Ukraine's language is a vital weapon in our fight against Russia

15 March 2022

6:03 PM

15 March 2022

6:03 PM

Vladimir Putin believes that Ukraine is essentially a Potemkin country. We are, he claims, a nation ‘entirely created by Russia’. This came as news to Ukrainians like myself. Russian soldiers and mercenaries sent to our country are also finding out the hard way that, despite our many similarities, there are key differences between Ukraine and Russia. These have made life difficult for Russians who have attempted to go undercover in our country.

While Putin might not like to admit it, we have our own culture and our own vision of the future. We also have our own language; idioms and turns of phrases – and way of pronouncing words – that make sense in Ukraine but would leave a native Russian speaker baffled.

One of the main melodies of Putin’s propaganda has always been the idea that Ukraine’s language is an artificial dialect of Russian. Despite its ancient roots, this thesis has haunted Ukraine throughout history. Since the accession of the proto-Ukrainian state, the Hetmanate, to the proto-Russian Tsardom of Moscow, it has been oppressed and banned repeatedly in various Russian state formations.

The Valuev Circular (a secret Russian decree issued in 1863) stated that ‘a separate Little Russian (Ukrainian) language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist’; in the USSR, Stalin destroyed linguists who deviated from the concept of total assimilation with the motherland. Instead, the Russian language was forcibly imposed on Ukrainian lands. As a result, after the Soviet Union crumbled and Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, many Ukrainians – particularly those in the east – continued to speak Russian on a daily basis. A generation later, this allowed Putin to justify his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, by insisting that he was ‘protecting Russian-speakers’, whom he always called ‘Russians’. But Russia’s president ignored a simple fact: Ukrainian is the only official language in our country.

Now Putin has invaded Ukraine again, this time on a wider scale, he faces an unexpected challenge. Russian forces have travelled far beyond the regions with Russian-speaking majorities. Here Putin’s forces have come unstuck. Because of their inability to capture most of the big cities such as Kharkiv, Sumy, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol and the capital Kiev, Russia has resorted to sabotage tactics. Security forces disguised as Ukrainians have been one of the tools used by Russia in this war. But distinguishing a Russian saboteur from a Ukrainian civilian is not hard. Why? Because of the subtle differences in our languages.

Ukrainian words that many Russians can’t pronounce (even Putin’s propagandists on TV after much practise) are becoming well known. And determining whether someone might not be who they claim to be is as straightforward as asking for a ‘palyanitsa’, or ‘a bun’. The truth is that many native Russian speakers simply cannot say this word properly. Often they confuse it with the Ukrainian translation for strawberry, which sounds quite similar (‘polunitsya’).

Now in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion, talk of buns is everywhere; people in Ukraine make memes about them; they distribute videos of captured Russian soldiers who can’t pronounce the word dozens of times in a row. In this time of misery and suffering, talking about buns provides a welcome moment of light relief for Ukrainians. This one little word seems to have become a new symbol of Ukrainian identity.

Asking for a bun isn’t the only thing Russian native speakers struggle with. Ukraine’s name for its large state-owned railway company, ‘ukrzaliznytsia’ is another phonetic hell for Russian saboteurs, as well as the translation for ‘a railway’ itself: ‘zaliznytsia’. Other common words which Russians have difficulty pronouncing are nonsense (‘nisenitnytsia’), stop (‘zupynka’), native (‘vrodzhenets’), pencil (‘olivets’) and chamber (‘svitlytsia’). These words have all become vital tools in helping us Ukrainians work out whether we can trust the person we are speaking with.

Ukraine’s armed forces are also using language as a weapon in their fight against Putin. ‘Attention! From now on, Ukrainian soldiers speak Ukrainian only (even if not perfectly) to distinguish and identify the enemy!’ read the message sent out by our army on the second day of war last month.

Many citizens are also naturally on board with this message. As a result, Ukrainians who tended to speak Russian in their day-to-day lives at home have opted to speak our country’s official language in the weeks since war erupted. Overnight, the desire to speak the language of the country that attacked us has simply dissolved. For many Ukrainians, this hasn’t been too dramatic a shift. After all, nearly everybody in Ukraine knows both Russian (despite minor exceptions in the west) and Ukrainian (despite minor exceptions in the east) perfectly anyway. Ukrainian is the language of education, of cinema and entertainment, it is used in church services, on TV; in short, it is everywhere – even more so in the last few weeks.

This shift away from speaking Russian has made life harder for undercover Russian security forces. It has also proven, once again, that Putin has underestimated Ukraine. He expected our country to bow down in the face of the Russian advance. He also failed to recognise that, despite his flawed history, there are some key differences between Ukraine and Russia, not least in the language we use. So while my country might not have the firepower of Russia, Putin can never take away our language – or our palyanitsas.

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