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Ukrainian diary: ‘Ireland knows what it is like for an empire to repress your language’

Nina Mishchenko and her son Andriy (12) were forced to flee their home in Kyiv in late February. They are now living in Citywest Hotel in Dublin


Language solidarity: Nina Mishchenko. Photo by Frank McGrath

Language solidarity: Nina Mishchenko. Photo by Frank McGrath

Language solidarity: Nina Mishchenko. Photo by Frank McGrath

‘Why do Ukrainians speak Russian when there is a war with Russia?” an Irish woman asked me. “Why do the Irish speak English?” I answered.

Ukraine’s history is in many ways similar to Ireland’s. There is a big empire next-door that has tried to conquer you and destroy your identity, including your language.

The violent Russification of Ukraine started in 1622, when the Tsar Michael ordered the burning of all copies of the gospels printed in Ukraine. Subsequent rulers closed schools, prevented prayers in Ukrainian in churches and banned baptism with Ukrainian names. Ukrainian theatres, writers, books and newspapers were banned.

In the 1920s, the Soviet government created a concept where Russian was the language of the city and educated people, and Ukrainian was the language of the countryside. Stalin destroyed not only the independent Ukrainian village during the great famine, the Holodomor, but also imprisoned and killed scientists, writers, musicians, poets and artists. In the history of Ukraine, this period is called the Executed Renaissance.

Unfortunately, all these events strongly Russified my family. My grandmother Natasha was afraid of everything Ukrainian, both the language and vyshyvanka — traditional embroidered clothes with national ornaments. One day at her school, the Soviet authorities arrested all the teachers who were not afraid to identify themselves as Ukrainians and took them away in handcuffs. The children remembered it for a long time.

But my grandmother did not know that at that time her mother, Lidia, was hiding in the attic a forbidden book, a history of Ukraine. If this book was found, she would have been put in prison, or maybe shot. My great-grandfather, Ilya, was executed as a Ukrainian patriot.

After World War II ended, the Ukrainian language began to appear little by little in schools. But my family was a family of scientists and professors, and scientific works and books were published only in Russian.

Where did our language develop freely? Folk songs, dances and cuisine were not so strongly prohibited. Ukrainian was fully spoken only in the western part of Ukraine, which was for a time under Polish rule.

I only began to learn the language well at the time of independence, when I was 12, as my son is now. The transfer of all TV channels and cinemas into Ukrainian, as well as the appearance of Ukrainian publishing houses and popular musicians, contributed a lot to the development of our language.

In 2017, my son was no longer taught Russian at school, and now all schoolchildren are taught only in Ukrainian.

Vladimir Putin has done more than anyone to promote the Ukrainian language now. He has said that anyone who speaks Russian belongs to the Russian people. In the occupied territories, Russians banned Ukrainian schools, books, and arrested teachers, as they have been doing for 400 years.

In response, Ukrainians began to ban everything that reminds them of Russia, and businesses abandoned Russian on their websites. For a new generation of Ukrainian children, Russian is the language of the enemy. In 2022, more than 1.3 million people started learning the Ukrainian language as a sign of solidarity. It is interesting that, according to the language-learning app Duolingo, its surge in interest was biggest in Ireland, up by 22 times in a year. Who knows, maybe Ukrainian will one day be taught here in schools and universities.

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