The Kremlin thought Russian troops would be greeted as liberators in Ukraine’s predominantly Russian speaking south and east. Instead, Ukrainians of all linguistic backgrounds have rallied against the Kremlin’s invasion.
This should not have come as a surprise, least of all to the men in Moscow. Russian speaking Ukrainians have been organizing to defend the Ukrainian state from Russian aggression since at least April 2014, when Moscow-backed forces first began seizing administrative buildings in the Ukrainian Donbas region.
“In the first week after those events started, ordinary steelworkers in Mariupol were organizing on the grassroots level to form local patrols,” Dr. Olga Onuch, an associate professor at the University of Manchester, told Newsweek. “These were Russian speaking Ukrainians getting together to defend their neighborhoods and their families from Russia itself.”
“Ukrainians have an attachment to place, and that attachment extends to their state,” Onuch added. “In the past eight years, that attachment has only grown. And yet Russian intelligence continues to make the repeated miscalculation that Russian language equals Russian identity.”
The sociological reality that Onuch describes is not unique to Mariupol.
“Eighty percent of the guys in our unit speak Russian amongst themselves,” Aleksandr Bespalyi, a soldier in the territorial defense forces of Odesa region, told Newsweek in an interview conducted in Russian. “But 100% of us are united against Russia and against Putin. Language has nothing to do with it.”
“Our commanders speak Russian, Ukrainian, Surzhik,” Bespalyi says, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian creole common in rural Ukraine. “Everyone speaks the language that’s most comfortable for them, just like they always have.”
Bespalyi’s description of a multilingual military unit might come as a surprise to outsiders. However, it is representative of just how fluid Ukraine’s linguistic reality truly is.
“The bilingualism was so seamless,” said Canadian journalist Neil Hauer, who traveled to Ukraine from his base in Armenia in the run-up to the war. “There would be conversations where one person was speaking Ukrainian, and the other person would be speaking Russian, and they just went back and forth without any problem.”
“There was nothing political about it,” Hauer says. “I spent the month before the war in Kyiv, and I can count on one hand the number of conversations I heard on the street that were in Ukrainian. The same was true in Kharkiv, in Mariupol, in Mykolaiv. Then we all saw how each of those cities fought back when Russian troops invaded.”
Such fierce resistance from Russophone Ukrainians seems to have come as a surprise to Russians themselves. For months before the start of Russia’s invasion, Kremlin propaganda frequently referred to the inhabitants of southern and eastern Ukraine as “ours.” Russian mass media was full of accusations that they “Kyiv regime,” headed by Russophone president Volodymry Zelensky, was engaged in a “genocide” against Ukraine’s Russian speaking population.
“In Ukraine, human rights are systematically violated on a massive scale, and discrimination against the Russian-speaking population is enshrined at the highest legislative level,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said on February 15, just over a week before the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion. “According to our judgements, what is happening in the Donbas is genocide.”
The assessment of Ukrainians themselves, however, differs significantly from that of the Russian president.
“It’s essentially impossible to convince the people around power in Moscow that Russian speakers in Ukraine are not being discriminated against,” Vadim Chankin, a Ukrainian political strategist and former television pundit in Russia, told Newsweek in Russian.
“In Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odesa, almost everyone speaks Russian as their primary language,” he said. “My mother lives in Kyiv and speaks Russian.”
“But when I would explain this fact to influential figures in Moscow, they took it as proof that all of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians would greet Russian soldiers as liberators,” Chankin added. “It was impossible to convince them that people can have a national identity that is separate from their linguistic identity.”
This does not mean that the Kyiv government has always handled language issues with unimpeachable political dexterity. On February 23, 2014, one day after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital amid deadly clashes between protesters and security service personnel, Ukraine’s parliament voted to repeal a 2012 law that had provided for Russian-language schools and government services to be established in the country’s more Russophone regions. Although acting president Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed that parliamentary initiative, the initial vote featured prominently in Russia’s subsequent anti-Ukraine propaganda efforts.
Then, in January 2021, Ukraine adopted a law mandating that service sector employees speak with customers in Ukrainian unless specifically requested by the customer to switch over to Russian.
“That move provided easy rhetorical fodder for pro-Russian political groups to exploit,” says Andrew D’Anieri, an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “It resulted in a minor boost in support in those areas for the more pro-Russian opposition party.”
However, D’Anieri was quick to clarify that “asking the cashier at McDonald’s in Kharkiv or Odesa to greet customers in the Ukrainian language is not the same as genocide against Russian speakers. Carpet bombing Ukrainian cities and executing civilians, as Russian forces have done, just might be.”
“Inside of Ukraine itself,” D’Anieri added, “language just isn’t a primary political issue.”
For some Ukrainians though, language has become a political question, if only on a personal level.
Kyiv-based philosopher and journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld.org, speaks of “a gradual turn from Russian to Ukrainian. Some of my friends made the switch after 2014,” when Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and fomented a separatist war in the Donbas. “More have made the change since Russia’s most recent invasion,” he said.
But Yermolenko emphasized that language preference had nothing to do with patriotism.
“Russian-speaking Ukrainians are no less patriotic than Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians are,” he said. “My wife and I speak Ukrainian with our children, but we still occasionally slip back into Russian when speaking with one another.”
The fact that so many members of Yermolenko’s social circle can make the conscious choice of which language to speak depending on the particular social situation points to the reality that Ukrainian society is functionally bilingual. Some citizens might be more comfortable using one language or another in different situations, but that choice says next to nothing about their political loyalties.
Major Serhiy Volyna, commander Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade, provided a useful example. Volyna and his men are among the last Ukrainian soldiers fighting to defend the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol from Russian forces, which have already taken control of much of the predominately Russian-speaking city.
On April 20, Volyna made a public appeal to the outside world, saying, “We plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the process of extraction to take us to the territory of a third-party state.”
Volyna’s April 20 statement was made in fluent Ukrainian.
On April 24, Volyna gave a video interview to Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleksiy Honcharenko. The officer repeated his call for help: “I strongly request that the world diplomatic community and world leaders provide for our extraction.”
Volyna’s April 24 appeal, along with the rest of the interview, was delivered in fluent Russian.
Correction 04.28.2022 @ 2:50 ET: This story has been updated to reflect a change in translation of a Russian-language quote.