Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why We Speak Ukrainian in Ukraine

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.

"For Ukrainian Children - Ukrainian School!" Protesting Soviet Russification

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.

Слава Україні!


Ksenia M., Edmonton CANADA said...

This is one of the most succinct and straightforward presentations on the problem that I have ever seen — and with a lovely & sincere personal touch, to boot! May you get back as much as you give in your worthy mission. God bless you for your generous hearts and open minds!

tard said...

So Greg,

If you had to use one sentence to describe why you are learning Ukrainian, what would it be?

Greg and Edna Silva said...

Thanks for your encouraging comment. It's nice to know that the Ukrainian culture is alive and well in Canada and elsewhere.


OK, I guess I was rambling a bit so to put it simply, God has really put it on our hearts to share His Word with the children in Ukraine. That being said, I'll sum up it up with just one sentence.

Ісус же сказав: Пустіть діток, і не бороніть їм приходити до Мене, бо Царство Небесне належить таким. - Matthew 19:14

As our own children learn Ukrainian in school, they are being raised up to serve as Ambassadors for Christ in a new generation.

I know a lot of Americans coming to Ukraine have learned Russian and my hat is off to them because Russian is more difficult to learn than Ukrainian. My point in all this was to explain our choice and share a little about why things are the way they are today in Ukraine. Most people in the United States don't know anything about Ukraine or its unique position in regards to language and culture. Language shouldn't be a barrier between people whether Russian, Ukrainian, or English. It should be a means of union and of sharing the Gospel message of Christ and giving glory to God.


Little Viky said...

Good job and good reasons, guys!
I will speak English to you :) as Ukrainian is a great challenge for me. I understand it perfectly but can not speak, it sound very weird when I do. But I do agree with you and thank you for refreshing for my knowledge of our history.
May the Lord bless your studying!

Greg and Edna Silva said...

Thank you so much Vika,
We have heard you speak Ukrainian and you didn't sound weird to us. Hope to see you in Chernihiv at the conference.


Carochka said...

As a foreigner speaking English, but understanding Ukrainian more and more, and in a Ukrainian speaking church...way to go! Made me want to stand up and sing "Ukraine is not yet dead"! :) See you guys in Russian speaking CherniGov soon! :)

marina padiy said...

from russian speaking chernihiv - it should be very light blue on the map.

Michelle said...

Great post! I have been here for 9 years and began to learn Russian as most people around me spoke it, but there has been a definite shift towards Ukrainian with the people around me in Kyiv and with the people I minister with/to. I now feel compelled to learn/speak Ukrainian. I think it's really important to be at least comfortable with the language if you are living here.

Greg and Edna Silva said...

Thanks for the plug on your blog. We can't wait to see you in Чернігів. ;) When are you going to come visit us down here in Б.Ц.?

I was thinking the same thing when I first saw that map, but I think it means areas where Ukrainian is used for signs, official documents, and in schools. Unlike those villages we visited where they speak Romanian and teach Romanian in the schools instead of Ukrainian.

Thanks. I think Ukrainian is a beautiful language and it touches my heart to hear that more people are learning it. The shift will likely continue as the next generation grows up speaking Ukrainian in school.


benjamin morrison said...

hey greg! props to you for this interesting and informative post! though i think that the color-coded map may be not entirely accurate, since as you said only 67% site ukrainian as their 1st language and it seems to me that much more than that is dark blue. if i ever get time i'd love to learn ukrainian in all of its glory (the fact that i can speak fluent russian and understand most ukrainian probably keeps me from feeling a serious need to learn it better). kudos to you!

Greg and Edna Silva said...

Thanks Ben,
I know the map looks a little strange, but it's not showing necessarily that Ukrainian is the major language spoken. It represents where Ukrainian is used as the chief language in an official capacity like for schools, signs, and government. I was surprised to find that the gray areas represent areas where Russian or another language like Romanian is used for official functions.

I still can't claim to understand how it all works. I was just watching a show on TV about the Carpathian culture where all the people being interviewed were speaking Ukrainian, but they were being voiced over with a Russian translation. Why? I'm so confused.

Anyway, I hope to someday become fluent in Ukrainian and then maybe it will be easier to tackle Russian. That might be a few years down the road though. I just think language here is fascinating although sometimes a little frustrating.


Carochka said...

Ha! meant to say "as a foreigner speaking RUSSIAN"...uh...duh...I speak English..I think! ha! :)

Greg and Edna Silva said...

It's OK, Cara. We just figured you meant to say that! :)