Why so many Ukrainians are speaking Ukrainian again

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox: I don’t know about you, but for me, the very first words of Ukrainian I heard were these.

A cappella version of “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna” (“Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”)

Patrick Cox: It was a video posted on YouTube in late February, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The singer is Andriy Khlyvnyuk, lead singer of a Ukrainian band called BoomBox. He’s wearing a Yankees baseball hat, military fatigues, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. Behind him is the golden cupola of Kyiv’s Saint Sofia Cathedral. You may have seen this video or its many remixes. Tens of millions have.

Patrick Cox: What do you think of this old song that’s sort of become an anthem? “Oi u luzi…”

Laada Bilaniuk: Oh! “Chervona kalyna.”

Patrick Cox: Rescuing me from pronunciation abuse is Laada Bilaniuk, American-born daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, and professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Washington.

Laada Bilaniuk: This song, I believe, is from World War One. Ukraine did actually have a short period, a few years of independence between the fall of the Russian empire and when the Soviet Union was established in 1922. So “Chervona kalyna” I mean, I grew up learning it, the main lyrics, it’s pretty simple.it’s catchy and it’s not very political. It’s just, hey, in the glen, the red kalyna now, which is a viburnum, sort of high bush cranberry tree, has bent over and our Ukraine has become saddened. We all lift up the kalyna tree and we will cheer up our Ukraine. It just has appeal.

Patrick Cox: There are now versions from all over the world: India, South Africa, Brazil, you name it. Even Pink Floyd reformed to perform a new song that sampled the a cappella version. Laada says a big reason the song went viral was the circumstances of Andriy Khlyvnyuk.

Laada Bilaniuk: He was actually touring in the United States when this current invasion started, and he cut short his tour to come back to Kyiv and to enlist in the territorial defense. And there are many other musicians that have done that. They are carriers and creators of culture. So they’re not just doing this for their popularity. When they sing in Ukrainian, it’s actually often kind of a deep calling to create Ukrainian culture.

Patrick Cox: Creating Ukrainian culture in this pop-up way, with the Ukrainian language front and center. It’s new. The language especially hasn’t always been this respected, even among Ukrainians. But now with the country under attack, Ukrainian culture and language– they’ve gone global. Most of us used to be a bit vague about Ukraine before– weren’t its people almost the same as Russians? Its language too? But now– a little late in the game maybe– we know better. Maybe some Russians do too.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode, why so many Ukrainians have started speaking Ukrainian again.

Patrick Cox: When Slava Malamud was a school kid, Russia and Ukraine were just two of 15 republics in the Soviet Union.

Slava Malamud: The Soviet Union’s official position was that the Soviet Union is a brotherhood of nations. And everyone lives peacefully and together in harmony. At the same time, an informal but pretty rigid hierarchy of ethnicities existed, at the very top of which were Russians.

Patrick Cox: Slava is a native Russian speaker. He grew up in Moldova, on the border with Ukraine. He says Ukrainians weren’t that far down the hierarchy, but still well below Russians.

Slava Malamud: I remember people who were ethnically Ukrainian and spoke with a very distinct Ukrainian accent were definitely stereotyped as simple-minded, not cultured, small-town hicks. I had a kid in my classroom for example who spoke with a very severe Ukrainian accent and he was the butt of many jokes.

Patrick Cox: But during this time, in the latter days of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was recognized by The Kremlin — and by Slava’s teachers — as a language.

Slava Malamud: It was definitely a distinct language. However, many Russians — they viewed Ukrainian as more of a backward, simple, primitive form of Russian. One very common stereotype was that it was impossible to imagine a scientific discussion in Ukrainian. This is the kind of outlook that a lot of people had.

Laada Bilaniuk: in 1976, when I was seven years old, we went and lived in Soviet Ukraine for seven months.

Patrick Cox: This is Laada Bilaniuk again.

Laada Bilaniuk: This was the height of the Cold War. My dad was a physicist. Somehow he managed to arrange a scientific exchange, and I got to go to a Soviet school. We were placed in a hotel on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Patrick Cox: So when you say you were placed in this hotel, this was a Soviet bureaucrat who placed you there?

Laada Bilaniuk: Exactly. And there was a big apartment building there, a hotel and the Institute of Theoretical Physics and beyond that was a little forest and fields and a village. So that was a place where we could be surveilled effectively, more easily than if we were in the heart of the city.

Patrick Cox: Language quickly became an issue for the family.

Laada Bilaniuk: We spoke Ukrainian and English and we did manage to find a Ukrainian language school in Kyiv, but there were only two or three in 1976. Most of the schools were taught in Russian, so we had to take a bus across the city to — my sister and I — to get to this school. And in the suburb where we lived, you know, the kids most of the kids spoke with us in Ukrainian. There was I remember a girl visiting with her family and she didn’t know Ukrainian. She only knew Russian. But even then, it was kind of an issue for for my parents. My mother’s a neuro-radiologist, my dad, a physicist to do science in Ukrainian. My mother came to do some lectures and she was like, no, I can learn to do it in Ukrainian. I speak Ukrainian, I don’t speak Russian. And people always thought it was so strange, here are Americans? And they speak Ukrainian but they don’t speak Russian? There was this cognitive dissonance because Ukrainian was deemed to be less worldly, more of a peasant language.

Patrick Cox: No wonder the authorities wanted to keep an eye and ear on this strange Ukrainian-speaking family.

Laada Bilaniuk: You know, my parents would talk about how when they call the phone, sometimes the audio tapping wasn’t that effective. They could hear people talking in the background and they had to be careful. I mean, for me as a kid of age seven, I was not terribly aware of the politics. And my sister and I, we played with the kids from the apartment building. And so we got to be good friends. And we exchanged letters throughout the years.

Patrick Cox: Good friends who many years later, became reacquainted. In an independent Ukraine. That’s coming up after the break.

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Patrick Cox: Like all languages, the beginnings of Ukrainian are a bit murky. But it’s clear that it shares its roots with Russian. The two may have started to sound different after the establishment of a federation of Northern and Eastern European peoples known as Kyivan Rus’.

Laada Bilaniuk: Kyivan Rus’ as a state was founded in the 800s, 900s.

Patrick Cox: Both Ukraine and Russian think of this as a sort of foundational moment.

Laada Bilaniuk: A lot of Ukrainians will say that Russia is trying to steal our history by claiming Kyivan Rus’ as their own history. And claiming that Ukrainian is just a dialect of Russian is part of that.

Patrick Cox: The Russian state came into being centuries after the disintegration of Kyivan Rus’. When it did, it claimed the area that is now Ukraine as its own, and it became part of the Russian Empire. But Ukrainian was widely spoken there — so widely that in the mid 1800s, Moscow issued decrees, the most notorious of which of them referred to Ukrainian as the “Little Russian language.”

Laada Bilaniuk: That decree said there never was, there is not and there never will be a Little Russian language. So the idea was to just wipe it out.

Patrick Cox: The decrees banned the use of Ukrainian in all public settings. People could only speak it at home. But the prohibition wasn’t especially well-enforced, and a small body of Ukrainian-language literature emerged: folk tales, poetry and a dictionary. It was around then the language became known as Ukrainian. Suppression of the language ebbed and flowed with history: the end of Tsarist Russia, short-lived independence, and then Soviet Rule. Even under the Soviets, Ukrainian was sometimes tolerated, sometimes not.

After her seven month stay in Ukraine, Laada Bilaniuk returned to the United States with her family, eventually graduating high school and going on to college where she discovered anthropology and linguistics. At grad school, she got the chance to go to Ukraine to study the language and whether people were using it more. It was 1991. The Soviet Union was breaking up, and Ukraine had declared independence. A new law had made Ukrainian the official language, while offering protection for Russian and other languages. Not that Laada could initially sense much of a difference from her previous stay 15 years earlier.

Laada Bilaniuk: What I saw when I came to Kyiv was hardly anybody on the street spoke Ukrainian. It was in the markets, maybe — so, people from villages. But people who I knew would invite me to their houses and they were all speaking Ukrainian at home.

Patrick Cox: One day, Laada went to see if she could find the hotel on the outskirts of the city where she’d lived in with her parents in 1976.

Laada Bilaniuk: And I remembered that it was bus number 63, the last stop. And it was still the last stop of bus number 63. And I found it, and everything was still standing. It looked a lot smaller than I remembered it. The other thing I should mention is in the nineties it was very clear if you were a foreigner because of the kind of clothing I had. The kind of glasses that I had. So this woman who had seen me walk up, came up to me and asked me the time. And then she said, “You wouldn’t happen to be Laada?” She recognized me. She was two years older than me, so she’d been nine. And so she remembered us playing and that we had written letters back and forth and somehow recognized me after 16 years. We renewed our friendship. And through her I met other kids that I knew. These friends have been very generous and welcoming. I’ve been to their houses and even gotten to go to village weddings of relatives and they’ve shared a lot of the depth of their lives.

Patrick Cox: They’ve also shared their feelings about the Ukrainian language, as it gained more of a foothold in public life. But the switch from Russian wasn’t instant. Years after independence, Ukrainians overthrew a pro-Kremlin prime minister who’d claimed the presidency after rigged elections. During this time, known as the Orange Revolution, choosing to speak Ukrainian in public was still fraught with anxiety for some, including Laada’s childhood friend, Irene.

Laada Bilaniuk: I know her family speaks Ukrainian at home. She was born and raised in Kyiv. During the Orange Revolution. I remember her telling me that she said, “Well, you know, I still speak Russian on the streets because I don’t want to antagonize anybody. This revolution is about human rights. I don’t want to rub anybody the wrong way by speaking Ukrainian.”

So that was in 2004. There was still this sense of being tentative about speaking Ukrainian in public.

Patrick Cox: Some younger people were less tentative.

Nadia Dobrianska: My name is Nadia Dobrianska. I was born in Kyiv city.

Patrick Cox: Nadia is 34. Like Irene, Ukrainian is her first language. But Nadia says she’s never shied away from speaking Ukrainian.

Nadia Dobrianska: Yeah, I grew up in a way that I’m never switching to Russian with any Ukrainian speakers. I don’t. That is the way I have to. And I feel really uncomfortable because my assumption is that they know Ukrainian and I don’t see the reason for that. Although there is this discussion — like, a few years ago, I was really baffled that among some bilingual people that it’s a matter of politeness to switch to the language of your counterpart. And I was surprised to hear that this is something I never do, and I don’t consider matters of language to be matters of politeness.

Patrick Cox: Nadia is telling me this from her temporary home in Ireland. She is one of the millions of Ukrainians who’ve become refugees in the past few months. And if you notice a hint of an Irish accent — well, Nadia has a history with the place. She studied in Belfast for a time. And while she was there she sought out Irish speakers. Now she’s one of what must be a select group of Ukrainians who speak Irish. At the end of this episode I’ll post a clip from one of her Irish-language interviews, and I’ll also recommend another podcast where she tells her story.

Suffice to say here: I had to ask Nadia whether she — a native speaker of a language that a colonial power has tried to eradicate — why she was studying another such language. You must think about that, I said. Yeah, she had. In Ukraine she’s an insider to this dynamic. But when she was studying in Belfast, she was an outsider.

Nadia Dobrianska: Well, the connection between identity and language, the way that I’ve experienced it in Northern Ireland is really strong. I’m Ukrainian, not Catholic or Protestant, basically not religious at all. But the fact that I was interested in the Irish language really puts me in the eyes of many people, really aligned me with a certain cause. And I was accused of trying to learn a terrorist language. So I learned not to speak to strangers, not to tell them what I do upfront before I hear who they are. It’s really what’s really breaking my heart. Because as an outsider, I just feel for the language and I really wish the best for it, and I hope that it can thrive and be supported.

Patrick Cox: War — any violence, in fact — it amps up linguistic differences. One of the Kremlin narratives is Ukraine caused the war when in 2012 it intensified its efforts to promote Ukrainian and, according to the Russian government, banish Russian from public life. As the narrative goes, that prompted Russia a couple of years later to annex the largely Russian-speaking Crimea peninsula, and assist Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Now the Russian Army has fought its way into more parts of Ukraine. And in some of these cities, almost the first thing Russian authorities do is round up school principals and tell them to switch the language of instruction to Russian. Then they erect Russian street signs.

All this is having a profound effect on native Russian speakers who also happen to be Ukrainian patriots. A few years ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was a comedian, telling jokes and making TV shows in Russian.

Clip of Zelenskyy TV show v briefly in the clear

Patrick Cox: Today in public, he rarely speaks anything but Ukrainian.

Clip of Zelenskyy speech

Laada Bilaniuk: There’s politicians speaking Ukrainian. But then I think one area that really has affected and made Ukrainian cooler and hipper is the fact that it’s used in television programing, hip hop and rock music. A lot of popular culture innovation is happening in Ukrainian. And that was something that I specifically did research on. I was curious, why do the rock singers, for example, choose to perform in Ukrainian when, you know, the market is much bigger in Russian. And one thing that performers told me is — well, there were two reasons. For some, they said that it’s newer than rock music and Russian, it just all sounds the same. It’s been done. But you use Ukrainian and rock music and it sounds edgier. It sounds more interesting.

Max Heads XL song excerpt

Patrick Cox: This is a well-known group called Mad Heads XL.

Laada Bilaniuk: They sung mostly in Russian and English. But they felt like they’d kind of reached a ceiling there with how far they could go. And then they kind of discovered the Ukrainianness and started performing in Ukrainian, kind of bringing in some folk themes. I interviewed Vadym Krasnooky, who’s the lead singer, in 2009. And he had just half a year earlier decided to make the switch in his life to just speak Ukrainian. Other people in the band didn’t necessarily make that switch. But he had a small son and for him he felt it was important to raise him with Ukrainian as one of his first languages to kind of remedy what he felt was a lack in his life.

Patrick Cox: Native Russian speakers who switched to Ukrainian weren’t always made to feel welcome. They stumbled, the pronunciation was off, they threw in Russian words. Some feared that the Russian language again might be infecting the purity of Ukrainian. But that intolerance has been fading. And now with the war, Laada says it’s gone.

Laada Bilaniuk: Right now especially, there is a much, much stronger sense of needing to speak Ukrainian to support Ukraine’s sovereignty. And I think in this time of crisis, people are also much more understanding. I’m not hearing people saying, “Oh, you know, that whatever mayor of Odessa or something, he should just speak Russian because his Ukrainian has a Russian accent.” No, people aren’t saying that. It’s rather it’s like, “Oh, wow! Look, they’re speaking Ukrainian.”

Patrick Cox: Speaking a language that for so long was denigrated.

As a native English speaker, I can’t get my head around just how powerful it must be to hear someone speaking your once-outlawed language.

I just don’t have that relationship with language. Maybe my ancestors in Ireland did. And maybe they were forced into making a linguistic choice. Speak English, the language of the rich and powerful occupier and you’ll go places. Stick with Irish, and doors will close.

But Ukraine in the 21st century has turned that dynamic on its head. Russian, the language of the occupiers, is losing ground. And Ukrainian — once only whispered — is winning new converts. Ukrainians are clamoring to speak it, and sing it and write in it.

Cynics might says this merely proves the old adage, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” And that’s true, as far as it goes: Ukrainian is now championed by the government. But this language doesn’t just have an army and navy. It’s fueling the army and navy. It’s giving Ukrainians a reason to defend their country, to risk their lives for it.

Listening to Laada and Nadia Dobrianska and those musicians, I can’t put myself in their shoes. I can only imagine the depth of outrage people feel when they’re told their language doesn’t exist, or that it’s just some country bumpkin dialect. I can imagine it but I can’t feel it.

But what I do know now is that asserting the right to speak your language, as Ukrainians have done — that burns bright.

Patrick Cox: Thanks to everyone you heard in this episode: Laada Bilaniuk, Slava Malamud and Nadia Dobrianska. I mentioned that Nadia been doing interviews on Irish-language media outlets about the situation in Ukraine and her own exodus to Ireland. Sounds like this:

Clip of Nadia speaking Irish on the radio

If you want to know more about Nadia — and has quite the story to tell — she’s done two in-depth interviews on the podcast, The Irish Passport. Well worth a listen.

Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter. Thanks also this time to Alina Simone, Michael Flier and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke podcast collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who are all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across most anywhere else. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Iconography. This is a podcast about icons — things with meaning in our lives. Meanings that we don’t fully understand. Like, The Full English Breakfast. Plymouth Rock. The Spice Girls. Iconography host Charles Gustine tells stories about these icons that help us understand them.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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