Claire King


The Fallacy of a Ukrainian Language Divide and more…

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 by Claire - 25 Comments

As someone with a strong attachment to Ukraine and its people, I have been aching for weeks to speak out. I am not Ukrainian, but I know a lot of Ukrainians, and – in the mass of media opinion and some very half-hearted reporting – I wanted their voices to be heard. A writing blog didn’t seem like the ideal place, but the papers already have a lot of column inches filled by others, so I’ve decided to talk about it here. I trust you’ll understand this diversion from the usual topics.

About me and Ukraine

Twenty years ago I worked for a big consumer goods company. I went out to the newly independent Ukraine to recruit and train a national salesforce. People thought it was a little crazy at the time, but I received the warmest welcome you can imagine. Here we are in 1997, that’s me in the middle.


I’m not even sure, before I got the assignment, that I could have placed Ukraine on the map. Geography had never been my strong point. In the 1980s what we needed to know was that the sharp edge of the Cold War ran through Germany. In 1990 I visited Poland which by then had become a kind of buffer zone between Europe and the Soviet Union. Now of course it’s all different. Ukraine is now what stands between Europe and Russia. The word Ukraine  – Україна in Ukrainian – means the Borderlands, as appropriate now as it ever was.  

So, back in 1996 I recruited a team from around Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv to the West, Odessa and Crimea to the South, Kharviv and Donetsk to the East and for the next two or three years my days were largely spent travelling to their cities and regions, to understand the market there and to train them on the job. These were young professionals who had been born into the Soviet Union, and as young adults found themselves citizens of a free Ukraine. Only five years after independence there was no doubt that they considered themselves Ukrainian. In the light of the ongoing crisis, I asked them what they really want now.

 Let’s talk about language first.

I’m a writer. Language is important to me and I’m particularly sensitive to how it is used. I’m also an expat, currently in France, and I’m aware on a daily basis how foreign languages can include or place barriers between people. There has been a lot of talk in the media about a “language divide” in Ukraine. Ukrainian speakers versus the Russian speakers. Can we stop that right now?

When I moved to Ukraine I learned Russian, not Ukrainian. Why? Because the majority of people (the notable exception being the far western region) in Ukraine in 1996 spoke Russian. Russian was the language on all the road signs, shop fronts and packaging. It was the language that everybody understood, whether they wanted it or not. Why? Since the 17th century the use of the Ukrainian language has been regularly proscribed or limited by the policies of those in power. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, click on the link if you want a flavour of that.

It had already begun to change while I was there, and over the last two decades use of Ukrainian has spread. Not extensively, as you will have read, to the ‘eastern’ and southern parts of Ukraine, but then imagine how long changing the language of a nation takes? Fortunately the two languages are relatively close, and use similar alphabets. But still, unsurprisingly, some people will never want to make the switch. (In fact, one big mistake that the interim government made earlier this year was to push through a law making Ukrainian the only official language. It was perhaps meant to be symbolic, but it was ill-considered and focusing absolutely on the wrong thing at the wrong time. There was an outcry from Russian speakers, which subsequently formed the basis of much propaganda about their ‘persecution’.) But being able to correlate the uptake of Ukrainian to either side of a physical map does not make it a political map. Language does not divide Ukraine.

What about an ethnic divide?

Have you wondered what the difference is between “Russian speakers” and “Ethnic Russians” and “Pro-Russians”? I’ve seen the terms used often in newspaper reports, and slipped in by Putin as a proxy for the “Russian citizens” he allegedly wishes to protect.

It’s quite simple. For “Russian speakers” read “Ukrainians”. For “Ethnic Russians” read “Ukrainians”: All those with Russian roots that I spoke to do not “fear for their safety” under the new interim government. They are shocked to hear how the reporting in Russia is shaping the perceptions of their relatives in Russia on the situation in Crimea. If they fear at all, it is fear of the advances of Putin on the territory of their country, and uncertainty as to when and how the international community will step up to help.

And for “Pro-Russians”? Take care. Are they ‘pro’ the language, or ‘pro’ the country? If the language, see above. If the country then ask first, are they Ukrainian citizens? Many “Pro-Russians” demonstrating in the East and South of the country are actually “Russian citizens”. Of course others are not, but the waters have been muddied so much it’s hard to judge where the balance lies.

Now there’s a way to divide people with language.

So, do Ukrainians really want to join the EU?

Some do and some don’t. But that’s not what the revolution was about. It’s true that the first protesters we saw on our screens were students protesting about Yanukovych backing out of closer ties with the EU, but that was just the spark in the powder keg. 

So where did the revolution come from?

It’s been coming for a long time. A great deal of hope arose with Ukrainian independence in 1991, even when the harsh reality of economic disparity between Ukraine and her neighbours to the west had become clear. But in the years that followed it has not been growth and a better quality of life that has emerged in Ukraine, but corruption, lawlessness and stagnation. Just like the occupying countries who came before them, those who have won political power in an independent Ukraine have creamed as much money from the people as possible and pocketed it themselves. In the last three years billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget under Yanukovych. Ukrainians were still getting beaten down, just with a different stick.

For a long time, people didn’t speak out and that’s not surprising. For generations Ukrainians have been afraid to open their mouths. Even if the knock on the door in the middle of the night has fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of ways of dealing with people who refuse to fall in line. Crippling pressure can come from any corner: in the form of new ‘tax’ demands, from employers, from the police…anywhere.

But this time last year, small cracks started to appear. The often bitter Ukrainian winter was gripping the country but people were not receiving help from the authorities. A public solidarity rose up where people helped others in the community. They used social media to ask for and offer help. Warm food and clothes, shelter, transport assistance etc. By the way, this is the kind of people that Ukrainians are. When I lived there I never saw one person pass a beggar on the street without giving something. Not one.

Then at the end of 2013, the promised trade agreement with the EU was not signed. Yanukovych seemed to be turning away from Europe and deepening financial links with Russia. It was the students who raised their voices first – peacefully – on the Maidan. Students who saw their only hope of a prosperous future coming from the West, as part of Europe. 

It would probably have burned itself out if left to itself. But the response from Yanukovych was brutal. Students were beaten by the police. And that is when things turned.

Many more people came out to the Maidan, not to protest about the EU but to say that a regime that beats their children, their brothers, their friends, is one they could no longer accept. There was no left or right split in those protests. On the contrary they united diverse and sometimes radically opposed forces in a common aim: to end a regime – now an effective dictatorship – drenched in corruption, where people lived in fear. They came to protest peacefully, but I’m sure you have seen the outcome.

The cost of what happened next has been too high in lives and serious injuries, but there is a newfound pride in their ability to come together and take control of their own country where normal democratic means have failed them. The Maidan has brought the people closer together because they now feel stronger together. They are rising up with dignity in the face of years of corruption and abuse of power.

What do Ukrainians really want?


  • For us to hear their voices, to know that Ukrainians have solidarity and hope.
  • For people, both in Russia and the west, to understand that the propaganda they are hearing is far, far from reality.
  • An end to fear. People are afraid a war is coming. A war they want no part of. Some I spoke to are already prepared to leave their homes with their families at a moments notice.
  • Support from the International Community: A clear message that the interim government of Ukraine is legitimate, and that the occupation of Ukrainian territory and the upcoming referendum on Crimea joining Russia is not. Insistence that Russia to conforms to International laws and removes its troops from their territory. Support for Eastern and Southern Ukraine – the most vulnerable areas to further encroachment. Yesterday’s statement of the G7 leaders is a fine start, but will it be enough?
  • Whatever support can be given at all levels. Whether it’s diplomacy, sanctions, UN peacekeepers, boycotts, even just spreading information and giving moral support. Show that there is power behind the Ukrainian people.

And in the future:

  • Change in their country by legal means. Full and fair re-elections in May.
  • To stay in Ukraine and to speak whichever language they choose. Russian, Ukrainian, or both, free from bribery, injustice and corruption.
  • Help in establishing an effective, democratic government and a stronger economy. Ukraine is weak, but the people are strong and determined to build the country they want.


Let’s stop talking about what divides Ukrainians and talk about what unites them.

The people I spoke to speak Russian, Ukrainian and English. They are of all ethnic backgrounds. They are entrepreneurs, historians, directors, architects, translators, CEOs, engineers and parents. They want a free and modern Ukraine. They are asking for your help.

We need to stand by Ukraine, not just stand by. 


Further Reading:

Please do read Timothy Snyder’s truly excellent articles in the NY Review of Books. Amongst others:

Putin vs. Reality

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda

Fascism, Russia and Ukraine

And look here for a timeline and photographs of what is happening.

What is really happening in Ukraine

On the Maidan now – is this what fascists look like? (This is a blog written in Russian, I have linked to a Google-translated version but to be honest the pictures speak for themselves.)

25 Responses

  1. Chris Jones says:

    Claire, a good honest article, as a friend I thank you, as a fellow expat I thank you.

    Best regards

    The Doctor !!!

  2. Catherine Breheny says:

    Very thoughtful piece, Claire.

    There was an interesting interview on BBC breakfast a few days ago with a Ukranian now living in Britain, who was also saying that the language difference is not such a problem. She talked about a day (I think every year) when a city in the east would speak Ukranian for the day and one in the west, Russian to show their solidarity.

    She was also putting the case that the protestors have been of all ages and backgrounds, a lot of them educated and middle aged and that they were protesting against corruption and not anti-Russian.

    • Claire says:

      It’s great to hear these messages are filtering through to the mainstream. In so much of the reporting I’ve found the messages and language to be at best vague and at worst completely erroneous, I wish people would stop saying this is about Ukraine wanting to join the EU, for example.

  3. Helen says:

    Great work there Claire. And I wish the media would stop referring to it as “The Ukraine”.

  4. Caroline D says:

    Thank you Claire for a wonderfully clear and succinct summary.

  5. Claudia says:

    Great piece, Claire! I’ve recently been having to explain to a lot of people why my Russian was useful when I worked in Kiev and why I don’t know much Ukrainian. I remember many of the Ukrainian diaspora were coming back to the country in the 90s to boost the return of traditional national customs and, of course, the language, that had been discouraged if not completely suppressed during Soviet times.
    I once taught a course in legal English to a group of quite high-level Ukrainian lawyers in which I found myself having to teach them not only the English legal terms but also the Ukrainian ones, as they had never been taught in Ukrainian so were having to learn a whole new vocabulary. They were proud and happy to do so, while still mostly communicating in Russian with their friends and families.
    I was pre-coached in the Ukrainian terms by a Canadian Ukrainian speaker and every lesson was slightly nervous about whether I was getting the pronunciation right!

    • Claire says:

      I remember in one shop in Lviv, where I was supposed to demonstrate a sales call, and the shopkeeper downright refused to speak Russian. It was the one time I ever had a response like that and I’m convinced that was something very personal to that lady, not a political thing. What I remember about speaking and learning Russian in Ukraine was how patient; encouraging and appreciative people were with my efforts.

  6. Jane says:

    Very well written, I am sure the press would pay you for such articles as this is the kind of stuff people want to read.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks Jane. I have put out some feelers with the press, but it can take so long, and with the ‘referendum’ coming up on Sunday I really just wanted to increase awareness as soon as possible. And open up a debate of course, if people want to share alternative points of view.

  7. Jacky Taylor says:

    An excellent post. You lay out all the key details with clarity and passion Claire confirming some of what I’d suspected, along with much that I hadn’t been aware of. They could do with you on the news channels here. Thanks for this.

  8. Rachael Dunlop says:

    Thank you for posting this, Claire. It’s much too easy for the media to attached labels to factions, and also to give the impression that these ‘factions’ are discrete and definable. The truth is always much more complicated. Hearing from someone who knows the country and its people and clearly loves both provides a really important counterbalance to the media sound bites. My son, who is very interested in European history, has been asking me lots of questions about Ukraine that I haven’t been able to answer. I shall direct him here forthwith!

    • Claire says:

      Thank you for your support, Rachael. I honestly do not know one Ukrainian who wants to cede a single part of their territory to Russia. I’m sure there must be some, but my small (but geographically comprehensive!) survey didn’t find any. I’m disturbed to see the BBC already speculating on how the map of Ukraine might be redrawn. I don’t understand why we need that kind of journalism muddying the waters between right and wrong.

  9. Norma says:

    It’s true.
    Thanks for your fair position. All that we, Ukrainians, want is to live in ours country. Without corruption and without war

  10. Marina Sofia says:

    Great job, Claire, of showing the complexity of the situation, rather than reducing it to media-friendly soundbites. Of course, the Baltic states adopted a rather different policy towards Russian ‘nationals’ or citizens after their independence, but then they didn’t have centuries of common history and mixed population, so if Western countries believe it’s the same thing, they are mistaken.
    As a fellow (serial) expat, I am so sensitive to these ‘us vs. them’ positions: they are nearly always over-simplified, reductionist and very dangerous.

    • Claire says:

      Thank you. I have a feeling a lot of mainstream media are trying to reduce it to simple ideas that people can understand, but the result is that people end up understanding nothing. Hard to believe reporters still claiming the basis for all this is pro-EU versus anti-EU sentiment. As you say, us versus them. 🙁

  11. Kieran says:


    Great synopsis! You have massively clarified my understanding of what is going on over there.

  12. Nan says:

    Thanks so much Claire for such a lucid summary of the situation – am much enlightened and rooting for Ukraine.

  13. […] in March you may remember I blogged about events in Ukraine which were becoming increasingly disturbing. Back then Ukrainian people […]

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