People like me served as a decoy for Russia to invade Ukraine. We grew up speaking Russian, but after Feb. 24, nothing could stop us from embracing the language that has been ours for generations.

Few things in Ukrainian culture are as entangled in politics, history, and trauma, as our native language. And few are as diverse.

From the regional variations of vocabulary to the history of oppression, Ukrainian is a fascinating subject for the linguistically inclined. But if you are not, it's easy to believe the Russian-flavored stereotype about western Ukrainians being more pro-Ukrainian, while the east and south don't speak a word of it.

I'm a full-time Ukrainian speaker, language teacher and translator. So, let's assume my Ukrainian is good. In bouts of proud defiance – belying the assumption that "true" Ukrainian speakers are only found in the western regions of the country – I answer the "where are you from?" question with "Sumy, in the northeast."

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Sumy is a relatively small city some 30 kilometers from the Russian border, home to many seekers of better jobs and opportunities who left their native villages back when the Soviet Union still existed. My grandmother, when she was 16 years-old, was one of those people – striving to build a new life in the city and at university. At that time, it also meant shedding "the village accent."

The language I grew up with had nothing to do with the nationality written on my parents' passports: the first language of my family was, and to some extent remains, Russian.

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If you dig a little deeper into the history of families like mine, you'll find a common pattern. They have relatives all over the former Soviet Union, from Crimea to the island of Sakhalin; tons of Russian books in the house; an obsession with cultivating a plot of land, however small; a peculiar, almost maniacal attention, to the number of jars in the pantry; and pickling food every summer to stock up for winter. Woe betide anyone leaving food on their plate!

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As children, we were also taught to stay low, avoid voicing our opinions ("don't stick your neck out, honey"), and stay clear of any political demonstrations. When, in 2014, I wanted to join the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, my grandmother said she would rather die than see me go.

The east-west divide

Growing up, I admired "westerners" for their unbridled patriotism and steady vocal support for all things Ukrainian. I admired how fluently and freely all of them spoke Ukrainian in public. I didn't realize back then that the two parts of my country shared very different traumas.

When my great-grandfather was five, his mother died of hunger. My great-grandmother was eight years old at that time. Her sisters took her on a train ride to the Zapadenshyna (a local colloquial term for the western regions of Ukraine) to exchange clothes for bread. This is how they survived the Great Famine of 1932-1933, engineered to force peasants into collective farms.

My maternal family learned the lesson drilled into them by the Soviet machine. Stay low, do what you are told, forget, or be prosecuted and deported far away from home. The only act of resistance my great-grandmother could afford was praying and secretly baptizing all her children. Apparently, she feared God more than Joseph Stalin.

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Whenever my great-grandmother was emotional, she would half-sigh, half-laugh "Oh, my mooooothers" (plural for some reason) in Ukrainian. My Russian great-grandmother was from a borderline region of Russia. Her vernacular, surzhyk, evidently shows that Russian, enforced in all spheres of life back then, plowed through something already there. Something that was ours to begin with.

I was born in independent Ukraine, so my schooling was in Ukrainian, and my teachers did an excellent job of turning me into a language nerd. Like any other bilingual child in my hometown, I spoke Ukrainian in school but Russian elsewhere. That was the norm. Everybody did it, so it didn't warrant any looks ("don't stick your neck out, honey"). So, when for some weird reason, kids from my school turned into adults, the habit continued. That was until reality caught up with us, and Ukrainian finally became normalized as a natural way of expressing ourselves.

The cultural phenomenon of the marshrutka will be our test strip here.

Gradual shift and the marshrutka test

A marshrutka is a small hybrid city bus for 10 to 15 people, where you have to loudly announce your stop for the driver to let you out. In the marshrutkas of my childhood, people would shout their stops in Russian. In the years leading up to the Revolution of Dignity, you could still earn a strange look if you asked for a stop in Ukrainian, but much less frequently.

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Since 2014, social acceptance of Ukrainian in my region climbed, and by 2021, drivers would sometimes shout back at you in Ukrainian too. It looked like we finally stopped being embarrassed at publicly using the language we had known well since childhood.

I attribute this to eased Russian meddling in the Ukrainian informational and cultural space. Ukrainian millennials grew up on Russian TV shows, packed with propaganda and glorifying everything about "the big brother."

Gradually, the Ukrainian state stopped enabling Russian speakers in Ukraine by steadily supporting Ukrainian in schools, public spaces, and media. In 2015, the first language quotas regulating the amount of foreign language (aka Russian) content on the air were introduced at a legislative level. They ruffled some feathers and caused some initial headaches for regional TV and radio programming, but no feathers can stay ruffled for long: Ukraine is a pretty cold country.

Of course, there are always opponents – always were and always will be. My optimistic look at the social shift empowered me to finally switch to speaking Ukrainian in 2018. A year later, the bill protecting Ukrainian as the state language became law, finally affirming it as the default language in all spheres of life. It nevertheless preserved the right of national minorities to access primary education in their mother tongue.

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Slowly but surely, even the generation of my parents, hardcore Russian users, started to get more exposure to Ukrainian, and – surprisingly – discovered they were pretty confident speakers. But for the longest time, I would only switch back to Russian with my family and longtime school friends: my private little lie.

The point of no return

Like many other things, this lie crumbled after Feb. 24, 2022. Conversations with my childhood friend, which used to be Russian by default, switched to Ukrainian overnight. "It's been a long time coming," she said when I asked her about the change months later. "I don't have any particular sentiment tying me to the Russian language. I know it is a useful skill, but I don't want to popularize it anymore."

Whenever asked, people who recently switched mentioned an aversion to the Russian language after hearing about war crimes Russia committed in Ukraine. They talked about convenience or belonging to a broader Ukrainian-speaking community. Language is one of the first indicators we use when subconsciously deciding between "us" and "them," a friend or foe.

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In the realities of war, this overly simplified distinction gets even simpler: even Russian-speaking medics switch to Ukrainian when evacuating wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the battlefield. Hearing familiar sounds, and familiar words, even if they are not native, serves as a calming beacon in a haze of pain: We are like you, we are still on your side, we are with you. For me, though, the most surprising connection happened right before my eyes.

My mother started texting me in Ukrainian. So did my aunt. The change was unsettling at first, but reaffirmed the conviction I had harbored for a long time. Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians in Ukraine are not an oddity, a novelty, or a manifestation of political reality.

It is a natural course of history correcting itself. The behavioral pattern slowly starts to heal after more than 70 years of the Soviet oppression of language and thought, with subsequent Russian meddling in the culture Ukrainians were used to consuming. And while there's still a long way to embrace who we really are, the language we prefer to use declares how we want the world to see us.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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