As horrified observers around the world scrambled to understand what was happening as Russian troops lunged into Ukraine, one question that kept coming up was “Why are they doing this?” Of course, lust for conquest and paranoia that a bordering state might ally with one’s enemy (i.e., NATO) are nothing new. But foreign observers were shocked that Russia would so brazenly march into a foreign country. However, for those familiar with the historical and ethnic (thus linguistic) realities of the region, the issue is more complex than that.
The claim that linguistic kinship justifies war sounds insane to Anglo-Saxons, but in fact uniting people on the basis of a shared language is at the very core of most European nations’ identities. Energy dependence and wariness of war play the decisive role in Germany’s relatively dovish attitude toward Russia, but it is not for nothing that Germany itself was forged by wars to unite speakers of the same language under one flag. It is impossible to understand the current war without understanding how the histories of Russia and Ukraine are inextricably intertwined.
Russia and Ukraine both trace their origins to the medieval Slavic kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Free from much government interference over centuries of feudal quasi-anarchy, the Slavic languages of the region stretching from the Volga to the Vistula diverged along a natural spectrum.
The area that is now Ukraine was long a border zone contested by Russia and Poland (two poles of the Slavic continuum), and others. Indeed, “Ukraine,” which gained currency as the name for the fertile southwestern plains of the Russian Empire in the 19th Century, may come from a Slavic root meaning “borderland” (traditionally the region was called Little Russia, as opposed to Great Russia, and White Russia, i.e., Belarus. This union of peoples gave rise to the tsar’s full title, Emperor and Autocrat of All Russias).
The 19th Century saw the birth of a Ukrainian standard language, as the tsar’s subjects in the region reified their dialects as one register distinct from official Russian. There were some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary (including some words borrowed from Western languages), but Russian and Ukrainian were still very similar, and unlikely to diverge much due to their intimate ties. A person from Voronezh (in what is now southern Russia) would have had an easier time in Kharkiv (currently Ukraine) than in Moscow.
When the Soviet Union was formed in the 1920s, Russia and Ukraine were established as the two foremost provinces (“republics” in Soviet parlance) of the union. As the USSR collapsed in 1991, all of the republics became independent states, and Ukraine became a definitively separate nation for the first time in history.
Because of the intimate political, economic, and cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia, the languages of the two regions remained quite close through the centuries. Indeed, in the eastern half or so of Ukraine, the native language is considered to be Russian. Farther west, it makes sense to speak of a distinct Ukrainian language. In recent decades, the standard register of Ukrainian has been promoted throughout the country as the national tongue.
Pretty much all Ukrainians, including those from the west, speak (or at least understand) Russian. Untrained Russians struggle with Ukrainian, but can become fluent in a matter of weeks. It is telling that the Ukrainian government recently warned citizens to be wary of Russians pretending to be Ukrainian soldiers, since it can be so hard to tell the difference.
The fact that Ukraine, particularly the east of the country, is naturally part of Russia is at the core of Russia’s justification for wanting to control Ukraine. Since a pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014, Moscow has decried the new government’s efforts (both real and exaggerated) to suppress the Russian language. Vladimir Putin’s proximal casus belli for last week’s invasion was that Ukrainian government forces were waging a genocidal war against pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
Westerners who ignore or downplay this connection do everyone a disservice. Neither side denies it. Putin vaunts Russia and Ukraine’s “shared heritage and continuum.” The native language of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (it is worth noting that the two rivals share the same first name) is Russian. He made his career as a Russian-language film actor, and his movies were even banned in Ukraine as part of a campaign to eliminate Russian cultural influence. Tens of millions of people in both countries have friends or family on the other side of the border. The strongest argument cited by Ukrainians and anti-war Russians is that it is horribly wrong for brothers to be at each other’s throats like this.
As much as a war sparked by language befuddles many foreign observers, pro-Ukrainian terminology has become all the rage in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The capital of the country, traditionally spelled Kiev, is now almost universally Kyiv. Of course, Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and the new spelling was pretty much an arbitrary choice that the foreign ministry tweeted in 2018 to enable people to express solidarity with Ukraine. They probably did not anticipate that that would precipitate British supermarkets wondering whether they should now be selling “chicken kyiv.”
At least writing about “Kyiv” is not outright wrong. In the past week or so, the American media have switched en masse to pronouncing the name of the city “Keev.” Ukrainians do pronounce the city differently to Russians: they stress the first syllable of the word (roughly “KEE-yiv”), whereas Russians stress the second (“kee-YEV”). But I have yet to hear a Ukrainian pronounce the capital’s name with only one syllable and one vowel. In their admirable rush to express solidarity, American pundits and politicians have run off the linguistic deep end.
A more legitimate issue is whether to call the county “Ukraine” or “the Ukraine.” This issue is alien to Ukrainians and Russians, neither of whose languages has articles at all. But in English, adding an article tends to refer to a geographic area, rather than a political unit (e.g., the region of the Congo vs. the country of Congo). Traditionally “the Ukraine” was a region of Russia, but now that it is an independent country, Ukrainians insist that we should drop the article.
This is a particularly hot issue in German. German uses an article for a lot of countries’ names, including die Ukraine, but given current affairs and Germany’s rather lurid history of trying to turn the Ukraine into a region of their own empire, there is some agitation to drop the “the.”
It is worth noting that Belarus is even closer to Russia (linguistically and politically: President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since the Soviet era, is Putin’s #1 fan). The significant majority of Belarusians speak Russian at home, and even for those who prefer Belarusian there is little difficulty in conversation. But in other dozen post-Soviet states, the situation is more straightforward, and perhaps more dangerous.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, millions of Russians were left stranded in other provinces that were now separate states. Russia already supports breakaway states in majority Russian regions of Georgia and Moldova. In 2008, they invaded the former country because the Georgians were trying to join NATO and abusing ethnic Russians (sound familiar?). Around a fifth of the population of Kazakhstan is Russian. Russia actually invaded there earlier this year, but no one in the West noticed because the Kazakhs have tongue-twister names and are not European. A big share of Russia’s foreign interventions of the past twenty years have cited government policies discriminating against the Russian language as a justification.
The plight of the Russian minority is particularly concerning in the Baltic states. Around a third of the populations of Estonia and Latvia, both NATO members, is ethnic Russian. Half of the residents of the Latvian capital Riga speak Russian at home. The peoples of the Baltic states suffered horrendously under Soviet rule, and they are understandably leery of Russians today.
All this sounds ominous to those familiar with the history of the 1930s, when disputes over the rights of ethnic Germans stranded in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Poland plunged the world into the abyss. If the mood in Moscow takes the wrong turn, one viral Russophobic incident could spark World War III. Is Donetsk the new Danzig?
Language is not destiny. A hundred years ago, a large share of German-speaking Alsatians backed France in World War I. Likewise, the Russian-speaking people of Kharkiv are at this moment locked in a brutal battle against the Russian army. In parlays over the weekend, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian leaders all spoke the same native language. We can only pray that they come to an understanding.