Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 brought an unprecedented wave of Ukrainization across all of Ukrainian football. Clubs and football figures in Ukraine have been gradually reverting, moving to reduce the use of the Russian language in their clubs because it represents the invading oppressor, as noted by one Shakhtar Donetsk player. However, there is one lone holdout to the Ukrainization wave, and that is Zorya Luhansk.
To underscore the importance of this Ukrainization wave, it is important to understand the history of Russia’s oppression. For hundreds of years, Ukraine’s long struggled for its right to existent as an independent state. At the center of Ukraine’s struggle was the Ukrainian language. It was oppressed and marginalized for hundreds of years by the Russian and Soviet empires.
Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the 1930s to destroy the Ukrainian people and their will to be a free people. This became known as the Holodomor, “death by hunger.” Stalin didn’t stop there: He felt parts of the Ukrainian alphabet were controversial and banned the Ukrainian letter “ґ” (pronounced “Ge”) and got rid of phonetic combinations such ль, льо, ля, to try and make the language similar to Russian. The Ukrainian language was prohibited over 130 times in 400 years.
Therefore, no matter how small an effort, the promotion of Ukraine’s language is crucial to the existence of Ukraine’s modern state and the survival of its people. Even today, Russia’s invading army in Ukraine burns Ukrainian history books, destroys archives that show Soviet repressions, and are forcing teachers to start teaching a Russian-language curriculum.
The massive shift in using the Ukrainian language has been voluntary but long overdue in the central and eastern regions, given that Russia has been waging war against Ukraine since 2014. Unfortunately, it took a full-scale invasion from Russia for many to realize that Putin has long linked his imperial aggression and ambitions to that of protecting Russian speakers. But, it is better now than never for Ukrainians to realize the importance of preserving their national identity by speaking Ukrainian.A good indicator of this Ukrainization wave came from Shakhtar’s Artem Bondarenko, stating in April of 2022, "I have decided to start speaking in Ukrainian. I may make mistakes but it will be in Ukrainian. It is shameful for me to speak the language of the people that are destroying our nation." Vorskla Poltava manager Viktor Skrypnyk, who has always spoken Russian, gave his first post-match press conference exclusively in Ukrainian in November of 2022. The list goes on and on about players and coaches who have made symbolic moves by speaking Ukrainian even if it is difficult for them.
Even regions that were trending towards being heavy Russian speakers also known for being friendly to Moscow have been undergoing de-Russification. Chornomorets Stadium in Odesa has undergone renovation and removed the seats that spelled out the Russian language version of the club’s name. It went from Chernomorets (Черноморец) to Chornomorets (Чорноморець). These are small but hugely important symbolic steps towards the promotion of the Ukrainian language and identity.
Now that we see even Russian-speaking regions making changes like these, it raises more questions why Zorya Luhansk — one of Ukraine’s oldest teams — has their club logo still written in Russian as “Zarya.” Not only is it spelt “Заря” instead of “Зоря”, but it also has the Russian spelling “Луганск” instead of the Ukrainian city “Луганськ.” Zorya Luhansk is the only Ukrainian club that does not have a Ukrainian language variant of the crest officially associated with the club.
FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih has even called out Zorya Luhansk multiple times on social media for its refusal to use the Ukrainian language on its crest. Kryvyi Rih is the hometown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the city of Kryvyi Rih is also close to the frontlines. The controversy started over Zorya Luhansk using an older logo from Kryvbas in a game. FC Kryvbas followed up with an official club statement via their social media channels calling on Zorya Luhansk to change their logo to a Ukrainian spelling version.
To understand why Zorya is slow to partake in the Ukrainization movement is worth examining who even runs the club. At present, Zorya’s owner is Yevhen Heller, who is from Donetsk himself and belonged to the corrupt Party of Regions. This was the party that was aligned with Russia before the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and was notorious for being corrupt, which led to the party being disbanded.
However, Zorya’s former general director Serhiy Rafailov, who once stated, “Manchester is a dirty city, full of drunks and men kissing in the street," spends his time repeating Russian propaganda in Facebook comments. Rumor has it that he fled to Russia. Rafailov showed himself to be a Russophile, who disliked the Western world and the concept of an independent Ukraine.
The Internet has already crowdsourced numerous designs that improve the logo visuals of the club that the club can choose from and are in Ukrainian. All that is needed is action from the club ownership.
From a business standpoint, it would be logical to ditch the Russian language and embrace Ukrainian to better market the club and show a forward-looking mentality. Ukraine in a European world is the future and Russia, alongside the old Soviet legacy, needs to remain a buried legacy. As we fast approach the one-year mark of Russia’s expanded invasion, the leadership of Ukraine’s footballing association should consider passing down rules that will push clubs to de-Russify any old remnants of Russian colonialism.
A storied club like Zorya Luhansk is an important part of Ukrainian football and regularly plays in European competitions. The word Zorya means "dawn" in Ukrainian at this point, representing the dawn of a new Ukraine — one that is free, prosperous and united. It is time for the club’s badge to reflect that new dawn and de-Russify their logo, as the Ukrainians are fighting for their very existence.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He tweets @DVKirichenko
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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