Conflicts & War

Ukrainian language, culture gain strength in Kharkiv in response to war

By Rostyslav Averchuk

Kharkiv, Ukraine, Oct 24 (EFE).- A trend known as cultural “decolonization” is gaining momentum in Kharkiv as a reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. More and more citizens are switching to speaking Ukrainian in this area bordering Russia, as attempts are made to spread awareness of a once-vibrant Ukrainian cultural scene that was silenced and crushed by the former Soviet regime.

For many of the inhabitants of the predominantly Russian-speaking northeastern city, the question of whether to speak Russian or Ukrainian used to be of little importance.

But everything changed when it became the target of Russian attacks on Feb. 24, 2022.

The invasion, combined with Moscow’s promises to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, triggered a complete overhaul of this attitude and a closer inspection of the motives that led to the current situation.

“I am 100% percent Ukrainian. But before there was only one school in the whole city where children could study in Ukrainian. No wonder Russian became so dominant here,” 77-year-old Olena tells EFE.

She seamlessly switches between the two languages in conversation, but regrets not being able to speak Ukrainian as well as Russian.

“Overcoming the fear of making mistakes is crucial for my students who want to learn or improve their Ukrainian,” explains Svitlana Isaieva, director of the Goncharenko Center in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian-language conversation clubs are held on a regular basis.

This is the first time the experienced teacher has had students in their sixties or seventies.

Their ability varies, but all of them are eager to be able to master Ukrainian.

“It’s a shame to live in Ukraine and not speak the official language. The invasion made me feel this even more intensely,” a woman in her sixties, also called Olena, says in Russian.

She stresses that the Russian language was always prioritized in Soviet times.

Learning Ukrainian in school was discouraged or considered superfluous, while many Russian workers arrived in the country.

“Acting as an example and maintaining the natural desire to learn Ukrainian is the key,” stresses Isaieva, who notes that the city’s Russian-speaking mayor, Igor Terekhov, had to switch to speaking Ukrainian in public after negative feedback from residents last year.

“His decision reflects the prevailing trend in the city,” she says.

The Russian invasion has led Kharkovites to reflect on their identity, Tetiana Igoshina, deputy director of the Kharkiv Literary Museum, which has launched a series of exhibitions and other initiatives to raise awareness of the vibrant Ukrainian culture that used to exist there, tells EFE.

In focus is the generation of writers known as the “Executed Renaissance,” who emerged in the 1920s in the then-capital of Soviet Ukraine and were executed in the 1930s by the Stalinist regime, while their works were taken out of circulation.

“Who knows what Kharkiv would be like if people had been able to read their works,” Igoshina wonders.

According to her, the physical destruction of Ukrainian culture is one of the reasons why so little is still known about it around the world, and why it is often seen as an appendage of Russian culture.

“What can we tell them about Ukraine if we ourselves are only now discovering what was hidden from us for generations?” she asks.

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