March 29, 2024

Why Ukrainians speak Russian

Sofiya Tkachenko in Vienna, Austria

Article link copied.

slide image

November 30, 2023. President Zelenskyy visited metro school in Kharkiv and talked to pupils. According to the 2020 law until the fifth year of education all lessons can be completely taught in the minority language without mandatory teaching of subjects in Ukrainian.

As a Ukrainian who sought refuge in Europe after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, one of the questions I get asked frequently is “Why do Ukrainians speak Russian?”

Unfortunately, many Ukrainians do not speak Ukrainian fluently and use Russian in their everyday life. This sparks a lot of controversy, as many Ukrainians prefer to not have any contact with people from Russia.

While the answer may seem simple, a long and complicated history lies behind it. It is not a preference.

I was lucky enough to learn both Ukrainian and Russian and speak them fluently, but many still find it quite hard to make the transition. Many people in the eastern parts of Ukraine never had Ukrainian on the curriculum at school or had any opportunity to learn it, which limited them to only one language.

Also, little or no media was available in Ukrainian, and it tended to be bad quality compared with Russian media, which had much more time and opportunity to develop and spread. Because Russian was the dominant language throughout Ukraine, most TV shows and channels were fully or at least mostly in Russian.

Even the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was a comedian in the past, spent most of his career performing in Russian. This can be seen in earlier episodes of Servant of the People, the famous TV show that sparked his career.

A Ukrainian publication, Chytomo, provides a full guide to the history of the suppression of the Ukrainian language.

The story starts four centuries ago, in 1627, when the Moscow Patriarch Filaret with the support of Tsar Michael issued an order to seize and burn all existing copies of the Didactic Gospels by Kyrylo Starovetsky, because of alleged heresy.

After that, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, the oldest monastic complex of the historic state of Rus’, was forbidden from printing any books without the permission of the Moscow Patriarch, which of course led to a large wave of censorship.

In 1693, a law was passed that prohibited the import of Ukrainian publications into the Moscow state, alongside censorship that controlled Ukrainian book publishers.

In the 18th century, the repression of Ukrainian literature and language increased further, with a decree from Peter I (Peter the Great) banning the printing of new books in Ukrainian. All books in Ukraine were made to be identical to Moscovian books, removing all traces of dialect and Ukrainian.

Then in 1721, more censorship was introduced, with the explanation that it was done “for the sake of correction and harmony with Russian ones.”

To end Russia’s influence over Ukraine, we must learn from the past

Increasing censorship further in 1824 was Alexander Shishkov, the Minister of Public Education of the Russian Empire, who stated that “the public education throughout the empire, despite the diversity of faiths and languages, must be purely Russian.”

The educational system in the eastern part of Ukrainian territory was reformed to fit Russian standards, thus all lessons were now taught purely in Russian.

Conveniently enough, the Censorship of the Russian Academy of Sciences seemed to have “lost” each and every copy of the Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language written by Pavlo Biletskyi-Nosenko, as well as his book on grammar.

The 20th century was probably the most harsh and repressive period for the Ukrainian language, starting with the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church withdrawing all copies of the legendary book Kobzar, by the famous Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, from all libraries, educational institutions and bookstores.

In 1914, the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, banned all Ukrainian media within the Ukrainian territories. All publishing houses were closed and a heavy ban on Ukrainian print was once again enforced nationwide, under the punishment of exile.

The only media available was either Russian or Polish. In 1925, the underground Ukrainian university in Lviv was closed down.

Then in the aftermath of the Holodomor (a man-made famine in 1932–33) in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death – many Russians were relocated and deported to the territories of extinction, which merged and changed the cultural background of many cities.

Olena Syruk, a journalist from Chytomo, explains the dominance of the Russian language in the country: “In 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted the Law on the Languages of the Peoples of the USSR, which granted Russian the status of the official language. About 99% of films in Ukraine were shown in Russian, in video salons – 100%; 70-80% of fiction on the shelves of bookstores was in Russian; 90% of classes in universities, technical schools and vocational schools were held in Russian; 90% of scientific literature was published in Russian.”

It is undeniable that the Ukrainian language and literature have been suppressed for hundreds of years. This huge and heavy history has been weighing on the heads of many generations of Ukrainians.

Many did not even have a chance to learn the language; because of how badly it was repressed, it was considered ‘the language of the countryside’ while Russian was considered the more proficient language.

All of these events left many regions of the country mainly Russian-speaking, especially those in the east, such as Odesa, Kherson, Lugansk, Donetsk and others.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians switched to Ukrainian as a sign of defiance and difference from the country bringing such terror to our territories.

That’s why, when I’m asked why my aunt speaks Russian or why so many other Ukrainian refugees do, I am not sure what to answer, as the answer lies beneath all these complex layers of oppression from our neighbouring country.

Written by:


Sofiya Tkachenko

former Editor-in-chief

Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

Born in 2006, Sofiya is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, but now, because of the war, she has relocated to Vienna, Austria. She is interested in writing about culture and politics, especially the current situation in Ukraine and the world as a whole, but is planning on studying Biology in Vienna next year. 

Sofiya joined Harbingers’ Magazine as a contributor in the spring of 2022. A few months later, she took on the role of the social media and the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter editor. After half a year, her devotion and hard work promoted her to the position of editor-in-chief of the magazine – in September 2023, she took the helm from Sofia Radysh, who stepped down having completed her one-year term.

In her spare time, Sofiya organises charity poetry events and is working on multiple projects regarding the promotion of Ukrainian culture in Europe.

She speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian, and a bit of German.


Edited by:


Jefferson He


London, United Kingdom


Create an account to continue reading

A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.