Several people, both Ukrainian and American, have asked us why we are learning Ukrainian instead of Russian. So I thought I'd answer those questions by posting about it and sharing some of the history behind the Ukrainian language. Like some of the recent Government TV commercials proclaim, "I live in Ukraine, so I speak Ukrainian." It's not quite that simple, but almost. The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian and that's what the schools teach. (It's interesting to note that the United States doesn't have an official language.) Since both of our boys go to Ukrainian public school and the dominant language in our region is Ukrainian, choosing Ukrainian over Russian was an easy decision. I'll admit that Russian can be more useful as an inter-Slavic language both in Ukraine and abroad, but God has called us to Ukraine not its neighbors. That's not to say that we don't learn some basic Russian, but our focus remains Ukrainian.
Statistically, Ukrainian is a growing language and we constantly see government programs promoting its use and expansion. In the 2001 census, 67.5% of the country population named Ukrainian as their native language (a 2.8% increase from 1989), while 29.6% named Russian (a 3.2% decrease). There are even children's camps where the entire focus is on learning the history and proper use of the Ukrainian language. The language of Ukraine and its culture has had a difficult and sometimes brutal past. Even before Ukraine was annexed as a part of Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union, it went through periods where spoken and written Ukrainian was prohibited and only survived due to underground movements and the smuggling of Ukrainian literature.
The Ukrainian language and culture probably suffered most during modern times under the control of the Soviet Union following the genocide/forced famine called Holodomor. The following was taken from an article on the history of the Ukrainian language.
[Soviet policy towards the Ukrainian language changed abruptly in late 1932 and early 1933, after Stalin had already established his firm control over the party and, therefore, the Soviet state. In December of 1932, the regional party cells received a telegram signed by Molotov and Stalin with an order to immediately reverse the korenization policies. The telegram condemned Ukrainianization (allowing Ukrainian language and culture within the Soviet Union) as ill-considered and harmful and demanded to "immediately halt Ukrainianization, switch all Ukrainianized newspapers, books and publications into Russian and to prepare by autumn of 1933 for the switching of schools and instruction into Russian".
The Stalinist era also marked the beginning of the Soviet policy of encouraging Russian as the language of (inter-ethnic) Soviet communication. Although Ukrainian continued to be used (in print, education, radio and later television programs), it lost its primary place in advanced learning and republic-wide media. Ukrainian was considered to be of secondary importance, and an excessive attachment to it was considered a sign of nationalism and so "politically incorrect".
Major repression started in 1929–30, when a large group of Ukrainian intelligentsia was arrested and most were executed. In Ukrainian history, this group is often referred to as "Executed Renaissance" (Ukrainian: розстріляне відродження). "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" was declared to be the primary problem in Ukraine. The terror peaked in 1933, four to five years before the Soviet-wide "Great Purge", which, for Ukraine, was a second blow. The vast majority of leading scholars and cultural leaders of Ukraine were liquidated, as were the "Ukrainianized" and "Ukrainianizing" portions of the Communist party. Soviet Ukraine's autonomy was completely destroyed by the late 1930s. In its place, the glorification of Russia as the first nation to throw off the capitalist yoke had begun, accompanied by the migration of Russian workers into parts of Ukraine which were undergoing industrialization and mandatory instruction of classic Russian language and literature. Ideologists warned of over-glorifying Ukraine's Cossack past, and supported the closing of Ukrainian cultural institutions and literary publications. The systematic assault upon Ukrainian identity in culture and education, combined with effects of an artificial famine (Holodomor) upon the peasantry—the backbone of the nation—dealt Ukrainian language and identity a crippling blow from which it would not completely recover.
The Communist Party leader of Ukraine from 1972-1989, Shcherbytsky, purged the local party, was fierce in suppressing dissent, and insisted Russian be spoken at all official functions, even at local levels. His policy of Russification was lessened only slightly after 1985.
The Ukrainian language is currently emerging from a long period of decline. Although there are almost fifty million ethnic Ukrainians worldwide, including 37.5 million in Ukraine (77.8% of the total population), only in western Ukraine is the Ukrainian language prevalent. In Kyiv, both Ukrainian and Russian are spoken, a notable shift from the recent past when the city was primarily Russian speaking. The shift is caused, largely, by an influx of the rural population and migrants from the western regions of Ukraine but also by some Kyivans' turning to use the language they speak at home more widely in everyday matters. In northern and central Ukraine, Russian is the language of the urban population, while in rural areas Ukrainian is much more common. In the south and the east of Ukraine, Russian is prevalent even in rural areas, and in Crimea, Ukrainian is almost absent.
Modern signs in the Kyiv Metro are in Ukrainian. The evolution in their language followed the changes in the language policies in post-war Ukraine. Originally, all signs and voice announcements in the metro were in Ukrainian, but their language was changed to Russian in the early 1980s, at the height of Shcherbytsky's gradual Russification. In the perestroika liberalization of the late 1980s, the signs were changed to bilingual. This was accompanied by bilingual voice announcements in the trains. In the early 1990s, both signs and voice announcements were changed again from bilingual to Ukrainian-only during the Ukrainianization campaign that followed Ukraine's independence.
Use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine can be expected to increase, as the rural population (still overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking) migrates into the cities and the Ukrainian language enters into wider use in central Ukraine. The literary tradition of Ukrainian is also developing rapidly overcoming the consequences of the long period when its development was hindered by either direct suppression or simply the lack of the state encouragement policies.]
Dark Blue = territory where the Ukrainian language is used chiefly
Light Blue = other territories where the language is used
Gray = territory where Ukrainian is not used
So you can see that to many Ukrainians, especially where we live and in Western Ukraine, (some regions are predominantly Russian speaking) speaking Ukrainian is a symbol of national pride. It's not just a language, but an identity. I've witnessed two older men, who could both speak Russian quite well, take their time to properly speak Ukrainian to each other even though it was more difficult because Russian had been their first language. That experience gave me a better understanding as to why things are the way they are.
Knowing the history of Soviet Russification programs also helps to make some sense of why Surzhyk (a blend of Russian vocabulary with Ukrainian grammar and pronunciation) exists. Living in an area where Surzhyk is spoken, like we do, makes it difficult, to say the least, for anyone trying to learn pure Russian or Ukrainian. The villages in our region seem to have resisted Russification better than the urban areas. On our visits to one local village, we have always been surrounded by almost pure Ukrainian, in contrast to the mixture we sometimes hear in Bila Tserkva.
Transliteration, or the changing of words from the Russian or Ukrainian alphabet to English is another area that still confuses me. All Ukrainian cities have reverted to their Ukrainian names from the former Russian, so the correct transliteration of the capitol city (Київ) is Kyiv, but you will still find it on English language maps with its Russian name,(Киев) Kiev. Personal names are another area that often give me trouble. Transliterating often can make a Ukrainian name sound different than it should be pronounced. When you factor in that names change depending on how the person prefers it (Russian or Ukrainian), I really get confused. Oleg in Russian becomes Oleh in Ukrainian while Pavel becomes Pavlo. (I won't even mention the multitude of pet, or diminutive, names for each name.)
Learning and speaking Ukrainian is an ongoing adventure and one we are glad we have embarked on. While we love our homeland of the United States, we are blessed to share in the language, culture, pride, and identity that is unique to Ukraine.