“Son, join the school of officers of the Red Army, and the defence of soviet Ukraine will be ensured!” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

by Katie Harrison

Ukraine’s history has been undeniably tumultuous. The Ukrainian nation as we currently know it has, for centuries, been split territorially, and portioned off to different empires. Broadly speaking, the eastern regions of the country were part of the Russian Empire, and the western regions were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Poland.  These historical divisions have resulted in modern Ukraine being a nation of two almost distinct halves: historically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the fifteen which comprised the Soviet Union. Its borders shifted between the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and its collapse in 1991, with the western Ukrainian territories being annexed from Poland in 1939. As part of this annexation, the Soviet authorities implemented various language policies in an attempt to instil socialist consciousness in the populace and create the socialist union they desired. This had significant consequences on the use of Ukrainian.

The Early Soviet Years: ‘Nationalist in Form, Socialist in Content’

In the early years, as an attempt to unify all nations of the Soviet Union, the government implemented a policy on nationality called korenizatsiia (nativisation) – koren’ being the Russian for ‘root’. This policy gave all non-Russian speaking nationalities the right to use their native language in all aspects of their lives, for example in education or in publications. Stalin had conceived this idea almost ten years beforehand in Marxism and the National Question, in which he argued that all nations should have the right to samoopredelenie [self-determinism] (Stalin, 1913).

It was hoped that transmitting socialist ideology via an individual’s native tongue – rather than compelling them to use Russian – would make it easier to promote Soviet ideology in Ukraine. This policy appeared to have great success in reviving a language which had formerly been repressed by the Russian Empire. Ukrainian was allowed to develop, leading to a rise in the number of Ukrainian publications and theatre productions, as well as a steep increase in the number of children attending Ukrainian schools (Bilaniuk, 2005: 91).

The 1930s: Russification

This resurgence of Ukrainian did not last for very long. Stalin’s government made quite the U-turn at the start of the 1930s, enforcing Russian as the ‘national language’ throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to be instrumental in this, as with nativisation: in The National Question and Leninism, written in 1929, Stalin envisioned the dying out of national languages, which would be replaced by ‘one common language’ (Stalin, 1929).

Ukrainian was forced to become more like Russian: spelling conventions, grammatical forms, and lexicon were altered accordingly. In addition, in 1938 Russian language classes were made compulsory in all schools throughout the Soviet Union in the hope that every young Soviet citizen would possess at least some knowledge of Russian.

Ukrainian School, c.1930-33 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1958-9: A New Schools Policy

This schools policy changed at the end of the 1950s, allowing parents to choose the language of instruction for their children. However, this did not mean that more parents were opting for their children to be instructed in Ukrainian, though this option was available. Due to a combination of high levels of Russian immigration and the comparably high quality of Russian-language education in Soviet Ukraine, Russian schools were the more popular choice for parents. Russian was deemed the language of science and culture, and was ultimately granted higher prestige than Ukrainian.

The Late Soviet Years: Resistance to Russian?

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language continued to be manipulated so as to be more similar to Russian, while Russian maintained its status as the more prestigious of the two languages. Discrimination against Ukrainian-speakers persisted; something which appears to have provoked pro-Ukrainian feelings in those who had previously been apathetic (Bilaniuk, 2005: 9). The emergence of these feelings seemingly acted as a catalyst for the pro-Ukrainian language policies that were implemented even before the fall of the Iron Curtain: the 1989 Law on Languages made Ukrainian the single state language of the Ukrainian SSR.

Announcement in a Lviv school: “We speak Ukrainian here” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, further language laws have sustained attempts to cement Ukrainian’s status as the sole official language of the country. However, despite such efforts, the country remains largely bilingual and linguistically split, with those in the south and east typically using Russian, and those in the west using Ukrainian. This bilingualism appears to be relatively stable and unlikely to change drastically in the near future, as people are able to either switch to the most suitable language in a given situation, or even to conduct conversations in both languages due to their proximity.

Katie Harrison is currently in her first year of a Midlands3Cities DTP-funded PhD on the role of language in the Ukrainian diaspora of the United Kingdom. You can find her on Twitter @karrison27


Bilaniuk, Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine (Ithaca, 2005).

Stalin, Iosif V. 1913. ‘Marxism and the National Question’, [].

Stalin, Iosif V. 1929. ‘The National Question and Leninism’, [].


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