For hundreds of years, the Ukrainian people have survived many crises - famine, persecution, invasions and war. Today, the ongoing war in the eastern region of Donbas has displaced more than 1.6 million people and killed more than 10,000, including members of my own family. Despite these losses, Ukraine continues to resist - both militarily and through social activism - as Russia makes every effort to undermine Ukrainian independence. This is not just a regional “hot war”; it is a full-on “hybrid war” being fought on many fronts, not the least of these is Russian propaganda aimed at altering perceptions of Ukraine both internally and externally.
The means are subtle, with one of the most damaging being the use of the Russian language as a tool for continued domination. People within the international community need to challenge this subtle aggression by pushing back against the Russification of Ukraine, beginning with the correct spelling of Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv.
In 1995, not long after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Ukrainian government adopted the transliterated “Kyiv” as the standard spelling of its capital. Recently, the AP Style Guide announced the same: “The change is in line with the Ukrainian government’s preferred name and transliteration. The spelling Kyiv also has been gaining usage over the last decade among governments, international bodies and media organizations.”
Nonetheless, almost every article appearing in major Western media still spells Ukraine’s capital as “Kiev,” based on Russian spelling. “Kiev” is a Russian transliteration of the city’s name, exemplifying just one tactic employed by the Russian propaganda machine - an insidious campaign to impose the Russian language and spread disinformation about Ukraine.
Russia has attempted to restrict the Ukrainian language throughout modern history, actively promoting a narrative that the nations share a similar identity and language. This couldn’t be further from the truth. From Peter the Great onwards, the Russian state attempted to eradicate any hints of Ukrainian nationalism and independence.
Between 1760 and 1780, Catherine the Great banned the teaching of Ukrainian at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy - the country’s leading university, established in 1615. She also mandated all Ukrainian schools to use Russian exclusively. Ukrainians were officially referred to as “Little Russians,” much to their humiliation and repugnance. An edict from the Russian government in 1876 forbade publications, addresses and sermons in Ukrainian which lasted until 1905.
In the 1800s, the Russian Tsars persecuted the famous Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko for his expressions of Ukrainian culture and independence. A quote attributed to Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) stated: “There is no Ukrainian language, just illiterate peasants speaking Little Russian.” Joseph Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the Holodomor of 1932-33 to stamp out their demands for freedom and independence. He further introduced a policy of strict Russification, making Russian the primary language and exiling hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals and clergy to Siberia in an attempt to eradicate resistance.
Yet, the Ukrainian language has survived over 100 prohibitions in 400 years.
My own family members are not strangers to the battle against Russification, and promoting Ukraine’s identity. When my father was a young boy in Ukraine, children made fun of him for speaking Ukrainian. Later, the Soviet Russian government banned my parents from attending university because they held onto their Ukrainian language and culture, and refusing to join the Communist Party. Though they were persecuted, my parents continued to speak Ukrainian and attend Protestant church services, just as many of their friends did within other denominations - all of them resisting the communist system.
In recent years, many in Ukraine - including politicians, and social influencers - have started speaking Ukrainian in public instead of Russian, even if it is not their first language. This use of language demonstrates their political stance and reflects their patriotism. In April 2019, Ukraine introduced legislation to promote its national language in all spheres of public life.
However, Russia is actively countering this movement, by claiming Ukraine is attempting to suppress the Russian language and identity. They used this narrative as one of the excuses to illegally annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine in 2014.
By recognising and using the Ukrainian transliteration for Ukraine’s capital, Western publications and other prominent organisations can restore a voice to those from whom it has been stolen, returning dignity and respect to the Ukrainian people. This small but significant act of choosing to write “Kyiv” powerfully resists Russian cultural imperialism, recognises Ukrainian autonomy, and promotes freedom and justice for Ukraine.
Even today, Russian and Western media promote the use of “The Ukraine,” as if to relegate it to the status of a region and not an independent country. The international community should challenge this claim by first recognising and then rejecting all forms of attempted Russification.
Ukraine should be able to decide upon the most basic aspects of its own nation-state. Everyday speech and spelling can advance these policies and goals. Language is the primary conveyor of cultural knowledge, and it carries tremendous power for changing attitudes and perceptions.
Finding justice for Ukrainians, including my own family, starts with resisting Russia’s propaganda and promoting the Ukrainian language. It starts with spelling Ukraine’s capital as Kyiv.
- David Kirichenko is a Ukrainian-American civic activist and an editor at Euromaidan Press, an online English language newspaper in Ukraine.
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