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War impels many in Ukraine to abandon Russian language and culture

A Ukrainian flag hangs in the bombed governor's office in Kharkiv on March 14. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — At the moment the rockets began to slam into the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the early morning hours six weeks ago, Lidiia Kalashnykova was jolted from her sleep and made her decision: from then on, she would speak only Ukrainian.

“As strange as it may sound, it was that very instant, and all that stress served to make me reject the Russian language — completely,” Kalashnykova said.

Like most Ukrainians, Kalashnykova functions equally well in both languages. In her everyday life, though, and with her husband and two small children, ages 5 and 2, she largely spoke Russian. She was raised in a Russian-speaking family and estimated that 90 percent of her relatives speak Russian.

But when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, she said she “realized in a second” that she had “no right to use any language other than Ukrainian” and that “the Ukrainian language is actually my weapon.”

She says she’s okay with those Ukrainians who continue to speak Russian — like her mother. But Kalashnykova says she will speak to her only in Ukrainian.

“I want nothing to do with Russian,” she said.

It’s a sentiment shared by a growing number of Ukrainians. For many, the time has come to separate Ukraine linguistically, and psychologically, from its northern neighbor. The two languages are similar, like Portuguese and Spanish, and conversations often take place in which one person speaks Ukrainian and the other Russian.

But now, debates have erupted on social media on the need to wean the country off Russian, and posts have multiplied of those announcing their switch to speaking only Ukrainian.

The trend goes beyond language. It’s part of a larger rejection of “Russky Mir,” or “Russian World”: President Vladimir Putin’s concept of a shared Russian language and cultural space that he claims is under threat — and the defense of which he has used to justify his invasion.

For Ukrainians, the devastation that Moscow is inflicting on the country, and on the very people Putin claims to be saving, lays bare the lies that underpin the Kremlin’s invasion.

More grisly scenes are emerging from Bucha, Ukraine, where local authorities are beginning to examine hundreds of bodies. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Latest updates from the Ukraine war

It’s a falsehood that President Volodymyr Zelensky — a native Russian speaker from southeastern Ukraine — seems to feel acutely.

Zelensky still uses the Russian language in part of his videos directed at Russians to convince them of the truth about Putin’s war. In a recent video address, Zelensky, speaking in Russian and visibly agitated, said the language is now associated with crimes, deportations, “explosions and killings” in places where Russian “has always been a part of everyday life.”

Moscow, he said, addressing those in Russia, was inadvertently doing everything to “ensure that de-Russification takes place” in Ukraine and that “our people stop speaking Russian themselves.”

“Because the Russian language will be associated with you. Only with you,” he said.

This has been especially stark in the eastern and southern parts of the country, regions with the deepest cultural, economic and family connections to Russia, and where the population predominantly speaks Russian.

It is also where the Kremlin is said to be employing a “scorched earth” military strategy.

Among the cities that have been leveled or hollowed out, and where possibly thousands have died, are Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and a center of Russian-language culture, and Mariupol, where close to 90 percent of the prewar population spoke Russian.

Language has been at the center of Ukraine’s efforts to build a distinct national identity, separate from Russia and far from the country’s Soviet past. Before the war there was a growing movement, especially among the young, to encourage the population to move away from speaking Russian.

The role of Russian language and culture in Ukraine’s future remains to be seen.

About half of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian at home, and 30 percent Russian, with the rest speaking both equally or other languages, like Hungarian. Ukraine’s east and south continue to be overwhelmingly Russian-speaking areas.

But, at the same time, the war has created a highly charged environment. In recent days, officials in the western Ukrainian cities of Ternopil, Uzhhorod and Mukachevo removed statues and busts of the 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

“Having seen all the atrocities of Russia, there is no more room for Russian and Soviet monuments in Ternopil,” Mayor Serhiy Nadal said on his Telegram channel on Saturday, showing a photo of the empty pedestal where a Pushkin statue had been.

“More people over the last month have felt themselves to be intensely Ukrainian,” said Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History, an independent research institute in Lviv.

Dyak said she hopes that the nation’s language politics do not become more toxic as a result of the war and that Russian speakers won’t be pressured, or threatened, to abandon their linguistic tradition.

“Russian language is a part of our heritage,” she said. “Russia does not have a monopoly on Russian language. It’s a matter of respecting individual choice.”

Ukrainians have flipped the meaning of “Russian World” to make it now a term of contempt — a catchall phrase for destruction and violence. In Russian and Ukrainian, they spit the words out with scorn in conversations, or videos panning across the ruins of their cities or houses.

“You should probably not feed the culture that wants to destroy,” said Oi Fusk, a Ukrainian musician originally from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. “I think we need to nurture the culture of freedom and a culture of self-expression.”

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Dmytro Kolesnichenko, a musician, said that just before the war, he completed a mini-album that he was getting ready to promote.

“Now I understand that as it has Russian lyrics, it’s inappropriate for me to release that,” he said. “I don’t want to be a part of that Russian world.”

There’s also a sense of betrayal. Artem Tamarkin, a graphic and animation designer originally from the northeastern city of Sumy, who has also switched to speaking Ukrainian, said he was shocked by the level of support for the war among Russians he previously respected.

“I have always separated politics and people,” Tamarkin said. But when hostilities began, many people he knew and public figures he liked spoke out in favor of the war or “simply kept silent and did not say anything at all.”

“I can't trust them,” he said.

Kalashnykova says the sound of Russian being spoken now enrages her.

“I don’t want to place myself even on the level of language with a criminal state,” she said.

Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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