French IR expert and cybersecurity consultant Quentin Jalabert brings us perspectives from young Ukrainians in Kyiv on their current lived reality, their engagement in the context of the Russian invasion and their views on the future. This piece is the second part in a series of three articles.
Anastasia, 22 years old, grew up in Turkmenistan, where she went to a Russian speaking school. While her father spoke Ukrainian with her, she felt more comfortable answering in Russian, as she was afraid of making mistakes and more generally of not speaking the language as well as she would have liked.
She first moved to Ukraine at the age of 12, two months before the revolution of dignity or Euromaidan, which saw Ukrainians revolt against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to strengthen ties with Moscow at the expense of closer ties with the EU, and more generally mobilising for democracy and for an end to Russia’s meddling in Ukrainian domestic affairs. In the process of ousting the decried leader, over a hundred people lost their lives.
Anastasia recalls the contrast between Turkmenistan, where she felt people had had their “wings cut”, to revolutionary Ukraine, where people were sacrificing their lives for their freedom. For Anastasia, to be Ukrainian has since been associated with what she describes as “an insane drive for freedom”. In response to the revolution, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and orchestrated the rise of separatists movements, leading to the occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts by the Russian military. Back then, her brother volunteered to join the fight against Russian aggression; he has been fighting till this day.
The Language Shift
Anastasia reflected on the fact that her proficiency in Russian is a consequence of centuries of russification and Russia’s ongoing colonial project. While Russian was the language she grew up with, Jenia, a 24 years old actress and dancer who grew up in a Russian speaking family, now felt uneasy with this linguistic heritage, stating that “russification was a choice in which we had no say”.
Sofiia S., a 19 years old student, grew up speaking Ukrainian at home. She remembers associating the language with the intimacy of family, while Russian was the language of movies and literature. The linkage of the Russian language to higher spheres of culture – while Ukrainian was often seen as a “folk language” – had concrete repercussions on everyday life. Sofiia S., for instance, recalls how, as a child, she would switch from Ukrainian to speaking Russian when playing with dolls with her friends.
Katya (23 years old), who also grew up speaking Ukrainian, recalls the pressure she felt to speak Russian. In school it was perceived as more fashionable, an impression reinforced by a classmate who told her “you’ve become a lot cooler since you learned Russian”. After completing high school and enrolling at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, she found a safe place and began reverting to speaking Ukrainian.
On my way back from Ukraine, while waiting at a bus stop in Odesa, I spoke with a retired sailor who replied “me too” when I timidly mentioned I was learning Ukrainian. For him, as for many Ukrainians, speaking the language of those “who came to murder you” became unbearable. However, Sofiia S. notes that there is tolerance and even understanding within Ukraine for those who haven’t transitioned to speaking Ukrainian. Like many, she nevertheless rejects the notion of Ukraine having two official languages and hopes that the next generations of Ukrainian children will grow up speaking Ukrainian.
As Jenia expressed, the rejection of Russia’s cultural products is not rooted in a belief that one culture is superior or more deserving of attention – a way of thinking she associates with Russia. Instead, it is about the restoration of Ukrainian culture and language to the prominence it has lost due to centuries of Russian/Soviet colonialism.
She reflected on how Ukrainians writers often wrote about the struggles against Russians, while Russian literature appeared to her as almost entirely articulated around the idea of its own greatness and superiority. The Ukrainian language has long been presented as a dialect of the Russian language, yet as Sofiia K., a 20 years old student in philology and linguistics explained, the Ukrainian language is not only a language on its own, but is closer to Polish or Slovak than to Russian.
Both Jenia and Katya noted that since 2014, media has increasingly been produced in Ukrainian, a trend that accelerated after 2022. The conscious rediscovery of Ukrainian culture, roots, tradition, and language is essentially seen as a means of empowerment and resistance to an aggressor who is seeking to destroy the very idea of a Ukrainian nation.
In Anastasia’s view, knowing your country’s history helps you be grounded in reality. Reflecting on how such knowledge can lead individuals to be empowered and provide them with the ability to act upon their life, she mentioned how her Palestinian friends inspired her to find strength and motivation to resist by embracing and promoting her culture. By reappropriating their own history, young Ukrainians are becoming actors of the fast-changing Ukrainian society. The omnipotence of Russian culture, and the derived myth of its superiority over native Ukrainian culture, having come to an end with the war.
The rediscovery of Ukrainian culture was accompanied by the inescapable history of Russian attempts at suppressing it, often cementing the idea that “art is political” as Jenia expressed. In turn, this acknowledgement only strengthened the rejection of Russian cultural products, the diffusion of which came at the expense of Ukrainian ones, a tale far too common within and without Russia’s past and present imperial borders.
All those I spoke to hoped that after the war Ukraine would become a Ukrainian speaking nation. As Jenia expressed it, physical borders are not enough in ensuring the country’s safety – Ukraine now not only needs to reconquer occupied territories, but must also establish a linguistic border, as Russian authorities have long used the presence of Russian speakers in the country to deny its very existence.
Bogdan (22 years old), who now studies to become an army officer, grew up in a Russian-speaking family and began using Ukrainian as early as 2015 in professional settings. While he still speaks Russian with a few selected friends, he is now committed to switching entirely to Ukrainian, helped in that endeavour by his girlfriend who grew up in a predominantly Ukrainian speaking family.
The Rise of Ukrainian Identity
Beyond the language question, it is the question of Ukrainian identity and its historical underpinnings that is at stake. For Bogdan, up until 2014 and the revolution of dignity, Ukraine was still a Soviet republic in mentality. It was the war that propelled the Ukrainian society into a new phase of history, as the survival of the country became linked to the idea of enshrining democracy and freedom. In this sense, the war not only unleashed hellish destruction upon the country, but also created a window of opportunity for deep structural change.
Katya, who works with a leading anti-corruption NGO, also reflected upon how, now more than ever, emphasis should be put on getting rid of the permissive culture of soft corruption inherited from the Soviet Union. Now is the time to create the Ukraine so many have been and are dying for. This idea was present in the answers of all interviewees, and links back to a strong feeling of agency that Katya described as originating from the revolution of dignity, best embodied in the slogan “we are all drops in an ocean of change”.
“Do you have McDonalds and the internet in Ukraine?”, “aren’t you and the Russians the same people?”, “this war is just about politics, it’s an issue between Putin and Zelensky”, “you should stop fighting, you cannot win against Russia” – these are a few phrases Sofiia S. was told during her stay in Spain, summarising the disconnection of some with the reality of Ukraine. Sofiia K. also recalled that for many Canadians, Ukraine existed only as a place filled with people eating borscht and wearing vyshyvanka – the traditional embroidered shirt.
But in the sea of stereotypes they often faced, most painful was the association with Russia. For Sofiia K. it was important to educate her foreign counterparts on the fact that while the current Ukrainian state was only 30 years old, the history of Ukrainian statehood and people dates back centuries.
“Look at the writings of Taras Shevchenko,” she told me, referring to the freed Ukrainian serf who became a monument of Ukrainian literature, and an embodiment of the country’s dedication to freedom. It is no wonder that stories of Shevchenko and other historical figures suppressed and often murdered by the Russians and Soviets still speak to today’s young Ukrainians.
Jenia reflected that “on paper we were never free, but we always were in our hearts. That’s why we fight and why we will continue fighting as long as necessary.” She added that “to be Ukrainian is to be ready to fight for yourself at every moment. It’s to be free, independent, and always ready for whatever will happen next.”
This reality, as described by Jenia, also appeared through one of Anastasia’s anecdotes. When the full-scale invasion began, she tried for days to reach one of her friends living in Kyiv, without success. Then, she received a photo of him, smiling in military uniform in the back of a pickup, heading toward the front.
While everyone in Ukraine knows people fighting against the Russian invaders, Anastasia choosed to share this specific story for a reason. The man in the picture was, and still is, one of the most pacifist and anti-war people she had met. She highlighted this example to underline a very important lesson she learned through all of this: Russia’s full scale invasion created a “reality break”, in which fighting became the most effective way to prevent and eventually end violence. In this context, she approached being neutral or apolitical – arguments often used by foreigners to refuse condemning the invasion – as a luxury derived from having the possibility to look the other way and not get involved.
When someone comes with the intention of killing and destroying everything you hold dear, the fight is not about “politics,” as Sofiia S. was told in Spain, but about survival. If Russians stop fighting tomorrow, no one will go after them, their family and their culture, things will go back to normal. On the other hand, if Ukrainians lower their weapons, it will only bring more destruction, as Russian authorities and media pundits have long stated their genocidal intentions – illustrated by the crimes committed by Russian troops against civilian populations.
While Russia and Ukraine were never the same, the latest escalation of Russia’s century old push to control and subvert its western neighbour seems to have created the biggest rift to date between the two societies. Like many Ukrainians, Jenia still has family living in Russia, supporting the war and the “liberation” of Ukraine as Russian media likes to present it, while actual Ukrainians only wish to be freed from Russia. To Jenia, her cousins in Russia are no longer part of her family and while she can’t deny the links that they share, she doesn’t believe she will ever talk to them again.
A situation far too common, that I observed with many friends who took refuge in France following the full-scale invasion. The scale at which the Russian troops have committed and are still committing unspeakable crimes in Ukraine, with the tacit if not outspoken support of many in the Russian society, has led a lot of Ukrainians to sever all ties with family members living in Russia.
Katya, Bogdan, Sofiia K., Anastasia, Sofiia S. and Jenia: all of them are drops in an ocean of change. While Ukraine is at a crossroads, in the words of Bogdan, the tides have risen against the foundation of the so-called “Russian World,” which to many in Ukraine and beyond is synonymous with despair and colonial subjugation.
As Anastasia rightly said, the stakes of the current war reach far beyond Ukraine and could have tremendous consequences for every person still living under Russian rule or suffering from its influence and imperialism.
Cover image: Ukrainian national dance performed by girls at the Ukrainian school in Ustilug. Circa December 1917. Austrian National Library. Creative Commons.