Can You Speak Ukrainian?
Even the Russians are confused by Ukrainian!
Now I’m getting so confused. Everywhere I look, from the advertisements,
to the menus, to the visa in my passport, everything is written in Ukrainian.
Whenever I listen to the radio, watch TV, or listen to anyone speak, it’s
always in Russian. This crazy dichotomy is driving me nuts!
After two hundred years of domination by Russia
(with a few centuries of Polish or Latvian rule before), and with a 30% Russian
population I can understand the influence of their northern neighbor. What
I can’t understand, or I don’t want to hassle with, is the ubiquitous Ukrainian
writing! My Russian reading skills are bad enough, pretty close to zero,
and Ukrainian, though its not far from Russian, confuses the hell out of
Confused Ukrainians actually stand in a line for the bus!
I’m not the only one in this predicament. Those Russians living here are
in the same boat. Though most were required to take Ukrainian in school,
they never speak it, and can barley read it. Now, with Ukraine’s independence,
and its desire to form a Ukrainian state, those Russians are feeling a bit
odd. This isn’t the Baltics, mind you, where Russians are openly harassed,
denied citizenship, and sometimes even deported. Ukraine and Russia are very
close neighbors, with only the slightest document check when you cross the
border by train, but it does want to be a unique nation. The first step in
that direction is the language.
The Ukrainian language started many moons ago, as the root of all the Slavic
languages from Russian, to Polish, to Serbian, with a period around 1000
AD being the glorious climax. Since then, with the Tartar invasion of 1240,
the Lithuanian/Polish domination, and the outright ban by Tsar Alexander
II in 1876, the Ukrainian language has been on the decline.
Ukraine’s absorption in 1795, Russian was the new language to know. Russian
got you jobs, housing, and especially during Stalin’s reign, maybe even saved
your life! After WWII and the horrible Ukrainian famine (while Stalin was
exporting grain), there weren’t many Ukrainians left to keep the language
going. With waves of Russian immigrants, and the obvious advantages of knowing
Russian, the native tongue was subjugated until only those outside the government
knew the language, and only those outside the city spoke it. That was until
In 1990, Ukrainian was made the official language, and in 1998, all public
signs were translated, so now the language is everywhere. Its everywhere
just in writing though, as far as I can tell. Maybe I’m wrong, and people
are speaking Ukrainian, and my Russian isn’t good enough to recognize it,
or I think its just an odd accent in someone’s Russian, but I doubt it. Russians
don’t want, or can’t speak Ukrainian. Since they were, and usually still
are, the ones in powerful positions, the Ukrainians are forced to speak Russian.
I’ve been asking everyone, Russians and Ukrainians about this linguistic
divide. Most Ukrainians are happy that their language is coming back and
that kids are studying Ukrainian and English, not Russian in school. The
Russians just laugh when I ask, and say that no matter what, Russian will
always be spoken here. Somehow, I have to agree with them.