As a teenager, I used to play Hangman. During one of the sessions, I challenged my classmates abroad by making them guess the name of my hometown. The prospect of getting four letters right didn’t seem to be such a difficult task – and yet it turned out to be onerous.

Only three out of four letters – K, I, V – were guessed by both children and teacher, ultimately forcing me to reveal the fourth letter, Y.

“It’s Kyiv, I’m from Kyiv,” I said, putting on a rather sly smile of resulting victory.

“No, it’s not. It’s Kiev,” argued the teacher, insisting that I had misspelled my own hometown’s name and forcing me to explain that Kyiv is Ukrainian for Kiev.

“Never heard of this. Are you quite sure that you’re right?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m quite sure,” I answered in the same manner, knowing what the word “quite” was meant to convey in this context. I was, after all, raised on BBC content.


It was the year 2004, and barely anyone abroad knew anything about Ukraine, Ukrainians, or Ukrainian. People like me were perceived as exotic individuals from the so-called Eastern European proletariat-turned-filthy-rich motley crew, and it really did not matter which country of that bloc you were from – to the outsider you were more or less Russian, maybe with minor differences, though definitely not of the linguistic kind.

Eighteen years later, and with Ukraine making headlines around the world, you would think that this sort of attitude would be bygone.

But the reality tells a slightly different story.

This summer I found myself explaining to a Greek waiter that the Ukrainian language is not the same as Russian. He vehemently attempted to prove otherwise, saying that Ukrainian and Russian are the same because Ukraine and Russia used to be one country, and it looked like my insistence that it is not had fallen on his deaf ears.

He just walked away, hoping that I would tip him regardless. In vain, I must add.

As a Ukrainian, I am trained to do this kind of talking. So, apart from it taking place in wartime, this episode hardly took me by surprise – just like the need to answer the recurrent question “but how exactly different are Ukrainian and Russian?” as if I am expected to calculate the difference in percentage terms.


Now, what should my answer be: 20 percent? 40 percent? 80 percent? 91.75 percent?

And why has no-one ever asked to calculate the linguistic difference between Danish and Swedish; Dutch and German; French and Italian; Polish and Slovak? Isn’t it common sense that even though they belong to the same group of languages, they are simply different?

These bizarre conversations and questions stem, of course, not just from that perception of Ukraine and Ukrainian as something exotic. With one lady awestruck that the duration of the flight from Switzerland to the U.K. is the same as it is to Ukraine, but also from Russian chauvinism and propaganda, which did it best to ensure that the world perceives Ukraine as its inferior little brother with a silly language.

And, regrettably, from Ukraine’s own decades-long inaction as well, as the Ukrainian voice abroad had been barely heard until 2014, when Russia first invaded independent Ukraine.


Oftentimes, Ukrainian embassies, which were among the only sources of knowledge about Ukraine abroad except for diasporas, were doing too little to promote Ukraine as a state that has something to offer to the world outside of our traditional export darlings such as Taras Shevchenko’s poetry or dances like hopak. Things that Ukrainians seemed to enjoy themselves without actually asking whether the foreign audience, especially the young, is as interested.

Private individuals working or studying abroad were more of an exception than a rule. While they did their part in explaining to foreigners what Ukraine is about, how it differs from its neigbors, and why that difference matters, including when it comes to the linguistic aspects, all of this was not enough to reach large circles of people.

Add the lack of a robust network of English-speaking media outlets and governmental initiatives to that and you will have a clear understanding of why so little was known about Ukraine and its language.

With Ukraine recently celebrating the Day of Ukrainian Writing and Language on Nov. 9, and Ukraine still fighting off the Russians on both the ground and the information sphere, it is clear that Ukraine’s endeavor of promoting its identity abroad, language included, is far from over.


Indeed, a great deal has changed since 2014. A host of new media initiatives, including those funded by the government, has sprung up, all of which are trying to communicate Ukraine to the world in more modern, hip, and relevant terms.

Among them is, Ukraine’s official Instagram handle, which now has 1 million followers on Instagram and is the third most popular country-dedicated account after Australia and New Zealand.

However, much more needs to be done to make sure that Ukrainian is decoupled from Russian in the eyes of the majority, and Ukrainians need to take responsibility for this process.

While the Ukrainian embassies, especially in countries that are traditionally more Russian-friendly or in non-western countries, should step up their game and not be afraid of acting in a more informal and “chill” way, and other Ukrainian organizations, it is the actions of the little people that matter too.

Many Ukrainian bloggers, who used to be Russian speakers, switched to Ukrainian overnight after Feb. 24, and this is something that serves as a clear inspiration to those Ukrainians who have a hard time using Ukrainian on a daily basis, at least in the public domain – even if they are deeply patriotic individuals.

Or be active on social media.

When I played Hangman with my foreign classmates, social media did not exist. Otherwise, I would have most certainly taken to it to write a long post about why Ukrainian is Ukrainian and not Russian.


Nowadays all the means are available. It is simply a matter of one’s personal choice of whether you want to spend your time informing others about your own country and language.

So, why not do just that?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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