The Analysis of Bilingualism in Ukraine
IndraStra Open Journal Systems
IndraStra Global

The Analysis of Bilingualism in Ukraine

By Shuijing Lin 
College of Foreign Languages, Nankai University, Tianjin, China

Image by Slava Maslov from Pixabay

Image by Slava Maslov from Pixabay

On the outside, both Russian and Ukrainian sound very similar. It’s not a new notion, countries with similar languages in proximity, influencing each other. Both languages are the most commonly spoken in Ukraine. The 2001 census showed that nearly 70 percent of the residents (in Ukraine) think Russian is not their mother language. But, based on research which was conducted in 2008 by Gallup Institute, 83 percent of the participants finished the research in Russian. And thus, the majority of the people who regard Ukrainian as their native tongue could speak fluent Russian as well. They choose Ukrainian over Russian because of their ethnic identity. Even without being recognized as the official language by the state, Russian was considered to be the “official language” in the southern and eastern part of Ukraine from 2012 to 2018. Furthermore, the study of Russian and its culture are secured and promoted by organizations below: Russian Language and Literature Teachers Association in Ukraine, International Russian Language and Literature Teachers Association, Russian Academy in Ukraine, Russian Culture Foundation in Ukraine, The Cultural Creativity Alliance of Russian Journalist and litterateur, etc. Therefore, Ukraine could be easily regarded as a bilingual country.

The Cause of Bilingualism in Ukraine

The Loss of Independent Statehood

Both originated from the Indo-European family, specifically, the Eastern Slavic stem. Ukrainian and Russian were initially formed along with other dialects in the 14th century owing to the separation of Eastern Slavic tribes and other states from the 9th century to the 13th century. In 1720, a law enacted by Peter I required that all published literature should be written in Russian. Since then, Ukraine had not been promoted under the rule of the tsarist government until the rise of the Soviet Union. Even before coming into power, Bolsheviks put forward new policies aiming at equal rights for all ethnic minorities. But by the early 1930s, the Leninist national policy gave way to Stalinism, and thus again Ukrainian was stripped off its dominant role by Russian. Therefore, Ukrainian failed to become the official language of the country with the loss of independent statehood.


Owning to the rule of the Tsarist government, Ukrainian has been regarded as one of the folk languages spoke only among peasants by the beginning of the 19th century. All students in Ukraine were taught in Russian. According to the Public Opinion Foundation (2002), in the regional centers of Ukraine, 75 percent of the population prefer to speak Russian (only 9 percent in favor of Ukrainian), while in rural areas, the majority of the population (65 percent) speak Ukrainian and only 18 percent speaks Russian. Ukraine started its modernization after abolishing the system of slavery followed by the rapid process of urbanization started in the 19th century. In 1930, Soviet Union was forced into industrialization and collectivization after the establishment of urbanization policies. 

The use of the Ukrainian language as the language of administration encountered major obstacles in the early 1920s as party membership in Ukraine in 1924 was: 45% Russian, 33% Ukrainian, and 14% Jewish. The second secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee, Dmitri Lebed, promoted the Russian language and culture as the attributes of the city and falsely promoted the Ukrainian language as attributes of the countryside. Lebed argued that the Communists had to be on the side of the proletariat, not of the petty-bourgeois and peasantry. Lebed was forced to abandon his public propaganda before the 12th Party Congress but his views had spread in the party leadership. By the end of 1940, there were up to 255 cities and towns in Ukraine where a growing population started communicating in Russian. 

Shift in Education

In 1804, Ukraine established its first Russian college―Haerkof State University, then Saint Vladimir State University in Kyiv, and Novorossiysk State University in Odesa. Besides that, the government replaced Ukrainian with Russian in the education system. Although Ukrainization was once prevalent in the 1920s, it went cold by the time when Stalin held power in the 1930s. After Stalin's consolidation of power and he no longer needed to rely on bolstering his position by making cultural concessions to Ukraine, his attitudes towards Ukrainization became more negative and the GPU was ordered to prepare the first major trial of members of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, the so-called members of the "Change of the Landmarks" movement.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Ukrainian was no longer a compulsory course and could be excluded under the written consent of a parent. However, the Ukrainian government has been reconstructing the education system in Ukrainian since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, especially in the central, eastern, and southern parts of Ukraine. Currently, around 92 percent of students before college are taught in Ukrainian due to the shift of education. Therefore, the people taught before and after the shift of education use Russian and Ukrainian as their mother tongues respectively.

Repression against the Ukrainian Intelligentsia

Back in the 19th century, the Tsarist government called for Russian literature and did not prohibit Ukrainian literature on the premise that they were nothing close to Ukraine’s independence. However, all poets and essayist that wrote in Ukrainian were harshly criticized. In the early 1930s, Leninist national politics was replaced by Stalinist, and Ukrainization was quickly replaced by further Russification. Consequently, most representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who were active in the Ukrainization of the 1920s were repressed in the 1930s on account of “bourgeois nationalism” or “nationalist deviation”. In the same period, many Ukrainian writers and poets were repressed, which dealt a great blow to Ukrainian literature and thus paved the way for further Russification of literature in Ukraine. Later on, many books written in Ukrainian were banned and withdrawn from libraries, including The Illustrated History of Ukraine, Ukrainian copies of plays, and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Until recently, Ukrainian literature was brought back into the public eye.

Migration from Russian to Ukraine

Except for the policy of Russification, the further dissemination of the Russian language in Ukraine is associated with the mass migration from Russia to Ukraine. According to the census in 1989, about 20 percent of the families in Ukraine were built on mixed marriages, mainly Ukrainian-Russian. Furthermore, a survey for Russian conducted in August 1991 showed that 73 percent of the respondents in eastern Ukraine and 62 percent of the respondents living in central and southern regions of Ukraine had close relatives with Ukrainian nationality.


In short, the bilingual phenomenon in Ukraine results from many ways including the loss of independent statehood, urbanization, the shift of education, repression against the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and migration. In order to build an independent and democratic Ukraine, it is essential to establish the position of Ukrainian in ways that achieve high national self-conscience. The findings of this study call for further research on the process of Ukrainization conducted in Ukraine now on account of the effort it took in the past centuries.

IndraStra Global is now available on
Apple NewsGoogle News, Flipboard, Feedburner, and Telegram

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of IndraStra Global.

COPYRIGHT: This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REPUBLISH: Republish our articles online or in print for free if you follow these guidelines.