Nations are dying not from a heart attack. First their language is taken away.
Lina Kostenko
Ukrainian poetess

There are people who say that Ukrainian is a dialect of Russian, or that the two languages are very similar. When traveling in Poland or Slovakia, Ukrainian speakers have no problem understanding the locals and they in turn tend to understand spoken Ukrainian. On the other hand, in Russia if you speak Ukrainian, you will not be understood. So the question is: are the two languages really similar?

Ukrainian is the national language of Ukraine. It belongs to the Eastern Slavic languages, and is therefore part of the Indo-European group of languages. It includes 46 million speakers, which makes it the second (after Russian) most widely spoken Slavic language.

Kostyantyn Tyshchenko, a professor of linguistics at Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University, made a list of 82 specific features of Ukrainian grammar and phonetics. According to this list, Ukrainian has more features in common with Belarussian (29), Czech and Slovak (23), Polish (22), Croatian and Bulgarian (21) and Slovenian (20), than it has with Russian (11).

Genealogy of the Ukrainian People

The Ukrainian people as a nation appeared at the time of Kyivan Rus, the major Slavic state on the grounds of modern Ukraine, in the 9th-13th centuries. However, the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation as well as the establishment of the Ukrainian language was blocked due to the fact that after the Mongol attack in the 13th century, Kyivan Rus was partitioned and its land was annexed by the Duchy of Lithuania and Poland.

Many historic documents prove that the Ukrainian language, and Ukrainian state, appeared earlier than the Russian ones. Russian comes from the Old Slavonic language, which was introduced by Kyivan colonizers to Muscovites, who were essentially Finno-Ugric. Their language then mixed with Mongolian, reflecting Muscovy’s centuries-long Mongol occupation, and hence has very few similarities with other Eastern Slavic languages.

The phenomenon of “a Russian-speaking Ukrainian”

During the 400 years of occupation of Ukrainian lands by the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union, the use of Ukrainian was banned 134 times by the Russian government. It also banned the Ukrainian church, printing of Ukrainian books, traditional songs, Ukrainian-language schools, theaters and libraries. It confiscated religious books and declared Ukrainian cultural activities to be harmful.

In the 20th century, Ukrainians striving for their own identity and independent state were executed, deported to Siberia, tortured and jailed. The most massive murder of Ukrainians took place during the 1932-33 Great Famine genocide (known as the Holodomor in Ukrainian), during which millions of deaths were recorded.

After the Holodomor, the government moved Russians – and therefore Russian speakers – into the depopulated Eastern Ukrainian areas. The Russian government was not satisfied with repressing and banning Ukrainian language and culture. It implemented the policy of russifying the Ukrainian language, in order to make it similar to Russian. It is why even today there are many people in Ukraine who consider Russian to be their native language.

By Viktoria Vovkanets