Mother Tongue: The Story of a Ukrainian Language Convert

How one Ukrainian woman made the switch from her native Russian tongue to Ukrainian

Mother Tongue: The Story of a Ukrainian Language Convert
Protesters march in London, England, against Russia’s war in Ukraine on July 24, 2022. (Matthew Chattle/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

My mother tongue tastes like ashes. Things scorched by enemy fire, then soaked with rain, touched with rot, smelling of death. I felt the taste of my mother tongue most acutely while driving through Borodianka, Bucha, and Irpin two months after these Ukrainian towns in the Kyiv region were liberated by the Ukrainian army from the Russians’ “brotherly” embrace.

Russian is my mother tongue and liberation means ripping it out of my throat.

I come from Zaporizhzhia, a Russian-speaking city in southeastern Ukraine with a Cossack past. In recent months, Russia illegally annexed my region, though the regional capital remains under Ukrainian control.

Cossacks are the proverbial heroes of Ukrainian history, who carry the weight of Ukrainian nation-building on their shoulders, so one would expect their stronghold to have projected a clear sense of national identity. This was not the case.

One testament to the skewing of the city’s self-perception by Russian imperial narratives is that, in the 1990s and 2000s when I was growing up, the Cossack heritage was considered irrelevant in Zaporizhzhia. Decades of ingrained colonial inferiority led our teachers to make the runaway serfs-turned-warriors sound hopelessly parochial. I knew this feeling of inadequacy intimately.

Fleeing their Polish overlords and settling in the southern borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Cossacks became the “free men” (as their Turkic name indicates in translation) of the sparsely populated Ukrainian steppeland. By the mid-16th century, they were able to guard their freedoms against the surrounding forces of the Poles, Crimean Tatars and Muscovites. Their proto-democratic tradition of governance differed from the monarchies around them. Their host was the island of Khortytsia in the heart of my native city — until Zaporizhzhia’s demolition in the 18th century by Catherine II of Russia.

For my generation, Zaporizhzhian Cossacks could have symbolized defiance and democracy. Instead, we inhaled the self-provincializing attitudes of our teachers and cultivated a penchant for the kitsch grandeur of the empire that has sought our erasure. For three centuries, our Cossack region was Russified through the forced reshuffling of the population as well as the suppression of Ukrainian identity.

Despite the unquestioned dominance of the Russian language in Zaporizhzhia, I went to a state school that specialized in English and Ukrainian. The more languages one has, the better: My mother’s impeccably cosmopolitan reasoning was nourished by decades of isolation behind the Iron Curtain. While Ukrainian was the official language at my school, my education remained a “Tolstoyevsky” project — the name Ukrainians have recently coined for the Russian canon, with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at the helm. As in any imperial culture, Russian was shaped into a universal value, while Ukrainian stood for a quirky local deviation. Ukrainian classics were reduced to texts that lamented the suffering of the Ukrainian peasantry under czarist and, later, Bolshevik rule. They were less attractive to Ukrainian millennials than the existential angst of the so-called great Russian culture, made ubiquitously available for our consumption.

Russian classics and world literature translated to Russian filled my grandparents’ bookshelves. During the great shortage of consumer goods in the 1980s, my father’s mother was able to obtain those Russian books — and those books only — through her workplace at the chief steel plant in our industrial city. Russian was shaped into the language of culture, represented by my father’s Russian-Jewish family of clerks and engineers. Ukrainian was perceived as the tongue of simple country folk, such as my mother’s village-born father, who switched from Ukrainian to Russian when he moved to Zaporizhzhia in the 1960s and received his engineer’s degree.

Thanks to the constraints on Ukrainian cultural dissemination, as well as ideological indoctrination, the idea of reading for pleasure in Ukrainian did not occur to anyone in my family or social circle. Of two iconic Soviet writers who committed suicide in the 1930s, it was the Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky rather than the Ukrainian Mykola Khvyliovy whose works I knew by heart. I was enchanted with the Russian Silver Age, the artistic period beginning in the late 19th century, and wanted to study in St. Petersburg. Through the imperialist looking glass, the ancient Ukrainian capital of Kyiv — an established center of learning five centuries before Moscow, eight centuries before St. Petersburg — appeared peripheral and small.

Immersion in the Russian literary context went hand in hand with immersion in the Russian segment of the internet. The Zaporizhzhia of the 2000s did not cater to the social, cultural or aesthetic needs of a bookish queer kid. I plunged headlong into the world of self-indulgent blogging, falling into friendship and love with people from Sevastopol, Minsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow. We were a self-selecting tribe defined by the mastery of our shared language, Russian. We traveled on night trains to each other’s cities to drink cheap wine in local sculptors’ workshops and reenact scenes from indie films we loved. We professed a stance of cosmopolitan dissenters, not anchored in any particular geography or nationality. I failed to notice that our cosmopolitanism simply meant embracing the dominant Russian culture, so copious and “rich” only because of looting from others.

In Zaporizhzhia, my friends ate my mother’s pancakes and spent long days on the cliffs of Khortytsia. They recited the work of Russian poets while sitting at a bridge high above the “mighty Dnipro” which “roars” through the poetry of the Ukrainian national bard Taras Shevchenko. I had not yet learned to appreciate him, let alone recite his words.

When I moved to Kyiv, my friends frequented my student flat. Kyiv, however, was different from Zaporizhzhia. For one thing, the capital was bilingual. It was in Kyiv that occasional mocking of the Ukrainian language penetrated our conversations. While my Russian, like that of most Ukrainians, was always spoken with an accent and a subversive twist to my vocabulary, it was in Kyiv that my Russian friends made me aware of it as something worth repairing. At the time, I laughed it away.

Once, they interrogated me on why we were “made” to write our dissertations in Ukrainian at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy (a keystone educational institution and a cultural symbol of Ukraine). Surely, they argued, more people would be able to access them in the lingua franca of Russian. I protested, defending linguistic diversity in general and the right of Ukrainians to write in Ukrainian in particular. The avant-garde eastern Ukrainian author Maik Yohansen came to mind. He began writing in Russian and German but switched to Ukrainian in the wake of the 1917–21 Ukrainian War of Independence, which led to the nation briefly winning statehood. When asked by literati friends why he chose to write in Ukrainian, Yohansen replied, “because I live in neither Ireland nor Tambov.” And yet, I was silently questioning myself whether these flustered protestations made me a brainwashed nationalist opposed to our cosmopolitan ideal.

A “nationalist” was what my Russian and Belarusian friends called me a few years later, when I participated in the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution, after the central square of Kyiv where the events took place. When the revolution’s victory was swiftly followed by the Russian invasion in the spring of 2014, one of those friends, a descendant of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia and an aspiring indie film director, went with her camera to annexed Crimea and bathed in the cinematic glory of the land grab. I bathed in the burning oil of the incomprehensible betrayal. In 2014, I accumulated ample experiential evidence to support the proverbial statement that “Russian liberalism ends at the Ukrainian question,” which has been ascribed to a number of thinkers, from the head of the very first Ukrainian government, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, to the first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Volodymyr Vernadsky.

Maidan was rich with revelations in other ways, as befit a revolution. The refusal of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to sign the EU-Ukraine Association agreement in response to Moscow’s “security concerns” brought hundreds of Ukrainians to the streets in November 2013. Regardless of my love for the Russian poets or my Russian friends, I was revolted by the prospect of Ukraine’s following in the footsteps of the Russian police state, pervaded as it was with homophobia and racism. It was only a year since the advocacy of gay rights had been outlawed by Moscow. Therefore, I joined the pro-European protests in the Maidan.

Unlike most Ukrainians who publicly reminisce about those days as a time of unity, I felt out of place in the protest: I related to the pro-European slogans but not the unfolding feast of the Ukrainian national revival. The intersection of “national” and “nationalist” was still muddied in my mind by my post-Soviet upbringing. The realization that nationalism could be of a civic rather than ethnic nature was yet to come. My support for the protest during its first weeks wavered, up to the point when the peaceful picket was brutally dispersed by the riot police.

It was the first time in the history of modern Ukraine that we saw police brutality directed at the citizens of Ukraine so blatantly and on such a scale. The next day, I took to the streets of Kyiv with my mother and several close friends, fearing we too would be beaten up, but hoping nevertheless to meet at least a few hundred compatriots equally outraged by the broadcasted scenes of state violence.

Arriving at one of the central Kyiv metro stations, we struggled to get out for 20 minutes because of the crowds. On the overflowing escalators, those crowds burst into a song which, eight years later, would become one of the most recognizable melodies worldwide: the national anthem of Ukraine. Not just hundreds but hundreds of thousands of my fellow Ukrainians were outside. We were embraced by a roaring ocean of people. On Dec. 1, 2013, Ukrainians made clear they would not accept any form of authoritarian rule. That choice defined the nation and to that nation I chose to belong.

During the succeeding winter months, when the center of the capital turned into a protest camp fiercely defended against the riot police, I defended my sense of belonging. I kept searching for feminist and queer allies among the protesters, for people who felt equally awkward in the nationally conscious Maidan and yet could not imagine being anywhere else. My mother and I joined women’s marches, only to end up amid dozens of female protesters who sang, in unison, Ukrainian folk songs that we had never heard before. Our posters were in a mixture of Ukrainian and English but, when running from the riot police that began shooting at us in broad daylight, I cried out to my mother in Russian, my mother tongue.

The successful popular revolution in Ukraine had the potential to inspire similar movements in the region and was thus perceived as an existential threat by Moscow. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine under the pretense of protecting its Russian-speaking population from the so-called Ukrainian nationalists who had toppled the regime in Kyiv. In other words, Russians claimed to protect me from myself. My mother tongue was turned into a weapon the enemy held to my throat. When the advance of the Russian troops was stopped 200 kilometers away from my native city, I doubled down on my Ukrainian conversion.

I spoke Ukrainian to friends but Russian to my parents. I wrote my Ph.D. in English yet used Russian sources. My years of doctoral work at the University of London were spent looking for “good” Russians of the past: I researched those queer fin-de-siecle figures who had been enchanted with Western decadence but were eventually ground down in the perpetual cycle of Russian state repressions. Those years would have been better spent researching the colonized subjects of the Russian empire who dared to defy it, subjects who were always in possession of lesser means and greater courage than the empire’s titular nation. But the habit of looking up to the imperial center is not broken in a day.

In London, the first protest I spoke at was in 2015, when a group of mostly Russian liberals gathered in front of their embassy in response to the murder of a Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. I proceeded to the porch of the nearby terrace house that was serving as a stage and took the loudspeaker. “You need to muster up some anger to topple the regime!” was my message to the liberal, comfortable, aggrieved Russian public. The attendees were shocked. I was naive. Unwittingly, I had broken an unspoken rule of these self-congratulatory proceedings: behave like a victim; don’t question the status quo. I focused on attending and organizing Ukrainian rallies after that.

During the following years, my sporadic diary notes, which were begun just before the Maidan, switched from Russian to a mix of English and Ukrainian. Although my command of Russian in the early entries allowed my prose to be elegant and nuanced, reading it made my stomach turn. There is a servility encoded in the language and in the cultural references one absorbs through it. Soaked in the quasi-ironic use of patronymics and self-deprecating turns of phrase, a cultured Russian speaker wields the tongue of the “insulted and humiliated,” to use Dostoyevsky’s phrase, while also mastering a patronizing tone. Such a language refines stratifications, enfeebling one’s thought and eventually making one shudder at the idea of expressing anger at the higher-ups.

While I was not alone in my linguistic metamorphosis after the Russian invasion of 2014, the big switch came for an even greater number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in 2022. According to the Centre for Strategic Communication established under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, 78% of Ukrainians started speaking more Ukrainian three months into Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, and an additional 11% would do so if given the opportunity. There is nothing like an all-out war with a clearly stated genocidal intent to turn something so seemingly natural as speech into a tool of resistance. Even my Russophone parents, who have since fled the war, reply to me in broken Ukrainian from the safety of their place in Germany.

The switch comes at a price. There is a dam where communication used to flow freely, but we now police what’s left, looking for the toxic residue of our mother tongue. We now make political statements where we used to speak from our hearts.

Today, I savor the cacophony of Ukrainian proper, Ukrainian broken like my mother’s, and the hybridized form of Ukrainian-Russian called “surzhyk” when I’m walking down the streets in Kyiv and Lviv. The mass displacement caused by Russia‘s war has made Ukrainians from all parts of the country listen to each other and pick up new linguistic tricks. It is by pronouncing the Ukrainian word for a loaf of bread, “palianytsia,” that a friend is now distinguished from a foe at the military checkpoints around the country. Perfectly pronounced by Russophone Ukrainians, the combination of vowels and consonants makes Russians choke on the word connoting hospitality in the country they invaded.

There are reasons to believe the eastern Ukrainians most immediately affected by the war will choose to disentangle themselves from the invaders’ language, regardless of the difficulty. With the emptiness and openness of the Ukrainian steppe in the east comes the nomadic aspect of the easterner’s identity and the freedom to reinvent oneself. Maik Yohansen comes to mind, alongside Olena Stiazhkina and Volodymyr Rafeienko, contemporary writers who became linguistic converts to Ukrainian after Russia occupied their native city of Donetsk. For decades, Ukrainian identity in the east has been not a default setting but a choice, often made against the grain of one’s upbringing. Today, this choice is existential. Even those Ukrainians who are still unable to sever the linguistic cord which ties them to the enemy are unwilling to pass the Russian language to their children. The next generation will speak Ukrainian across the country.

The sound that halts me in my tracks today is the speech of the empire’s natives resounding on the streets of London and Berlin. If Russian voices are to be heard loudly, let them speak inside Russia and against the genocidal war their country is waging in Ukraine. And if the habit of submissiveness is too hard to overcome, it is time for Russians to listen silently and think ahead how to undo the damage of the empire while Ukrainians are undoing the empire itself.

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