Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainian Scores a Quiet Victory

APMoklyak teaching children how to count in Ukrainian. Ukrainians joke that if a traffic cop pulls them over, they will curse in Russian, then switch to Ukrainian.
KIEV — The fidgeting, wide-eyed girls and boys squeezed around a table in Elizaveta Moklyak's kindergarten class are helping lead a cultural and political revolution.

With her pointer and colorful posters, Moklyak teaches Ukrainian to Russian-speaking children — ensuring that by the end of the school year, the language of their homeland no longer sounds like a foreign tongue.

Today Ukrainian has emerged from second-class status, slipping quietly into the chambers of government and popular culture. This is more than a cultural change: It could doom any hopes Russia may have of restoring its traditional political influence over the country.

Just two years ago, some Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine talked of secession, fearing dominance by Ukrainian speakers in the west. The language debate was one of the most divisive of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which helped oust Ukraine's pro-Moscow leadership.

While competition for political power continues, Ukrainian may already have triumphed in the language war.

"I think there is the sense that Ukraine has passed over the hump on this issue, that there has been a big, but quiet, victory," said Ivan Lozowy, a political analyst.

President Vladimir Putin appears deeply worried about the erosion of the use of Russian worldwide, and last week called for creation of a national Russian Language Institute.

"Looking after the Russian language and expanding the influence of Russian culture are crucial social and political issues," Putin said in his state-of-the-nation address.

In countries like Ukraine, that influence is shrinking. The nation's Ukrainian-speaking west yearns to be part of Europe; the Russian-speaking east and south is the base of politicians who want to maintain Ukraine's historic ties to Moscow. Pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has said he would oppose aggressive "Ukrainianization." But even Yanukovych has brushed up on his Ukrainian and now uses it — not only at official meetings, but at rallies of his Russian-speaking supporters.

Some Russian speakers feel besieged. Mykola Levchenko, 27, secretary of the Donetsk city council, said Russian speakers like himself suffer daily insults, and some Ukrainians even question his patriotism. When he buys a Ukrainian-made home appliance, he says, the directions come only in Ukrainian.

"In world society, Russian is a major language, Ukrainian isn't," he said. "Why would we give this up?"

After Ukraine became independent, it declared Ukrainian the sole state language and switched over more than 80 percent of its schools. Nearly all universities now teach in Ukrainian; as a result, parents push children to study Ukrainian early.

"Without this it would be difficult for him in life," said Yulia Bondarenko, who speaks Russian at home to her 7-year-old son, Zhenya, but sends him to a Ukrainian-language school.

Ukrainian and Russian both use the Cyrillic alphabet and have the same linguistic roots, and it's not uncommon to hear people slip seamlessly from one to the other. Many words are similar — the Russian word for apple is "yabloko," Ukrainian is "yabluko" — but differences also are common.

For example, thank you in Russian is "spasibo;" in Ukrainian, it's "dyakuyu." And even simple words can be different: in Russian, yes is "da" and no is "nyet;" in Ukrainian, yes is "tak" and no is "ni."

Ukrainians in Kiev joke that if a traffic cop pulls them over, they'll curse in Russian, then switch to Ukrainian — which conveys an air of authority — to try to persuade the officer from writing a ticket.

"We have nothing against Russian, we all use it," said Yuliya Vladina, a 22-year-old DJ. "But we have a language — Ukrainian — so why shouldn't we promote that? It's progressive. It's hip."

Ukrainian's identification with pop culture appears to have been a key factor in its success, particularly among young people. Many popular bands sing in Ukrainian. Ivan Malkovych, director of a Ukrainian-language publishing house, rushed out a Ukrainian translation of the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, beating Russian-language publishers. That success, he said, helped attract young readers to other Ukrainian-language titles.

Russian does maintain its dominance in some fields. Most national newspapers publish only in Russian, as do many magazines.

But every year, the demand for Ukrainian publications increases — propelled by readers who began learning the language in kindergarten classes like those taught by Moklyak.