Do you speak Surzhyk?

Peter Pomerantsev

Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.

The focus of the revolution is Kiev, and though the Kiev region is often defined as ‘largely Ukrainian speaking’, the same is not true of the city proper which, according to conservative estimates, is approximately 60 per cent Russian-speaking. Educational institutions and TV use Ukrainian (there are legal restrictions), but Russian is the language of the street, the bar, the home. Newspapers and magazines (which follow the market rather than the law) are mostly Russian. People will sometimes say Ukrainian is their first language as that is the language they work in, especially if they work for the state, but they will still communicate informally in Russian. The same goes for all the big cities, as opposed to rural areas, of central Ukraine: Russian dominates in interpersonal communication. But of course everyone speaks a bit of everything and often all of it badly (not so much ‘multi-cultured’, to quote the Odessan psychiatrist and poet Boris Khersonsky, as ‘multi-uncultured’).

Ukraine’s lingua franca is Surzhyk, a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish). In tsarist times it was the slang of Ukrainian-speaking peasants who took up Russian when they came to the big city. Under Stalin, certain Ukrainian words were banned for being nationalist and replaced with Russian ones. Now that Ukrainian is the official language, Russian-speaking officials sometimes have difficulty with it. Watching a session of the Ukrainian parliament can be like observing a secondary school foreign language class.

The west of the country is seen as more straightforwardly mono-Ukrainian than the centre, and it’s certainly true that Halichina, the region around Lviv, has been fighting for national (and linguistic) independence from Austro-Hungarians, Poles and Soviets for centuries: they’re not going to let anyone ruin their ambition now. But Lviv was largely a German and Polish-speaking city until the Second World War. And voting patterns don’t map simply onto the ethnolinguistic divide. Transcarpathia, in the south-west, which is in many ways the most ‘European’ part of the country, with its cross-Schengen trade and communities of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks, voted for Yanukovich in 2010, partly because of business connections and partly out of wariness of its more nationalist neighbours.

Over in Donetsk, in the eastern, ‘Russian’, ‘Yanukovich’ heartlands, the situation is no simpler. According to an 1897 census for Donbass, 24 per cent of the population were ‘Russian’ and 62.5 per cent ‘little Russian’: closer to what we now think of as Ukrainian. Over the next century, the Soviets urbanised and Russianised the region, turning it into the industrial foundry of the USSR, with peoples imported from throughout the empire. Rinat Akhmetov, Donetsk (and Ukraine’s) richest man, one of Yanukovich's backers and the owner of the most expensive flat in London, speaks Russian with a broad Tartar accent. Yanukovich speaks a form of Surzhyk. Thirty-two per cent of people in Donetsk define their cultural traditions as Soviet, and only 30 per cent as Russian.

Meanwhile, in another twist, football fans (of the more violent persuasion) in the ‘Russian’ east, including Donetsk, have pledged their loyalty to Euro-Maidan against Yanukovich. Their sworn enemies are the ‘titushki’, hoodlums paid by the government to attack activists. ‘Titushki’ is one of the neologisms of the Ukrainian revolt, now common in both Ukrainian and Russian, named after Vadim Titushko, a.k.a. ‘Vadik the Romanian’, who was identified attacking journalists in Kiev. The greatest insult you can throw at someone is not an ethnolinguistic slur, ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘Russian’, but to label them a ‘titushka’.

The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v. Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.


  • 29 January 2014 at 3:23pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    Hadn't heard of Surzhyk before (is that Суржїк? not sure what the 'y' represents when you're transliterating from Ukrainian). Interesting point about the Polish influence, which I think must be quite extensive, at least in some parts of the country. I know my late mother-in-law, who was born in Western Ukraine, was tri-lingual between Ukrainian, English and Polish - most of her best friends were expat Poles, in fact. I don't imagine she picked it all up over here.

    Isn't Ukrainian also the object of a fair amount of condescension from the Russian side, seen as not being a 'real' language so much as a dialect of Russian - as if to say that 'Kyiv' is just 'Kiev' in a broad accent?

    • 29 January 2014 at 5:48pm
      Victoria Colflesh says: @ Phil Edwards
      Surshyk = Pidgin in the context of Slavic continuum.

    • 29 January 2014 at 6:04pm
      Victoria Colflesh says: @ Phil Edwards
      I grew up and lived in Kyiv for 17 years, I had family in Western Ukraine as well, in Mukacheve. The Soviet Union did anything and everything to stomp out all languages and cultures on its territory, including Ukrainian. Nonetheless, the language has survived and flourished. There is most definitely a literate Ukrainian, it has two flavors, Western and Eastern, but it exists, and is spoken by many. As for surzhyk (it really amuses me that people outside Ukraine know this word), it is not just a Ukrainian thing, it's more of a class thing. It is highly catchy, it has infected Russian culture almost as much as Ukrainian.

    • 30 January 2014 at 12:45pm
      Alex K. says: @ Phil Edwards
      It is суржик both in Ukrainian and Russian. Although the Ukrainian и is close (bot not equivalent) to the Russian ы, this particular word is pronounced about the same in both languages (the preceding ж wipes out the i-и and и-ы distinctions).

      Most Russians who cannot/will not believe Ukrainian is a real language have little familiarity with the real thing, that is literary Ukrainian. They either make fun of their own idea of Ukrainian, or of Surzhik. But then I don't see what's so fundamentally wrong about Surzhik other than absence of great fiction in the dialect.

    • 23 February 2014 at 2:22am
      Konstanzhoglo says: @ Victoria Colflesh
      Nonsense, there has never been so big amount of Ukrainian books, newspapers, films, theathers than in the period when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union.
      The soviet school had 10 classes. From the 5 class till the 10 class every pupil should learn Ukranian language and literature (these were two different disciplines).

  • 29 January 2014 at 3:42pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    A fascinating and subtle take on Russian-ish affairs as usual from Peter Pomerantsev, thank you.

    To expand on the point about Lviv being mainly German and Polish speaking until the war - if you go to the main cemetery there, which I did a few years ago, you can see evidence of this on the gravestones. Up until about 1950 the majority of the names are in roman script, and mostly -ski, -ska, -czyk, etc. After that they are almost all written in cyrillic, and at least according to my transliteration, mostly no longer Polish-sounding names.

    • 29 January 2014 at 3:58pm
      jwaterlow says: @ Harry Stopes
      The 'y' transliterated from Ukrainian usually stands for 'и', which is closer to the Russian 'ы', though it isn't exactly the same. Not that I can manage to differentiate them, mind you!

    • 30 January 2014 at 12:58pm
      Alex K. says: @ Harry Stopes
      Actually, -ski, -ska and -czyk (-chyk/chik) can be Ukrainian, Jewish or Russian as well as Polish. But in this particular case, yes, Poles were expelled from Lviv/Lwów to Poland after WWII. It was a relatively large-scale population exchange agreed by Moscow and communist Poland.

  • 31 January 2014 at 4:00pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The region has a long and complicated history. Leopolis/Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv grew rapidly as the administrative center of the eastern half ( i.e., east of the San River) of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, acquired during the Polish partitions of the 1770-90s. It had a fancier name too, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and was “supplemented” in the 19th century by tacking on the region around Krakow and the Grand Duchy of Auschwitz. “Galicia” is Pomerantsev’s “Halichina”. Before all this, large parts of both Ukraine and Belarus had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but after the mid-17th century these portions of that vast polyglot territory began to be chipped away by the expansion of Muscovy, a political entity that tried to sell itself to everyone in the region as the “heart and soul” of Russia (it still does). In the days when the Commonwealth got its hands on Kiev, the local landowners and gentry would have been conscripted as “political Poles” (i.e., members of a ruling class who had much more in common with each other, regardless of nationality, than they did with the peasants they ruled). Good sources of historical information on the territory and its inhabitants are Norman Stone’s big two-volume history of Poland (“God’s Playground”), Larry Wolffs “The Idea of Galicia” and Timothy Snyder’s “The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569-1999” and “Bloodlands”. A really hybrid character from the region, Leopold Sacher von Masoch (junior), the famous author who gave us “masochism” and “fur fetishes”, grew up in Lemberg (his father was its police chief), and, though thoroughly German, described himself as a “philosemitic Ruthenian”. The writer who tried to preserve memories of the Transcarpathian part of the region around Czernowitz (Chernivstsi/Cernauti) was Gregor von Rezzori, author of “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” and “Oedipus at Stalingrad”. The region had towns and cities that were thoroughly cosmopolitan when it was part of Dual Monarchy, but the extreme nationalisms of the post WWI and WWII eras resulted in campaigns of ethnic cleansing (murder and/or expulsion). For the less strident earlier eras the graveyards are still probably the best place in which to see the former mixtures (and intermarriages) of the inhabitants in earlier times (this is true in many cities of Austria-Hungary that are now part of its successor states – I’ve been in graveyards in several cities in the region where tombstones show Italians married to Slavs or Ruthenians married to Czechs with their epitaphs carved in German).

    • 31 January 2014 at 4:02pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I meant Norman Davies, not Norman Stone -- my apologies.

  • 3 February 2014 at 8:27am
    BBeckett says:
    Excuse the grey hairs/pre-google memory

    Thomas Hardy in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" wrote of the children learning English in the class-room and speaking the local language at home.

    The inter-stitial places are shores on which many currents have washed.

    In "Vanished Kingdoms", Prof Norman Davies provides examples of the residues.

    My cultural memory includes the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So my Slavic language skills include Hungarian words. And I am still trying to find a coherent explanation of the cultural significance of the Hungarian, "Burgenland".

    I also want to track down the jokes which starts,

    "I was born in ..."

    continues through various events and concludes

    "I will be buried in ..."

    and the punchline, "I never left my village." (Norman Davies is a suspect)

    and I do remember that Leipzig/Gdansk was the first time I encountered the trope.

    I suspect that a "World Record" attempt is what I am really after.

    Any point is a point at which to start the stories and the legends (at first I wrote "in Europe" - but all points are "points of origin" - going forward and going back).

  • 5 February 2014 at 7:26pm
    tompirracas says:
    My partner's great-grandmother could do a variant of this:

    "I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I first went to school in the Republic of Czechoslovakia. I married in the Czechoslovak Republic. I had my sceond child in the Czecho-Slovak Republic. I was widowed in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. I became a grandmother in the Czechoslovak Republic.I retired in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. My grandson married in the Czechoslovak Federal Republic. I had a hip replacement in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. I died in the Czech Republic. I never left my town."

  • 8 February 2014 at 4:01pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    In 2007 my wife and I were in Kosice, which, back in the days of the Dual Monarchy was Kassa to the Hungarians and Kaschau to its German residents. We met an old man who had born there in the late 1930s. It was in Czechoslovakia then, but became Slovakia under the Tiso Hitler-satellite state, then went to Hungary as part of Hitler's "Vienna awards" to his small-state allies, then became part of Czechoslovakia again in 1945 until the "velvet divorce" in the 1990s resulted in today's Slovakia. (There was even a brief period, between the sell-out at Munich and the German establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, when the rump state was officially hyphenated into Czecho-Slovakia, with new constitutional arrangements). So, the old gent told us, he had lived in six countries without ever leaving his home town. The nice young gals who worked at the desk of the lodge-style hotel where we stayed were all mystified by the old man's version of history and thought he might be rambling (he was the property's night watchman).

    • 13 February 2014 at 9:12am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Let's hope they're not doomed to repeat it...

      Going back to my mother-in-law, I haven't been able to find her village/collective farm on any map (a friend who actually works as a cartographer also came up blank), but I'm pretty sure it was in the West of the country (it was called Velkiy Khutor or Hutir, which I'm told translates as "large village"). She was 16 or 17 when the Germans arrived in 1941. Would it be reasonable to assume there was a lot of Polish spoken in that time & place?

      Thomas Hardy in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” wrote of the children learning English in the class-room and speaking the local language at home.

      Something similar happened in the Soviet republics. Shortly before the USSR dissolved, I remember hearing an Armenian speaker explain that of course children were taught at school in Russian - parents could send their children to Armenian-language Sunday classes if they wanted to. Armenian Sunday school, in Armenia!

    • 27 February 2014 at 12:37pm
      Jan Cesarczyk says: @ Phil Edwards
      Phil, I think your village is probably further east than you think. I have found a village of that name, SE of Kyiv.

      As I was originally unsuccessful in finding it, I tried using the Polish form of the name, Wielki Chutor. I looked it up in: "Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich" - "The Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and other Slavic Lands", published in 1895 and now on-line. The relevant page can be seen at:
      It says:
      Wielki Chutor: a little town on the river Zolotonosza (Zolotonosha) a tributory of the Dnieper, in the Zolotonosha county in the Poltava governate.25 versts (approx 25km) north of Zolotonosha. 355 houses with 1580 inhabitants. 2 orthodox churches and 4 markets.

      From that to google maps looking for Zolotonosha:
      and north of Zolotonosha you will see: Velykyi Khutir written using the transliteration that Google use.

      Polish would not have been common that far east, but there were Polish communities scattered throughout Ukraine and the whole of the Russian empire. (A Polish airman by the name of Aleksander Danielak was born in Zolotonosha in 1919.)

  • 15 February 2014 at 5:18pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    To Phil: If the village was in the western part of what is today's Ukraine, there would have been a time when Polish was spoken in many towns and villages. I don't remember the exact numbers, but at least half a million to a million Poles were expelled -- or "exchanged" by the Russians during and after 1945 -- many of them going to Breslau/Wroclaw, which Poland acquired and had to repopulate after pushing out the Germans who had lived there. In the late Habsburg era this part of Galicia was full of Polish-speakers and Ruthenians. I don't know how much Ruthenian (western Ukrainian) differs from the language as it is spoken in the east of Ukraine. And of course there were plenty of German speakers in the larger towns and Yiddish speakers everywhere in the territory. As mentioned above, I think the best English source for details of ethnography, boundaries, census data, language communities etc. is Timothy Snyder's "The Reconstruction of Nations". Good luck with your search -- after trolling the internet for a long time I finally found information on the tiny town where one of my Lithuanian ancestors grew up, and there are still about 200 people living there, probably outnumbered by dogs, ducks, and geese.

  • 20 February 2014 at 5:28pm
    billmaggs says:
    Great post, required reading for anyone trying to understand the linguistic angle. But the jigsaw puzzle you are assembling is missing a piece--until WWII Kiev and many large Ukrainian cities were had as many Yiddish speakers as (linguistically similar) German and Russian speakers. Certainly also true of Odessa. Lviv as it is known now was one of the most complex of all, as my beloved professor Ilya Prizel liked to point out. He was born in what his family called Lemberg, but Polish friends called Lwiw, Russians, Lvov, and Ukrainians Lviv. In fact, Prizel liked to brag that he could tell where you were born in Eastern Europe to within 100 miles based on the flavor of Yiddish or Russian you spoke.

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