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The language as a weapon between Russia and Ukraine

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The Washington Post

By David L. Stern
Yesterday at 12:01 p.m. EST

KYIV, Ukraine — War or no war, Andrii Shymanovskiy believes he wields one of the most powerful weapons against Moscow: the Ukrainian language.

Just over a year ago, the 23-year-old Lviv-based actor and Ukrainian-language instructor began to post TikTok videos explaining the nuances of his mother tongue — once largely secondary to Russian in Ukrainian life, but increasingly a centerpiece of efforts to emphasize a distinct Ukrainian identity and culture.

The videos attract millions of views with their breezy style and comic riffs on Ukrainian life. They also, however, touch one of the core complexities in the struggles with Russia — and within Ukraine itself.

Language is at the nexus of Ukraine’s cultural and political crosscurrents. For some, the Ukrainian language is a source of the country’s character and should dominate public life. Others give greater weight to Ukraine’s multilingual mix of Ukrainian, Russian and other languages as part of the nation’s essence.

Moscow, however, has used the language issue to paint the Kyiv government as ethnocentric “fascists” bent on tyrannizing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. That view is widely rejected in Ukraine, including among many in Russian-speaking areas. Still, a Ukrainian law aimed to increase the use of Ukrainian has given the Kremlin further fodder for its propaganda campaign.

Meanwhile, the amount of Ukrainian heard on the streets of Russian-speaking bastions such as the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv in the east appears to be steadily rising.

“I think that at this time, the only weapon I have is the language itself,” said Shymanovskiy. “I help to preserve at least our identity, the identity of our people.”

Shymanovskiy describes his work as a counterweight to centuries of Russian domination in Ukraine, during which the Ukrainian language was suppressed or pushed to the margins.



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