 1389-1938, and the only time it wasn’t “Polish” during those dates is when Poland was partitioned and occupied in 1772 as it was annexed by Austria and called Lemberg. It was still a Polish city then and was about 90% Polish until 1938 when all hell broke out.

  8. Ross says:

    Instead of wasting time and money in the hoaky Kryjivka restaurant you should have taken a 20-minute cab ride from downtown Lviv to Bilohorshcha (one a suburban village of Lviv now within city limits) where there is a real, authentic kryjivka, the headquarters of Gen. Taras Chuprynka, (real name Roman Shukhevych), the commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who killed himself there when his HQ was surrounded by Beria’s troops. There is a museum there, there are authetic exhibits, false wall passages and there is never a crowd there — unlike in the phony kryjivka downtown.

    And pleaaaase, don’t kid yourself that Lviv denizens don’t speak Russian. A lot of Russian is spoken in Lviv. This city (like Riga) was where Russian-speaking Sov elite retired, and stayed there, and refuses to speak Ukrainian. Moreover — the current Lviv elite supports the Svoboda party — a Nazi grouping that pretends to be super patriotic and probably is funded by Russia.

    • Michael says:

      Obviously that “kryjivka” in Lviv is not the real thing. It never claimed to be. It is simply a restaurant, a business. That’s all! I am glad that it is there.

  9. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    thanks for the museum tip — I will do that on my next trip
    read the article carefully — I am saying that there are members of the younger generation in Lviv who do not speak Russian
    Russia is far away, it is more useful for them to learn German, English or Polish.
    I am not talking about the Soviet generation — people aged 35 and up.
    There is a similar phenomenon in Tblisi and Dushanbe — if you want ask directions, look for the person over 40

    • Svetlana says:

      I lived in Lvov or Lviv for two years in the Soviet era. I liked the architecture of the city; however I always was uncomfortable to speak Russian there. You were a second class citizen if you spoke Russian. I was young and naive and could not understand what I did wrong in stores or cafes or with some of my neighbors when I spoke Russian, why was I treated like a second class citizen. I started to hate that city after two years living there. There is a lot of extreme nationalism. I would never treat someone badly only because that person speaks a different language. Everybody has a right to speak their own language. And if there are millions of Russian speaking people live in Ukraine, then let them speak their language – Russian. It is their right even they live in Ukraine! I grew up in Kiev in Soviet time. There were signs for store, official offices, etc. in Ukrainian language. There were Ukrainian schools, Ukrainian TV channels, books, magazines, etc. Ukrainian language and literature were mandatory even in Russian schools in Ukraine. Now many people intentionally “forget” this and say that Ukrainian language was suppressed during Soviet era. No, it was not suppressed. This hysteria about speaking Russian has to stop. It is normal to speak your native language. I live in the US now, and I speak Russian at home and at work if I work with Russians sometimes. And it is normal. There is a large population of Spanish speaking people, and they are accommodated by documents in Spanish. So, what? English is still the primer language of the US. Ukraine is far from being civilized in many aspects; language is just one of them.

      • Mishi Popovich says:

        Well how about multiple clerks in kyiv in Soviet times who said that we need to speak “normal” language if we want to be helped. We spoke Ukrainian , but obviously in Soviet times it was an “abnormal” language. If we being Hungarian can learn Ukrainian and Russian to communicate , how could not you learn Ukrainian alone? It is because you do not care and still regard your Russian as something superior.

      • Michael says:

        I am happy that you moved to the U.S. Do you speak English when getting around where you live? I am sure you do. Why didn’t you try to learn a bit of Ukrainian when you lived in Lviv? It would have helped. But no, you were simply a chauvanist Russian who did not want to learn Ukrainian. You wanted them to speak to you in Russian because that was the language of the master in Moscow. Thank you for leaving Ukraine.

        • Svetlana says:

          Wow, hysteria about the Ukrainian language continues! What an angry comment I received from Michael and Mishi Popovich! Michael called me a “chauvinist Russian”, because I come from a mixed family (Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians) and because my first language is Russian.
          First of all, I am fluent in Ukrainian. And I did speak Ukrainian in Lvov to avoid negative reaction towards myself. We are clear on it. I spoke Russian in Lvov when I just moved there, because I did not know that it would be such a big deal in Lvov. I was young and naive at 19!
          Second of all, I am glad too, Michael, that I moved to the US! I don’t have to deal with people like you 🙂 You are angry for no reason. Just relax and be positive…about everything, including the languages. More languages you know, better for you and for your children! They will be more educated and it will be easier for you and for your children to pick up next language, and next. Look at the other countries – children learn 2-3 foreign languages since childhood. It is a good thing!
          Third of all, I did not say anything negative about the Ukrainian language or anybody’s right to use it. However, I noticed that you offended myself by calling me names (like in kindergarten), and you are angry that I have a different opinion.
          Have a good life in Ukraine.

          • mykry says:

            Russian is the language of the occupiers. Russia has occupied certain parts of Ukraine (i.e., western) for just a short period of time and other parts (eastern) for much longer. With this occupation came a forced Russification. For Russians, the language issue is apparently difficult to understand. Until they do, you can expect a bit of anger in a Ukrainians response on this topic.

            By the way, this is no different than the Irish or Scottish response to the English. If you can undertand that, then you can understand this.

          • Svetlana says:

            All I know is that you have to live today and build the future for tomorrow instead of looking back and be bitter all your life. Because of your bitterness you offend people and create enemies for no reason. If you want to be respected, you have to show respect, be civilized in your actions. Germany started two world wars in the XX century. But look at Germany today: it is a different country. Do you suggest that we hate all the Germans today, tomorrow and forever for what they have done in the past??? World and its people move on. I suggest you catch up and be more open minded. It really helps in life. And if we are talking here about suppressed civil rights (right to speak your own language), then we have to embrace everyone’s right to speak his or her own language regardless where he or she lives. That is the basic civil right of a citizen in a civilized country.

          • mykry says:

            I’m afraid your words on civility are empty— you see, one has to understand the history so it does not repeat itself. In this case, the historical facts and present times are arguably not much different.
            The Ukrainian language under the Russian empire was frequently banned. Peter I banned the printing of Ukrainian books; the Russian Orthodox Church removed all Ukrainian language manuals from schools; Alexander disallowed the import of books in Ukrainian; Alexander III banned the use of Ukrainian in institutions; and on and on it went.
            Are things really that much different now? With Putin’s policy of the ‘near abroad’ you can bet that huge resources are being channeled to Ukraine to bolster the Russian language at the expense, once again, of the Ukrainian language. Also Russian mass media is just overwhelming in the everyday lives of people in Ukraine. Russification continues today as it did during the czars or the soviets—just in a different way. Let’s not even talk of Ukrainians and their treatment in Russia.
            It seems like your form of being ‘open minded’ is in favor of one group and at the expense of another with complete disregard of historical facts, or current issues, which show a different story of reality.

          • Mishi says:

            Svetlana pls do not be offended, but since you live in the US like myself you might want to visit Soyuzivka n participate in one of the Ukrainian gatherings and closely meet the diaspora. Then probably the point of view of ethnic ukrainians would be easier to understand. It is not even the fact that part of the population speaks russian, it is the fact that most of those take the side of Russian Federation anytime that country tries to meddle in Ukrainian politics. And by the way i m not even ethnic Ukrainian , i am of Hungarian heritage and was born on the territory called for more than 1000 years Podkarpatska Rus or Karpatalja in Hungarian., but for some reason the soviets renamed it Zakarpattya. From our point of view you guys r behind the mountain not us. If we can speak in our region more than 10 different languages n not fight so can u. If a romanian, slovak polish hungarian ruthenian or any other citizan comes to the regional parliament in Uzhorod , they expected to speak Ukrainian bcs that is the country they live in. Why the russian minority opposes ukrainian so much then?

          • Svetlana says:

            You can go deep in history as much as you want for endless period of time and dig facts, that’s fine. I love history myself. However, there is a fine line that you cross by bringing selected facts and negativity. You called Russian language as “the language of the occupiers”. How narrow minded that is! Russian language is a language of one the richest world classical literature! Would you call German language as a language of Nazis or English as a language of occupiers, or Italian language as a language of barbaric behavior by digging into history? I can go on and on with examples from history. I think you got my point. Just because there were historical events in the past that we do not like today, you cannot label languages like that. It shows me that you are very narrow minded. Also extreme nationalism becomes fascism. Look at the history that you like to quote.
            Talking about forcing Ukrainian language over Russian and other languages that people speak as their native while living in Ukraine. Russian speaking people do not oppose Ukrainian language, they do oppose forced Ukrainezation. They feel the same way as you would feel if there would be a forced Russification. Understand the feeling now, don’t you? There are millions of Russian speaking people who live in Ukraine. How different are you in your actions from a Soviet clerk who told you to speak “normal” language? You are not different, you are the same as that Soviet clerk when you force Ukrainian language on people who want to speak their native language. You are doing the same thing that Soviet clerk did to you. You cannot force a language on people, because it does not work. All it does, creates a rejection. Don’t you see it? And I think something got lost in this conversation. I don’t see that you understand that I am not against Ukrainian language in Ukraine. What I am against is that hysteria against Russian language. Many millions of Ukrainian citizens speak Russian as their native language or preferred language of communication. It is their civil RIGHT to speak their language. But you are against their civil right. That shows me that you are no different from a Soviet clerk. You want to suppress Russian language in spite of Russian speakers’ desire to use it. Nothing good comes from such actions. This is not a civilized way to deal with this issue.
            It is funny for me to read that you even dig into something like the name “Zakarpatie”. That’s right, it is behind the mountains if you look at that place from East to West. And this is where the whole country was and is – East of this region. Zakarpatie is at a very border of Ukraine and was at a border of the former Soviet Union. If you look at that region from West to East, then it is not behind the mountains. You know there is also Prikarpatie region. This region is near the Carpathian mountains if you look from East to West. These are normal names. What I see is your mind twists many things. You are in need of a problem. And if there is no problem, you have to invent one.

            Bottom line is: Slavs should embrace each other today and stick together, break the artificial barriers between them. At the end of the day, we are all brothers and sisters with the same roots and history. I wish you will see that.

          • Nataliia says:

            I think that Ukraine should be bilingual country, like Cadana for example. In Montreal you can hear 2 people talking to each other in French and English. They understand perfectly each other and do not force each other to respond to them in the language they talk.Canada is civilized country, hopefuly Ukraine will be one day too.

          • mykry says:

            This reply is actually to Nataliia who thinks “Ukraine should be bilingual just like Canada…which is civilized.”
            Your example on Canada actually proves just the opposite—but you have to understand the history. It starts with the Capitulation of Montreal (1760’s). The British empire, in a ruthless struggle of colonization (lasting 70 years), submitting Quebec to British rule. French Canada lived in a state of subordation to English monarchy—even though the Canadians formed more than 90% of the population. The English wealth dominated everything—the courts, the economy, they even had a motive of ‘anglicization’ of the education.

            It took many decaded (maybe centuries) for the French Canadians to increase the influence of the community. They did all that was possible to prevent Quebec from becoming a true British colony. They finally, gradually, were able to develop an effective opposition to the English minority and British officials.

            Even to this day, there is much emotion and hard feeling by the French Canadians toward the English speaking minority. If you were to visit Montreal today, it would be very easy to find a negative attitude toward English speaking foreigners.

            Now, in this historical context, replace Canadian French with Ukrainian, and English colonizers with Russian and you have the same issues. Except that in Canada the colonization took place by both English and French, but in Ukraine only by the Russians—the Ukrainians have lived there for millennia.

            It’s only because of Russian colonization and Russification that this problem exists. Anyone who lives in Ukraine should know the Ukrainian language. There should be one and only one official language. This does not mean that other languages should be stifled; and indeed, that has never been the case.

          • Svetlana says:

            I agree with Nataliia that Ukraine should be a bilingual country. Good idea!

  10. Ukrainophile says:

    Hi James,

    Very interesting article–I have to say I am curious about the final example you cite, as the expressions for “eyewash” in Rus/Ukr are similar (примочка для глаз/примочка для очей). Granted, the normal conversational word in Ukrainian is окозамилювання, but surely an optician would know the standard terminology for things in her profession?

    Keep up the good work!

  11. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    To Sea and others,
    the focus of the article is on the future — where the younger generation of the current inhabitants of Lviv are going and looking — and it is not to Russia and to the Russian language
    City populations change and evolve — New York was founded by the Dutch…Everyone should know their city’s history, but not become prisoners of it

  12. Dr Paul G Shane says:

    Very interesting but something seems to be missing. I believe that historically there was a significant Jewish population in Lviv, Lvov whatever as in the rest of the Ukraine for at least a millenium. My father and his family all are from small towns in the Kiev, Kyiv vicinity. The role of Ukrainian nationalists as well as nationalists in the surrounding countries was not very honorable during the Holocaust. Many Ukrainian nationalists worked with the Nazis to massacre Jews. Fortunately, some of our family that had remained in Ukraine after the Soviet Revolution survived the Holocaust and survived the Communist period. Even when I visited Kiev in the 1970’s to remake connections with family there anti-semitism was not underground. We need to rid ourselves of these hatreds and free ourselves to live in peace and create a world for all of us, even between Ukrainians and Jews.

  13. Marek says:

    Sea to sea is a reference to the borders of the Polish state at the high point of its power and influence. They stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Extreme Polish nationalists like our poster here lament the loss of their more prominent place in the world. It is just like the crazy ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky who keeps a map behind his desk of Russia at the peak of its land holding stretching from Poland to Alaska.

  14. Gennady says:

    1. Unfortunately, some comments were distracted from the focus of the article – the young Lviv’s generation goes and looks not to Russia and the Russian language. It’s obvious and absolute truth. The article gave a remarkable example how Russia under Putin’s ever lasting rule loses its geo-political dominance even in the vicinity, in the European continent. I’m sure that Joseph Stalin wouldn’t be happy about that. In the end, what did he fight for?

    2. But nobody has asked – why should the younger pragmatic generation go and look to Russia and the Russian language? It’s evident by default. Is nowadays Russia that struggles under the ever-lasting FSB tenet attractive in any way? The short answer is “NO”. How can be eye-catching a former major power that in the last ten years has lost its ways? Is the country a beacon of democracy, land of law, prospering economy, science, technology, culture and education? Once again, the short answer is “NO”. The population of the country rapidly dies out. Who in nowadays highly competitive world will cling to such a mess?

    3. Anybody can see that eastern Ukraine and Belarus are in the “marriage” of convenience with Putin’s Russia. And they value themselves dear. Should gas and petroleum oil flow stop – even the last Putin’s “allies” will turn off from Russia and the Russian language.

  15. Olya says:

    Dr. Shane – have you ever heard of Lazar Kaganovitch, a Jew, who under Stalin’s
    orders carried out the Holodomor, the forced starvation of 7 to 10 million Ukrainians.
    The Holodomor has been recognized as a genocide by all the major countries
    of the world, except Isreal who refused. When have you ever heard or read that
    Ukrainians accuse “the Jew” Kaganovitch of carrying out this horror, because I
    never have. Why have I been called “a Jew killer”? I am second generation
    Canadian Ukrainian. I am sick to death of constantly reading or hearing that
    Ukrainian nationalists are Nazi Jew killers and did not help the Jews during the Holocaust which is untrue, as some Jewish leaders are now starting to
    recognize. Why do you never accuse the Russians who are notorious for
    accusing Ukrainians and others for the atrocities they committed. The Russians
    are SUPER NATIONALISTS, but that is acceptable for them, but not
    for other nations who fight for the nation they love.

    Enough already – the Holocaust was a horror never to be repeated, but the Jews
    were not the only ones in the nazi camps being led to the ovens. What about
    the Jewish capos who led the Jews to the ovens, but whenever you read of
    some non-Jew who sufferred under the Nazis and Soviets being forced to
    work in the camps they apparently had a choice but the Jews did not.

    It’s time this emnity between the Jews and Ukrainians end, and fortunately
    clearer heads on both sides are now starting to co-operate to achieve this.

    If the Ukrainians are so horrible, why have Jews been flocking back to
    Ukraine since independence. There was an article in the Toronto Star
    which quoted the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine as saying that of all the former
    soviet republics Ukraine had top marks for restoring synagogues and
    freedom of worship for Jews. Just an added thought.

    • John says:

      “The Holodomor has been recognized as a genocide by all the major countries
      of the world, except Isreal”
      Actually, “isreal” isn’t even a major nation. Furthermore, has “palastine” recognized the Holodomor? And I haven’t seen a single nation in the continent of Asia that has recognized the Holodomor.
      For a Ukrainian Canadian, it’s about damn time you learn a thing or two about your own people. That is the problem with many “minorities” who claim to be proud but are so completely out of touch with roots in which they claim so much pride. Russians in Ukraine and the Baltic States (actual ethnic Russians, not just Russian speakers) act very much like infiltrators, and I mean this from a rational point of view. It is thus that they don’t lose touch with their motherland, and in fact serve to drag the host nation into its harmful influence. It would seem minorities in the West simply make noise about their pride while failing completely to connect with their roots at all.

      • Joe says:

        There is a difference between Russian in the Baltic States and Russians in Ukraine. The Baltic States are Western nations, Ukraine is mainly Orthodox and was ruled by the Russians for centuries (apart from the West, which is Catholic and was ruled by the Habsburg Empire and later by Poland).
        Under the Russian Empire, Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians were all considered part of the Russian nation (they were respectively called Little Russians, Great Russians and White Russians). The term “Ukraine” appeared only in the 20th century and actually means “by the border”. Russia and the Russian language are part of Ukraine: Kiev was the first Russian capital, Gogol’ and Bulgakov, two of the greatest Russian writers, were actually Ukrainians, and even Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet, wrote also in Russian. Intermarriages between Russians and Ukrainians have always been very widespread, surnames ending with the -uk, -ok and -ko (most of all those with -enko) suffixes, which are typically Ukrainian, are widespread also in Russia and in the other former Soviet nations and now go completely unnoticed.
        The border between the Russian and the Ukrainian ethnicity are actually very fuzzy. Especially in the East and in the South, many ethnic Ukrainians grew up speaking only Russian. How can you distinguish between a Russian and a Russian-speaking Ukrainian in Donetsk, Lugansk/Luhans’k, Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa or even in Kiev? The pronounciation of “g” as “h”, which is the main feature of the Ukrainian accent, can actually be found also in some parts of Southern Russia. Why?
        I think, the problem is that Ukraine is a divided country. In Ukraine there are a West and an East, as well as, for instance, in Italy there are a North and a South. Western Ukrainians are actually Westerners, they are mainly Catholics and look towards Europe. In the East, on the contrary, the bounds with Russia are still tight. The problem is not about Russians, but about Ukrainians.

  16. Ukrainian says:

    Well, the linguistic problems inside the country are really notorious. The question of strategic importance is not even passing the bilingual law or not, but the absence of cultural identity. The East is fully pro-russian territorry, though the West fights for Ukrainian as a unique cultural cradle to develop. And even if half of Ukraine speaks russuan as native language, expecially if Ukrainians by origins do in this way either, Lviv and the West as the whole start building their own strategy to protect what they appreciate. There are three languages spoken all over Ukraine – Russuan, Ukrainian and “soorgik” – that means an ugly ukrainian-russuan dialect without any gremmar and literary rules.
    My opinion is this fierce reaction in Lviv is caused by…fear. Fear of losing the war against russification.
    Me myself is 50 percent Ukrainian, other half – russians, polish, ukrainians. I speak most of time russuan because all my surroundings do this way, but regret i speak pure Ukrainian so rare.

  17. Timur says:

    I am tatar and Russian, but i dont complain about russia destroying tamerlanes army. i dont complain that stalin executed my great grandparents’ entire family and kicked them into a mass grave. i dont complain that the “evil russians” forced me to speak russian. this is all political bullshit. all the ukranians i know speak russian and dont feel that its something to be ashamed of. furthermore, calling russians oppressors is such a joke. yeah how do you think all of the countries that exist nowadays came to be? why dont we all live under one banner? because of cultural backgrounds and wars. wars! stop being radical nationalists full of anger. i am tatar and i am russian. i have more reasons to hate the russian empire. my entire ancestorship was was wiped out by the russian tsarists. you have to admit to yourself that russia and ukraine share too much in common to be enemies. kiev was capital of rus’. hmmm rus’- into russia? hmmm i see a connection there. there is nothing wrong with feeling pride of being tatar or ukranian. we have too much in common to let stupid radicalism ruin our relationship. all our families are fucking mixed! i have polish, ukranian, tatar, russian, blood. my mothers family is ukranian by decent. the last name is “zhuk”. tak shto zayibali huynu gnat! live on and stop offending people. soviet union was built on blood and death. but so was any other nation in the world. stop this radicalism! rus’ forever!!!

    • Michael says:

      Timur Rules, I agree Why does Ukraine piss off the 800 pound gorilla next door.
      1.The USA is bogged down in the Middle East, Georgia proved it can do nothing to stop a Russian Invasion.
      2. The EU has too many of it’s own problems( Spain, Portugal and Greece) and will not accept anymore poor nations.
      3.This leaves Russia the strongest economy in the region.

  18. Svetlana says:

    I agree with Timur 100%!

  19. Dr Paul G Shane says:

    The point of my response was that a variety of peoples shared much of the territory of the former Russian and Autro-Hungarian empires and inhabited their cities and towns. To think of nationalities having exclusive rights to any part of the area is historical nonsense. The rulers of both empires were Germans, both the Czars and the emperors. The people usually lived together with sporadic incidents of fear and hatred. In the 21st Century we need to look to the future rather than the past and get rid of the fear and hatred. Otherwise we are caught in traps that benefit only the rulers who have exploited and abused us all for centuries.

  20. Eugene says:

    My grandmonther was born in Lwow (Lviv in Ukrainian/Lvov in Russian) in 1922. She was born to a Polish family in a Polish city. When I turned 5 she made me a gift, a small Polish dictionary for kids. Unfortunately, I did not learn Polish but I like learning about the history of Lwow.

    Her mother, my great grandmother, Angela was a young Lwow Eaglet. She knew how to shoot with a rifle and was fighting within several months protecting our native city from Ukrainian soldiers (or bandits?). Please read the link:

  21. Eugene says:

    Lwow has been lost forever 🙁



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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