Disrupting the Diglossia: The Revival of Ukrainian

Language is intrinsically political and was already a battleground long before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago. When Ukraine’s leaders sought to expand the Ukrainian language’s official status in 2004, pro-Kremlin actors accused Kyiv of orchestrating an “ethnocide” against Russian speakers [1]. Following heightened tensions, after Russia’s illegal capture of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin promised to investigate the “genocide of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine” [2].

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians have been progressively switching from speaking Russian to speaking Ukrainian. Up until the beginning of the Russian invasion, this had been a gradual shift. However, as the war marks its grim second anniversary, a recent study found that Ukrainian language use on social media has accelerated in the past two years, and demonstrated a trend of Russian-speakers switching to Ukrainian [3].

So what does this mean for Ukraine going forward? This blog takes a look at the historical status of the Ukrainian language, and past Russian attitudes to the language and the people of ‘Little Russia’. It suggests that, in light of this new study, the credibility of the Kremlin’s recurrent claim to be ‘protecting’ Russian speakers—as a pretext for dominating its neighbours—will only crumble faster.

A History of Diglossia

The Ukrainian language, whose origins can be traced to the pre-medieval state of Kievan Rus, has persisted despite persecution and prohibition. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, sought to Russify Ukraine. This involved forbidding the use of Ukrainian in all official contexts, both spoken and written. In 1863, the Russian Empire’s Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Valuev, decreed that “a separate Ukrainian language … has never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist” [4]. A remark attributed to Tsar Nicholas II read: “There is no Ukrainian language, just illiterate peasants speaking Little Russian.” Both of these quotes have observable parallels with the ideology of Russia’s modern leadership: Vladimir Putin has been frequently quoted denying the legitimacy of Ukraine’s statehood [5].

During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian and Russian languages were deliberately allocated different social functions, a phenomenon termed ‘diglossia’ [6]. Much like the relationship between French and English under Norman rule, Russian became the ‘high’ language: a prestigious variant associated with power and social status. It was the language of education, media, and governance; requisite for social opportunity. Ukrainian, conversely, was perceived as a ‘low’ language: provincial and absent of prestige.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian lost its preeminent status and Ukrainian became the official language. Despite this gradual shift away from Russian, a complex relationship has persisted. Most Ukrainians speak Ukrainian and Russian, with the latter remaining the largest minority language. For some Ukrainians, ‘surzhyk’ is their mother tongue: a hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian that is frequently referred to disparagingly in popular discourse [7].

A Rapidly Shifting Landscape

A study, published in 2024, examining language choice and tweeting activity amongst Ukrainian citizens, highlighted a drastic shift away from Russian [8]. Conducted between January 2020 to October 2022, its analysis was based on 4,453,341 geo-tagged tweets from 62,712 users before and during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It found that a gradual shift from the Russian language towards Ukrainian was already occurring before the war, but it radically increased following the outbreak of hostilities. The authors attributed these shifts primarily to “users’ behavioural changes”. Their analysis revealed that over 50% of Russian-tweeting users switched towards Ukrainian following the Russian invasion. The authors concluded that this was a conscious decision by users to enhance their self-identification as Ukrainian.

Laada Bilaniuk, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, has previously described the choice of many Ukrainians to switch entirely from Russian to Ukrainian in all linguistic contexts—official and informal—as nation-building and the conscious pursuit of a national identity distinct from Russia. She observed that “Linguistic conversion is an assertion of agency through active construction of one’s personal identity, which has the potential to shift the overall linguistic landscape and narratives of belonging in the country” [9].

Until the beginning of the invasion, Kyiv was a primarily Russian-speaking city. Following Putin’s invasion, however, a survey in January 2023 revealed that 33% of Kyivans had adopted the Ukrainian language whilst 13% remained Russian speaking [10].

What Does This Mean for Ukraine and Russia?

So what are the consequences of this continued shift away from the Russian language? As the war persists, more and more Ukrainians are likely to abandon speaking and writing Russian in all contexts. Both at an individual level and national level, this self-definition will continue to reinforce Ukraine as culturally distinct from Russia. As part of any post-war recovery, it will likely serve as a critical tool to build a unifying narrative and cohesive national identity.

A potential outcome of the war could be an expedited reversal of the historical diglossia, wherein Russian becomes maligned as a low-status language throughout Ukraine. This outcome would have severe ramifications for Russian foreign policy: the continued abandonment of Russian will diminish both their influence and subthreshold capabilities in Ukraine. By claiming that all Russian speakers belong to a “Russian world” and are entitled to the Kremlin’s protection, Putin has relied on language as a cultural racket and pretext for interference in former Soviet states. In doing so, he has echoed the nineteenth-century attitudes of Valuev and Tsar Nicholas II by rejecting the idea of a Ukrainian state. If the scales tip sufficiently that Russian can no longer be expected to be spoken regularly in Ukraine, then the Kremlin may struggle to leverage historical ties to recruit pro-Russian sympathy within its neighbour.

Language has historically been critical to nation-building and national identity. Like Ukrainian, the Polish language has coordinated the national ambitions of Poles, despite being without an independent state for much of their history. Indonesian was chosen as a neutral language to unite the diverse peoples of thousands of islands with no history of nationhood prior to Dutch colonial rule. Hebrew was rapidly expanded to transform a language of antiquity into one of a functioning nation-state, newly-born. As the war with Russia progresses, language will continue to feature prominently in the battle for a distinguished Ukrainian state.