In Ukraine, many citizens have Russian as their first language. In Kyiv, voluntary organizations help those who wish to improve their Ukrainian and abandon “the language of the occupiers”.

“We went to bed on February 24, 2022 speaking Russian and woke up the next day speaking Ukrainian,” says Kyiv native Olena, deftly switching between the two languages ​​in the same sentence. In a small library in downtown Kyiv, the Yedyni association, “the united”, offers a weekly free discussion in the Ukrainian language.

This Sunday at the end of February, a dozen middle-aged women converse under the indulgent gaze of a young student. Goal for participants: to master the official language of their own country. The discussion is sometimes hesitant, a word floats, immediately replaced by another, followed by general laughter. “Each country has its language, in France we speak French well. Why don’t we speak Ukrainian at home? We must abandon the language of the occupier,” insists Tetyana, originally from Zaporizhia, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in the south of the country.

Among the participants’ circles, the decision to take Ukrainian lessons was well received: “I have friends who don’t have access to these kinds of clubs in their city, and they are quite jealous,” explains a woman laughing. “But there are still people who are Russian-speaking and who don’t see why they should change,” tempers her neighbor.

To allow language meetings to live outside libraries, working groups open to all are offered on social networks with exercises to do at home. The Viber group, of the Yedyni association, brings together more than 3,000 people scattered across Ukraine and abroad.

The beginning of the Russian invasion, on February 24, 2022, led to a new enthusiasm for the Ukrainian language. Across the country, especially in the West – an area relatively safe from the fighting where a large number of inhabitants have taken refuge – language clubs have been organized. The Yedyni association offers similar meetings in Lviv, Odessa, Venezia as well as in Poland.

The trend is seen everywhere. On Instagram or TikTok, many local videographers have embarked on the production of language tutorials. Foreign language learning app Duolingo recorded 1,300,000 people learning the Ukrainian language in 2022 alone. Earlier this year, Ukraine’s oldest university even banned the use of Russian on the campus.

In this small neighborhood library, Ukrainian flags coexist with children’s drawings representing the national coat of arms. On the wall is a portrait of the dissident poet and journalist Vassyl Symonenko, whose work in the 1960s had a significant impact on the rise of Ukrainian national sentiment. “You don’t know Symonenko? He’s a hero in Ukraine! Rita wonders.

Because beyond the language issue, it is indeed patriotism that drives these meetings. Vladimir Putin’s war is also on the language front. As early as 2014, to justify the annexation of Crimea and the armed actions in the Donbass, Moscow claimed that power in Kyiv was against Russian speakers.

Sixty-something Natalia doesn’t want to hear any more of this “big brother” thing. In the 1980s, she worked in a military hospital during the war in Afghanistan. She met her husband there, a Ukrainian who was fighting alongside the USSR. The couple then moved to Kherson, where the husband is from.

“Today, my husband and my son are both fighting alongside the Ukrainian army. Me, I am here. Our house is on the side of town that was liberated by the army, but there are daily bombardments. I don’t even know if she’s still standing. Part of his family lives in Russia today. Natalia has completely cut ties. “They support the idea that Russia does not attack Ukraine. And that it is the Ukrainians who are bombing the country. What do you want to answer to that? »

Like President Volodymyr Zelensky, who grew up speaking Russian but switched to Ukrainian in 2017 before running for office, many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language.

The country has been crossed by several waves of Ukrainianization since 1989 (two years before independence), the year from which Ukrainian became the only official language – after decades of repression and forced Russification during the USSR . Since 2021, the service sector has to welcome customers in Ukrainian and it is now necessary to pass an exam assessing the language level in Ukrainian to obtain citizenship.

“During the USSR, Ukrainian was seen as a language of the countryside, of poorly educated people. In town, you had to speak Russian,” recalls Natalia, 75, the oldest member of the group from Kyiv.

She too chose to switch to Ukrainian after the Russian invasion and joined the group a month ago. Not always easy, but she is progressing. Her granddaughter speaks Russian and Ukrainian. In a few months, they will be able to discuss in the official language of their country.