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The quiet language revolution in Russia’s former empire

I first noticed it when news outlets began to replace ‘Kiev’ with ‘Kyiv’. The former is an English transliteration of the name of Ukraine’s capital from Russian, Киев, while the latter is a transliteration from the Ukrainian Київ. This soon spread. Where Western broadcasters once used Russian versions of Ukrainian names for people, cities, and so on, they are now switching to English spellings that are more in line with the Ukrainian language. Since the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, language has become another frontier by which Ukrainians push back against years of Russian domination. The Ukrainian identity being proudly professed is necessarily in stark contrast to Russian. But how has language evolved in Ukraine and the wider post-Soviet world, and what does this mean for these countries’ relationships with Russia and beyond?

Ukrainian is a Slavic language, alongside Russian, Polish and many others. All these languages originally stem from a little-known common ancestor, proto-Slavic. The settlement of Slavic tribes across Europe led to the formation of the eastern state of Kyivan Rus’, whose people spoke Old East Slavic. This state eventually fell after being weakened by the Mongol invasion, internal division, and pressure from neighbouring countries. The western areas of the Rus’ state came under the control of Poland and Lithuania, while the eastern parts were ruled by the Golden Horde and later the Tsardom of Muscovy, leading to Ukrainian and Russian evolving as distinct languages. Ukraine was gradually annexed by Russia as Poland was carved up, piece by piece. Tsarist authorities ruthlessly suppressed the language, burning Ukrainian literature, banning teaching in Ukrainian and insisting that it was no more than a dialect or an offshoot of Russian. 

The same Tsarist propaganda recurs in today’s Russia, with Putin’s claims of historical unity being the basis for his war of conquest. However, even as Russians settled their lands and imperial authorities denied their language and nationhood, Ukrainians kept their tongue alive.  

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power following 1917, they radically changed the country and its attitude towards Ukrainian and other languages spoken in the country. Minority languages were now encouraged, not persecuted, and Ukraine became its own republic within the wider Soviet Union. However, later Soviet premiers (most notably Stalin) were far more intolerant and often brutal in their treatment of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian tongue. Russia was the country’s lingua franca, the primary language of government and the elite. Even following independence, many Ukrainians preferred to speak Russian, though this has steadily shifted as the government promoted the use of Ukrainian in areas such as education.  

Then came invasion. Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and especially since the invasion in 2022, Ukrainian citizens and the government have increasingly championed using Ukrainian over Russian. The use of Ukrainian in the historically Russian-dominated areas in the east and south has soared, with the proportion there preferring Ukrainian over Russian leaping from 10% in 2012 to 70% last year. This has come as one’s choice of language has changed from a matter of preference to a political stand. The senseless violence inflicted upon the country by Russia has led many Ukrainians to view Russian as the language of imperialism, the language of the state butchering their compatriots. Many Ukrainian institutions are moving away from Russian, such as the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In Russian-occupied areas, while lots of anti-Kremlin Ukrainians still speak Russian, the tide is shifting.   

Ukraine is far from the only post-Soviet country that is experiencing a politicised linguistic revival. In 1936, Stalin’s USSR began a campaign of ‘Cyrillisation’; replacing Latin and other writing systems used for minority languages in the Soviet Union with the Cyrillic script developed for Slavic languages. However, since independence, several countries have transitioned away from Cyrillic: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and most recently Kazakhstan. The former two have replaced Cyrillic with Latin entirely, while the latter are still doing so. For these countries, shifting to Latin is a way of emphasising their nationhood and independence. Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the process “spiritual modernisation” and for Kazakhstan, Latinisation has come during divergence from its traditional partner of Russia.   

In Belarus, Russian has become the dominant language, after a brief Belarusian revival following independence was slowly sidelined in favour of Russian by the country’s very pro-Moscow dictator, Alexander Lukashenko (Belarusian: Alyaksandr Lukashenka). In response, the Belarusian tongue has become a symbol of political opposition to the regime. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election who has received support from many Western nations, has championed the use of Belarusian. Indeed, she notably uses the Belarusian transliteration of her name rather than the Russian one.   

Both Kazakhstan and Belarus have been longtime Russian allies, with Russian spoken as a language of convenience. The widespread use of Russian has been a source of soft power for Moscow, with the ease of cross-border tourism, business and diplomacy maintaining some sense of shared identity between the states of the former Soviet Union, far more successfully than across the former territories of several Western European empires. Russia has come across as a friend to many countries formerly in its empire. First gradually, and now very quickly, this sense has been eroded. In trade, many Central Asian states are looking away from Russia and towards China and the West. Moscow’s status as regional peacekeeper is collapsing; due partly to its war of aggression in Ukraine, but also the CSTO’s failure to act following Azerbaijani incursions into member state Armenia, exposing the Russian-led security organisation as a paper tiger and opening the door for the EU to lead peace negotiations.  

While embracing their native tongue has been a part of nationhood for post-Soviet states, an explicit rejection of Russian is new. In a bitter irony for Putin, the waning use of Russian and embrace of native tongues across the former empire is symptomatic of declining Russian influence. In invading Ukraine, Putin hoped to use Russian speakers as a political tool but has instead created an impetus to drop the language entirely for Ukrainians and other peoples wary of Russian conquest. Language is not merely a vessel to convey ideas, but the way that we express who we are. As Russia’s actions have made it an international pariah, people across the world are increasingly expressing an identity in contrast.

Image Credit: Vladimir Yaitskiy/ CC BY-SA 2.0 Via Wikimedia Commons

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