“Are you studying Ukrainian or Russian?”

Moving to Dnipro, Ukraine has forced me to answer a wide variety of questions. Often, these questions are repetitive, “Why are you here?”, “What part of America are you from?”, “Do you like Ukraine?” etc. But, one question has proved to be more nerve-wracking than the rest: “Are you studying Ukrainian or Russian?”

Although there is never malice in the question, I always feel the hint of judgment. I don’t lie. I say that I am studying Russian. But, even in a predominantly Russian-speaking city like Dnipro, I can’t help but feel I’m giving the wrong answer.

My friend Thomas and I on the embankment of Dnipro, Ukriane. Dnipro is considered to be a “Russian Speaking” City but that may change with time

On paper, the national language of Ukraine is Ukrainian. Any government building, university, or official place of business is run in Ukrainian and most citizens have a basic level of Ukrainian language knowledge. But, when you walk through the streets of most major cities, you begin to see a different picture.

The most common statistic I have seen cited is from a 2005 census, stating that 42% of the population self-reports Ukrainian as their native language. In 2011, this jumped to 53% and by 2015 more than 60% said they prefer Ukrainian to Russian. Just as commonly cited is the statistic that more than 60% of Ukrainians speak some form of Russian at home. Each of these statistics has been heavily debated and does not factor in Surzhyk, which is is a mix of the Ukrainian and Russian language. More commonly heard in villages, Surzhyk is estimated to be spoken by 11 to 18% of the population of Ukraine.

Maps provided by the Washington Post

To put it bluntly, trusting any of these statistics is difficult. Many who identify as Ukrainian-speaking or Russian-speaking spend more time blending the two languages than speaking a pure version of either.

Since the Russian Federation’s illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014, and the start of the war in Donbass, more complications have arisen. The Kremlin insists that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are faced with ‘genocide’ and must be protected. Many began to joke, “I’m afraid of speaking Russian now because Putin might want to protect me.” But, behind each joke is the bit of truth.

Like most Ukrainians, I hear and speak Russian daily. No one bats an eye at anything but my accent. No matter where I am, I hear individuals switch seamlessly between the two languages. A barista says ‘Hello’ in Russian. The customer responds in Ukrainian. The barista then switches to Ukrainian. The languages stitch and weave into each other so perfectly throughout Dnipro. But, when asked about the transitions, opinions deflect.

My first week in Ukraine a colleague explained to me that, “Some government officials don’t even speak Ukrainian. It’s ridiculous. We are in Ukraine.”

Another told me, “The strongest patriots in Ukraine are Russian speakers. They love this country more than they love their native tongue.”

I listened as my friends from Russia expressed concern for me. They told me I would be attacked for speaking Russian because that’s often the narrative told by the Russian media. I listened as a colleague arrived in the office in a huff. She said the bus driver accused her of being a ‘Banderivka’ or a Stepan Bandera supporter (a controversial ‘hero’ of Ukraine who has become a symbol for Ukrainian nationalism) for speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian.

I’ve heard it both ways. Ukrainian speakers impinging on the rights of Russian speakers. Russian speakers impinging on the rights of Ukrainian speakers. I argue it’s not as black and white. It’s not as Western vs. Russian as both medias try to paint it. There isn’t a perfect answer.

But, I can’t deny the shift that has taken place in Ukraine. Even in Dnipro, a great number of my friends tell me about the conscious shift they made following the start of the war- the choice to speak Ukrainian. In 2014, a prominent Kyiv blogger wrote a viral article detailing how to switch from Russian to Ukrainian. Many patriotic Russian speakers enroll in 30-day challenges to speak only Ukrainian, and to teach their children Ukrainian.

Media, which was once dominated by Russian-speaking outlets, is being challenged by Ukrainian-language web-based TV, such as Hromadske.TVand Espreso. Even social media is taking the hit as many Ukrainians turn to Facebook as opposed to the Russian equivalent Vk.

In 2016, Ukraine adopted a law that required 25% of all songs on the Radio must be in Ukrainian. On the 17th of March, 2017 a new law was proposed insisting that 75% of national TV broadcasts be in the Ukrainian language. This proposed law is still going through Parliament and requires presidential approval.

I understand the need to speak Ukrainian. I understand the desire. But, I do worry. When the war in Donbass began, it was predominantly Russian-speaking cities such as Dnipro, which volunteered and stopped the advancement of Russian separatists. I wholeheartedly agree that one does not need to speak a certain language to be a patriot. Being an American, some of the most patriotic people I know barely speak English. But, I am careful to make the comparison. America, unlike Ukraine, does not have an official language. It’s hard for me to truly comment on Ukraine’s language politics, for I have only lived here for seven months, but I hope.

I hope that the beautifully unique intermingling of Ukrainian and Russian speakers will continue in Ukraine. I honestly believe that it is through unification that Ukraine will thrive and prevail. I believe that it is through these differences that a new and more global Ukraine can emerge. I believe in Ukraine, and all its citizens, no matter their native tongue.

Also published on my medium account 

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What makes ‘an Activist’ in Ukraine? [1/2]

About a week ago I played a game with my students the required a bit of role play. This particular class was a group of about five men all over the age of thirty.  Before the game, I made sure to define the characters. First by their jobs, then by their personality traits.  

I went through the characters, “The Doctor”, “The Police officer”, “The Scientist,” etc. but one character stood out to my students. “The Activist.” And, to my surprise, it stood out because my students had nothing positive to say.

An activist,” one of my students explained, “is someone paid to start fights at an event.”

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What’s in a name? Defining a Titushki and an Activist [2/2]


Looking back to the Maidan, it is clear that the volunteerism which took place has become the basis for the Ukraine’s contemporary civic activism. From November 2013 to February 2014, the Maidan revolution served as a medium for bringing people from all walks of life together, for a common goal.

That goal was first the want for stronger European ties, and eventually the ousting of pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. As the protests became more and more violent, the need for volunteers and assistance grew.

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Ukraine’s First Museum to the War in Donbass

History Summarized . . .
On November 20th, 2013, public protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti “Independence Square” in Kyiv took place demanding closer European integration. Throughout Ukraine, a ‘will to change life’ emerged and demanded not only a change in the quality of life but for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych, the implementation of a system to combat government corruption, abuses of power, and violations of human rights in Ukraine. By mid-February, clashes between protesters and riot police were frequent, as was the number of casualties. By late February, President Yanukovych’s was removed from office, and a new government was installed.  The Ukrainian territory of Crimea was then illegally occupied and annexed by the Russian Federation on March 18th, 2014, on the claim that it was ‘the people’s will’. This rapid militarization of the region by the Russian Federation then spread into Donbass and Luhansk eastern oblasts. This was under the claim that they were protecting the Russian speakers in Ukraine. The Russian Federation denies having troops within Ukraine’s borders. They claim that the only fighting is between the Ukrainian Troops and self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). A ceasefire, named the Minsk Protocol, was signed September 5th, 2014. Violations have been frequent and common. The war continues.

Blog Continued . . .

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Trial and error and error

In the past few weeks I’ve received the question, “So what exactly are you doing in Ukraine?” And it got me thinking, “what am I doing in Ukraine? My first four months in Ukraine were a massive game of trial and error and error and even more errors. I’ve let it discourage me at times, but it’s through those errors that I’ve learned to claim my difficulties.

Here are a few pictures of me pretending to know what I’m doing.

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“Won’t you be cold?”

Throughout this past summer, I fielded a wide variety of questions: “How does it feel to be a college grad?” “What’s the next big step?” “Oh, you’re moving to Ukraine?” “Will you be safe in Ukraine?” “Aren’t you nervous?” “Won’t you be cold?” “Did you buy a coat?” “Will you be able to contact us?” and my least favorite question is something along the lines of, “Isn’t Eastern Europe just a bunch of concrete buildings?” Now, I’m not saying these questions aren’t worth answering. People have their own perspectives on the world and more often than not, the perspectives of those who have never left the United States are, how can I say this nicely, extremely limited. And I recognize that I’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to travel as much as I have, but there is something ridiculous to me that anyone born after 1989 still sees Eastern Europe as a field of failed Soviet Architecture. Like please open a geography book or google any city in Eastern Europe.

dniproPhoto Description: Me trying to figure out how to sit in a heart
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“Why do Americans put their feet on their desks?” and other questions Ukrainian students have about America

breakJohn Bender from the Breakfast Club (1985)

I’ve been an English teacher for less than two weeks now. In that time I was also able to meet a wide variety of students and other English teachers, all with different approaches to language learning. I’ve also officially started being tutored in Russian and am enrolled in a German class. And although, my daily life in Ukraine is a bit of “I don’t understand why this is happening but am excited,” alongside some “I’m really unprepared for this situation,” I at least now have an answer to the eight cats that guard my apartment door when they ask “Where are you going?”

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Why are there so many Chihuahuas in Ukraine?

When the average American thinks of Ukraine they tend to think of an extremely cold and grey country and when that same American is asked to think of a Chihuahua they tend to think of a yappy dog that thrives in the warmth and sun of Mexico. This contradiction has lead me to my first big question for the people of Ukraine; why are there so many Chihuahuas in Ukraine?

Photo Description: View from my apartment in Dnipro accompanied by a pen drawing
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