At the Crossroads: Bilingualism and National Identity in Ukraine

Due to its fertile grounds and strategic position on the map of Europe Ukraine has been the target of the expansionist policies of several states through most of its history. One conspicuous remnant of this past is the dual competency in Ukrainian and Russian of a majority of its citizens. Throughout this history language policy was used as a means of constructing a particular identity desirable to the political entity then in control of Ukraine.

After a war over possession of Ukraine, the Russian Empire and Poland signed the Treaty of Andrusov in 1667, whereby Russia obtained the eastern part of Ukraine and Poland the western part. Western Ukraine was only annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. By that time eastern Ukraine was effectively diglossic with Russian as the prestige dialect of the public sphere and of the nobility. This came as a result of both restrictions in the use of Ukrainian and promotion of Russian (Fournier, 2002). In the Soviet Era there were two distinct phases of language policy. During the 1920s and early 1930s the Communist government in Moscow backed the promotion of the Ukrainian language as a way of reconstructing what was seen as a Ukrainian national identity that had been vanquished by Tsarist colonialism (Shkandrij, 2016). Beginning in the 1930s this changed to a policy of Russification to promote a unified Soviet identity (Shkandrij, 2016).

Since the attainment of independence in 1989 governmental language planning has taken the shape of vigorous promotion of Ukrainian in the public sphere as part of the construction of a cohesive national identity (Hillis, 2015).

Under these varying political and legislative pressures over the centuries the interaction between language and identity in Ukraine has resulted in a complex national bilingualism that is often simplified for the purpose of news storytelling and even for scholarship. The situation is often described in the popular press in terms of west and east, the predominantly Ukrainian speaking western Ukraine and the primarily Russophone eastern Ukraine which had been under Russian control much earlier than western Ukraine. Social scientists interested in questions of identity and (main) language of use in the different regions of the country have tended to assume broad correspondence between the two, often using statistical figures of main language of use as an indicator for ethnic self-identification in a region (Kulyk, 2011). More recent research however has revealed that valuable information is lost through these simplifications.

An example of this would be Olga Ivanova’s quantitative study of bilingualism in Ukraine. She identified variation in language preference within communities where one language predominates, depending on the social context of usage and age of the people surveyed as well as variation in language preference across both eastern and western Ukraine (Ivanova, 2014).

Volodymyr Kulyk’s research in Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism has supported the notion that ‘native language’ and ‘language of use’ (the language predominantly used by a speaker) are treated as separate concepts by people when constructing their identity (Kulyk, 2011). Thus individuals who predominantly use Russian in their daily lives and have a low competence in Ukrainian may still identify the latter as their ‘native language’ because they view themselves as ethnically Ukrainian. Kulyk goes on to show that ‘native language’ is a stronger predictor of a Ukrainian citizen’s political attitudes to language law and government policy on relations with Russia than the primary language they use. People who thought of Ukrainian as their native language were less likely to support policies aimed at promoting the Russian language or foreign policies favourable to Russia even if they mainly used Russian in their daily lives. He attributes this surprising find to the interaction of two Soviet policies concerning language and national identity. While the Communist government in Moscow advocated the use of Russian in all spheres of life from the 1930s onwards it also used the different languages spoken in the Soviet Union to delineate ethnicities. This is an example of how language policy can be used to actively construct identities and delimit (or expand) national borders.

The interplay between language and identity can be seen to have at times turned into a merging of the two concepts. The widely accepted etymology of the name ‘Ukraine’ as coming from the Russian words near (‘u’) and for ‘borderland’ (‘krai’) has become increasingly challenged in recent times. The notion of borderland is relational, implying, as others have similarly remarked, its existence as the demarcation of a central territory, a country. In this case the name has been interpreted as defining Ukraine as the natural boundary of the Russian Empire geographically as well as linguistically (Zaleska, Onyshkevych and Rewakowicz, 2014). Alternative etymologies that have been advanced, perhaps unsurprisingly, include ‘homeland’ and ‘country’. These proposals do not enjoy much support from scholarship, but form part of the contestation of a (subordinate) Russian identity and reaffirmation of a distinct Ukrainian identity through the use of language (Zaleska, Onyshkevych and Rewakowicz, 2014, pp 365).

With the advent of Postmodernism in the arts and humanities we have become more aware of the integral role language plays in constructing our perception of the reality we inhabit. Perhaps we can say that humans have tried to harness this aspect of cognition, like other features of nature, and use it for their own, mostly political aims. Ukraine serves as a potent example of such governmental language planning both historically and to the present day.


Fournier, A. (2002). ‘Mapping Identities: Russian Resistance to linguistic Ukrainisation in central and eastern Ukraine’, Europe-Asia Studies, 54(3), pp 415-433

Hillis, F. (2015). Intimacy and Antipathy: Ukrainian–Russian Relations in Historical Perspective. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 16(1), pp.121-128.

Ivanova, O. (2014) ‘Bilingualism in Ukraine: Defining attitudes to Ukrainian and Russian through geographical and generational variations in language practices’, Sociolinguistic Studies, 7(3), pp. 249–272.

KULYK, V. (2011) ‘Language identity, linguistic diversity and political cleavages: Evidence from Ukraine’, Nations and Nationalism, 17(3), pp. 627–648.

Rewakowicz, M.G. and Larissa M. L. Zaleska Onyshkevych (2014) Contemporary Ukraine on the cultural map of Europe. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Shkandrij, M. (2016). The Ukrainian reading public in the 1920s: real, implied, and ideal. Canadian Slavonic Papers, 58(2), pp.160-183.