Ukrainian at the edge

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The war drags on, and once again one wonders how different Ukraine is from Russia, Ukrainian from Russian.  This superb article will help us get a handle on what the issues at stake are:

"A short history of language in Ukraine"

Norman Davies, Spectator (2 October 2022)

The article is so richly illuminating and timely that it deserves to be quoted in extenso:

After six months of war in Ukraine, most observers agree that the roots of Russian aggression lie in the country’s deep-rooted attitudes to culture and history. In line with Russia’s nationalist traditions, Putin denies any place for a separate Ukrainian identity.

The Ukrainians, in contrast, see themselves as a proud nation with their own history, culture, centuries long struggle for independence, and, of course, language. And while Ukrainian has been dismissed as a dialect of Russian in Moscow, it in fact has a long history – and is very much a language in its own right.

That independence can be seen in the genesis of the word ‘Ukraine’ itself. In most Slavonic languages, the letter ‘U’ – and written in Cyrillic as У – is a preposition of location; according to context it can be translated as ‘in’, ’on’ ‘at’ or ‘near’, and it is followed by nouns in the genitive case. In Ukrainian, the word Kray means ‘edge’ (although in Russian it means ‘land’ or ‘country’). So ‘U Krayu’ stands for ‘At the Edge’, and Ukraina for ‘the Land on the Edge’ or ‘Borderland’. It is very similar to the American idea of the ‘Frontier’.

The question ‘on the edge of what?’, however, sparks controversy. One answer, since the term first appears in mediaeval times when Ukraine lay within the Jagiellonian realms of Poland-Lithuania, would be: ‘the borderland of Poland-Lithuania’. Others might say that Ukraine was ‘the Edge of Christendom’ or possibly of civilised settlement before the endless steppe. Russians think that Ukraine is the borderland of Russia.

The tenth century state of Kyivan Rus was created by a Viking dynasty ruling over a collection of East Slavic tribes. Those Eastern Slavs were the last in a prehistoric procession of Slavic peoples, who had drifted out of Eurasia in the rear of Latins, Celts, and Germanics. After crossing the ‘Borderland’, the leading group of Slavs had turned south to occupy the Roman province of Illyria, thereby obtaining the label of South Slavs or ‘Yugoslavs’: the ancestors of Serbs, Croats, and others. After them, the ‘Western Slavs’ passed through on their way to create the Great Moravian Empire and the kingdoms of Bohemia and Poland; they were the progenitors of Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles. Finally, the Eastern Slavs settled in Kyivan Rus – in a land known in Latin as Ruthenia. Their ruski language, best classed as Ruthenian or ‘Old East Slavonic’, was the predecessor of three modern languages – Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian.

Since the territorial base of Old East Slavonic coincided largely with modern Ukraine, some overzealous linguists have been tempted to call it ‘proto-Ukrainian’. This egregious anachronism resembles the more frequent mistake of confusing ancient Rus with modern Russia.

Chronology is all important here. All the Slav tribes once spoke a common, undocumented tongue which has been reconstructed by linguists, and is now designated a ‘Proto-Slavonic’. A branch of the overarching Indo-European linguistic family, Proto-Slavonic gave each of its offspring with the roots of their core vocabulary, their basic phonology, and their highly inflected grammar that operates, like Latin, through genders, conjugations, declensions and multiple cases. It was the source from which some 20 modern Slavonic languages have evolved .

In due course, Kyivan Rus was converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries, who introduced the art of writing together with a new, artificial liturgical language called Old Church Slavonic. Originally devised by the brothers, Saints Cyril (826-64) and Methodius (815-85), for use in the Great Moravian Empire, OCS was developed from the brothers’ native Macedonian speech, and was written down firstly in the Glagolitic alphabet, later in a simplified Bulgarian-based form known as Cyrillic. Like Latin in the Catholic world, it became the language of priests and educated people and greatly influenced vernacular Ruthenian and all its derivatives. It is still in use today by several Orthodox churches.

Kyivan Rus was destroyed by the Mongols in 1246, after which it passed under the harsh rule of the Golden Horde. But different parts of Ruthenian territory threw off the ‘Tatar yoke’ at different times. Those in the north and south-west were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose forces captured Kiev in 1364. Those further east, like the young city of Moscow, stayed as Tatar vassals to the end of the fifteenth century. Contrasting environments impacted linguistic evolution. Since Lithuania was joined to Poland by the Union of Krewo of 1385, and since Polish and Latin were the dominant languages of the Jagiellonian realms, Ruthenian speech in the Grand Duchy was strongly affected by Polish and other western influences. Kiev stayed in the Polish cultural sphere to 1667, most other parts of Ukraine for considerably longer, either until the Partitions of 1773-95, or in the case of western Ukraine, until 1945.

No such western influences ever reached the upper Volga Basin, from which the Grand Duchy of Moscow was to launch its dramatic expansion. Moscow started life as a settlement within the mediaeval principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, whose ‘Golden Ring’ of cities is now regarded as the womb of the Russian language. Moreover, having overpowered their neighbours and cast off the Tatar yoke by 1481, the rulers of Moscow claimed to be the successors of the recently destroyed Byzantine Empire. Their ideology of the ‘Third Rome’ led them to pose as the sole heirs of Rus, asserting that their form of governance, their Muscovite brand of Orthodoxy, and their version of ruski speech, should be adopted willy-nilly by all other Orthodox Slavs. Linguistic imperialism was in their blood.

Between Ivan the Terrible’s coronation in 1547 and the declaration of the Russian Empire in 1721, the Muscovite state transformed itself into the ‘Tsardom of All Rus’, as its territory expanded on average by an area larger than the size of Belgium every year. The title of Tsar was adapted from the Roman ‘Caesar’, and the formula of ‘All Rus’ – vsieya Rusi – laid claim not only to those parts of the former Rus under Muscovite control but also to large parts beyond it. In Muscovite usage, the old name of ‘Rus’ gradually took on the modern form of ‘Russia’, whilst the standardised, Muscovite version of the ruski language was increasingly regarded as ‘Russian’. Yet in that same period, when the whole of Ukraine was transferred from Lithuania to the Kingdom of Poland, the gulf between the old ruski of Ukraine and the new Russian ruski of Muscovy widened.

A comparison with the Low Countries may help to clarify. For centuries, various forms of Low German or Plattdeutsch had been spoken right across northern Europe from Flanders to Saxony, each identified by the names of düütsch/duits/or Deutsch. But in early modern Europe different parts of the region found themselves in different political and cultural environments. In the western province of Flanders, first Burgundian then Spanish or French rule was instigated, creating conditions for the emergence of Vlaams or Flemish. Then, in 1579, 17 United Provinces launched the independent state of the Netherlands, thereby consolidating the Dutch or Nederlands language. Further east, in a reduced Holy Roman Empire, local dialects merged into German. One can suggest with caution, therefore, that Flemish, Dutch and German are the Germanic counterparts of Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian in the Slavonic world.

In 1721 under Peter the Great, Putin’s hero, the freshly-minted Russian Empire adorned itself with the twin titles of ‘all the Russias’ and Rossiya – the latter being the Byzantine Greek word for Rus. By this time, the fine distinctions between Rus, Russia, ‘all the Russias’ and Rossiya, were thoroughly confused. Moreover, the Empire proceeded to dismember Poland-Lithuania and to annexe all parts of the former Rus that had previously escaped. Russian bureaucrats then undertook a brilliant renaming exercise. The northern stretches of Ruthenia became ‘White Russia’ while the southern stretches in Ukraine became Malorossiya or ‘Little Russia’. This nomenclature was presented as historic.

Many inhabitants of so-called ‘Little Russia’ were not pleased by the labels foisted on them. Bit by bit, they began to call themselves ‘Ukrainians’ after their homeland and, because the term ruski had been appropriated by the Muscovites, to call their language ‘Ukrainian’. Yet the change moved slowly, not least because an absolute majority of those would-be Ukrainians were still illiterate serfs.

Throughout the two centuries of imperial Russian rule, officialdom did everything in its power to strengthen the Russian language in Ukraine and to suppress Ukrainian. Russification was helped by the influx of colonists into the southern province of ‘New Russia’ and of workers into new industrial towns like Yuzhovo, the future Donetsk. Russian speakers soon came to dominate the cities, including Kiev, while barriers of all sorts were erected against Ukrainian speakers in the countryside. Teaching in Ukrainian was banned, books destroyed, writers like the poet Taras Shevchenko arrested and exiled. As the Valuev Circular of 1850 put it: ‘The tongue used by commoners (in Ukraine) is nothing but Russian corrupted by the influence of Poland. A separate Little Russian language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist.’ By the Ems Ukaz (Ems decree) of 1876, Alexander II closed down all Ukrainian printing.

Yet, once the serfs were emancipated in 1861, Tsarist officials underestimated the on-going demand for Ukrainian schooling, and they could not control Ukrainian activities in nearby Austro-Hungary, especially in Lemberg (now known as Lwow or Lviv), where teaching thrived and books could be published. They also did not foresee that the Empire of the Tsars would collapse, and that after the revolutions of 1917, the Bolsheviks would actively support the dissemination of all non-Russian languages.

In these matters, Tsarist Russians were not uniquely wicked. In 19th Century Europe[. A] widespread, Darwinian belief was that powerful so-called ‘historical languages’ like English, French, or German (and indeed Russian) deserved to flourish while ‘unhistorical languages’ were unfit to survive. Leading British educators shamelessly embraced the assumed superiority of English and the accompanying demotion of Welsh, Irish or Scottish Gaelic.

A special animus, however, was reserved for forms of regional speech, which were closely related to dominant state languages, and which were viewed by the powers that be as needless, subversive irritants. In France, the Republic’s full weight was thrown against Occitan and Provençal in particular. In Spain, General Franco’s educators were pursuing their campaign to liquidate Catalan as late as 1975.

So Ukrainian speakers in Russia were fighting a fight shared by numerous minorities across Europe. In 1917, after the formal recognition of their language, they could be forgiven for believing that a new day was dawning. They could not have imagined the ordeals that awaited.

Thinking of Ukraine as "borderland" brings to mind another hotly contested region, Xīnjiāng 新疆 ("New Borders"), which was conquered by Manchu troops in the late 19th c. and only officially incorporated into the Qing Dynasty in 1878.  The difference between Russia(n) and Ukraine / Ukrainian, however, is one of clines, whereas that between China / Chinese and Xinjiang / Uyghur is one of discontinuities.


Selected readings

[h.t. William Triplett]


  1. AntC said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 1:43 am

    Thank you Victor. Davies' piece is presumably to counter Putin's baloney that Ukraine and Russia 'share' some common heritage and therefore destiny. I'm not sure even Putin actually believes that.

    The best counter was the images circulated earlier this year showing the Moscow area as wild forest with prowling beasts whilst Kyiv was a thriving metropolis. 500 years later not much different.

    Come to today, still prowling beasts in Moscow – of the two-legged variety.

  2. Robert T McQuaid said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 7:06 am

    Yale professor Timothy Snyder is presenting an online course: The Making of Modern Ukraine. The first lecture is at:

  3. Peter B. Golden said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 10:10 am

    A few notes: krai (край) means "edge, border" and "territory, land, country" in Russian as well. There are numerous overlaps in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian – and a number of "false friends.” All three languages derive from Eastern Slavic, the language of the Kyivan Rus' state (Novogorod, in what is now northwest Russia was the second city of that state). The literary language of Kyivan Rus’ was heavily influenced by Church Slavonic and with slight variants remained the literary language of the Eastern Slavs in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest as well as the Lithuanian and Polish takeover of what became Belarus’ and parts (western) of what became Ukraine. The Old Belarusian/Rus' language became the primary written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Texts in those languages are mutually intelligible, indeed, barely differentiated. It was the shattering of an already fragmenting Kyivan Rus' state produced by the Mongol conquest and the Lithuanian and Polish gobbling up of those lands that the Mongols did not take, that over time produced three distinct peoples: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Dialect divisions were already apparent in the Kyivan period and a number of scholars have argued for the existence even then of "Old Ukrainian" etc. Some of the dialect divisions cross "borders." The dialect associated with the Chernihiv (Chernigov) principality of Kyivan Rus', now in Ukraine, extends into Belarus'. The dialect of Chernobyl' (of sad fame) in Ukraine is virtually identical to the dialect of the area of Rogachov, Belarus. I know this from personal observation. The career of Feofan Prokopovich/ Prokopovych, d. 1736 ( who moved easily between Moscow and Kiev (and other places) and helped to shape the modern Russian literary language is typical of more than a few who are called "Ukrainian" or "Russian" depending on the stance that one takes. Ahatanhel Krymsky ( of Crimean Tatar (parternal) and Polish (maternal) origin, became one of the leading Ukrainian Turkologists-Orientalists was not an ethnic Ukrainian, but identified as Ukrainian – and was ultimately accused of Ukrainian nationalism (1941) by the Soviet government and died in exile in Kazakhstan in 1942. More than a few families in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ have branches in all three areas (mine does). Yes, today, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian are separate and distinct languages and their speakers take national identities accordingly…but not always what one would expect. National identity, so often the case, had to be taught or situationally adopted. In the pre-Soviet era there was much movement between Belarus’ and Ukraine. Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus’, has a typical Ukrainian last name and is vaguely aware of distant Ukrainian origins…and is much more at home speaking in Russian than in Belarusian. He is far from unique.
    Putin is a KGB thug and now a war-criminal with a Soviet elementary school understanding of Russian history and of the peoples that comprised the Soviet Empire for which he has such nostalgia (shared by some older Russians). If you are interested in serious studies of the formation of the Ukrainians (and Belarusians) read the works of Serhiy Plokhy.

  4. Thomas Rees said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 10:20 am

    This reminds me of the Habsburg Empire’s Military Frontier (Militärgrenze, Војна крајина) in the South Slavic area. We heard a lot about Krajina during the post-Yugoslav wars, referring to various territories. I think it’s roughly equivalent to German Mark as in “Mark Brandenburg” or English March: the “Welsh Marches”. There are earls of March in both Scotland and England.

  5. /df said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 11:41 am

    To add to the long-running "How similar/different are Russian and Ukrainian?" stakes and the linked article, two data points.

    I was interested to hear the pronunciation "oo-krai-izhna" in a recent subtitled news report from a Ukrainian TV station (Kharkhiv area).

    In last year's documentary "Back to Chernobyl", one interviewee, a schoolgirl in 1986, was pretty much unintelligible to my school Russian, while the other speakers, presumably Russian speakers or actual Russians, were easier to (almost) follow. Possibly her dialect was the one mentioned by Peter Golden. I could compare the unintelligibility to trying to follow European Portuguese from a basis of limited Spanish.

    This exchange was recounted by a commander of the troops sent out (each for the shortest possible time) on to the 'hot' reactor roof to dump sand over the edge. Recently arrived Party boss, unhappy with progress: "Your troops are a mess"; commander: "Your reactor is a mess"; withdrawal of boss.

    The recent documentary on Gorbachev, the guy who agreed Ukrainian independence, which was filmed shortly before his death, also offers some perspectives on his generation's view of the Ukraine/Russia issue. Of course, he wasn't a KGB man. How do you de-Nazify Ukraine? Get Putin to visit and then leave again …

  6. Rodger C said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 12:42 pm

    For centuries, various forms of Low German or Plattdeutsch had been spoken right across northern Europe from Flanders to Saxony

    Surely he means "Flanders to East Prussia."

    [A] widespread, Darwinian belief was that powerful so-called ‘historical languages’ like English, French, or German (and indeed Russian) deserved to flourish while ‘unhistorical languages’ were unfit to survive.

    Significantly (?) asserted by Engels in "The Hungarian War."

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 8:11 pm

    One inconvenient gap in the current lexicon of English is the lack of a good adjective to refer to things (cultural/artistic/religious/whatever) that are common to the three-or-more ethnolinguistic communities that descend from the original ethnolinguistic community of Kievan/Kyivan Rus'. Until recently, one could probably get away with describing as generically "Russian" some practice or custom shared in common by "Great Russians" and "Little Russians" and "White Russians" (and Rusyns/Ruthenians over in what was once Hungary …) etc. Under present circumstances (where "Russian" is more easily understood as limited to "Great Russian" and as excluding the neighboring ethnolinguistic groups) that usage seems problematic, but what do we have as a practical substitute?

  8. GH said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 2:46 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    If we were to coin one, how about "Russic," by analogy with German/Germanic?

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 3:10 am

    A minor correction is that the Russian Empire never quite managed to take over all parts of the former Rus. The area roughly corresponding to the medieval Rus principality of Halych went to the Habsburgs, where it became part of Galicia and the people there called Ruthenians (from Rus). They would become an important part of the story of the Ukrainian national awakening under Austria-Hungary. Davies knows about this of course – he mentions earlier that western Ukraine was under Polish cultural influence until 1945 – so either he forgot momentarily or he is regarding the Soviet Union as a continuation of the Russian Empire.

    Another important thing to note is that much of 'New Russia (Novorossiya)' in southern Ukraine was never part of the former Rus. The Russian Empire annexed the area in 1764 after conquering the Crimean Khanate (using the forces of the Ukrainian Cossacks, which it would then proceed to destroy). It was a late addition to the Russian Empire in the scheme of things – Russians were already settling Alaska at this point – hence the very colonial-sounding name of 'New Russia'. So in context of the present war, which Putin is justifying through the alleged historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians dating back to the Rus, it is interesting that most of the 'annexed' territories have never been part of the Rus in the first place.

    It was on the lower reaches of the Dnipro/Dnieper beyond the traditional control of the Rus that the Cossacks set up their stronghold. Many of their ranks would have been drawn from serfs escaping Polish or polonized landowners, so it was not surprising that they headed towards these sparsely populated borderlands with the Crimean Khanate and eventually Muscovy. So to me the origin of the term makes the most sense as coming from the viewpoint of Poland-Lithuania, but also of the traditional Rus lands, since this was where the Cossacks would encounter the Turkic Crimean Tatars, sometimes as allies, sometimes as foes. Simply put, the literal ethnocultural border between Slavs and Turks ran through southern Ukraine. No wonder it was called that.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 3:11 am

    For centuries, various forms of Low German or Plattdeutsch had been spoken right across northern Europe from Flanders to Saxony

    Roger C: Surely he means "Flanders to East Prussia."

    Actually, the Low German zone stretched well past East Prussia and into Livonia, including Reval (modern Tallinn).

  11. Myroslava said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 6:46 am

    Native Ukrainian speaker here: the whole linguistic premise around "край" is just wrong. "Край" means "edge" in Ukrainian but it is commonly used to also mean "territory, country" – "рідний край" == "my homeland" brings up a ton of hits, including a very popular song (,_miy_ridniy_kray)

    I would actually say that in Russian the meaning of "край" as "country" is more rare/archaic – I have never heard it except in names of certain regions such as "Красноярский край". But "край" as "edge" is much more common, as "на краю света".

    The whole linguistic premise about "Ukraine" originating from the word meaning "the edge" was originally invented by Russian historians trying to deny that Ukraine is a country, precisely by the people who spoke Russian and for whom the "edge" meaning was primary, and that article uncritically repeats it.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 7:42 am

    So many minor inaccuracies, so little time…

    I recently learned that "Great Russia" was originally meant much the same way as "Greater London" today, i.e. the younger, outer reaches of Rus', as opposed to the center, "Little Russia", around Kyiv.

    I was interested to hear the pronunciation "oo-krai-izhna" in a recent subtitled news report from a Ukrainian TV station (Kharkhiv area).

    You or the subtitles must have confused something, then; it's "oo-krah-YEE-nah" in both languages (with a bit more vowel reduction in Russian).

  13. /df said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    Indeed, but that was definitely the pronunciation. The announcer stressed the -izh- (-['i:ʒ]-) part heavily. I wondered if it was a playful version, as someone might say Eng-er-land, or just an extreme regional variation, like Argentinian Spanish -ll-. Some British TV stations feature continuity announcements in a diversity of accents including many that would traditionally have been seen as mispronunciations or at least not taught to foreign learners: th -> f/v, t/d -> glottal stop, etc.

    While searching on this I noticed that I was either asking Russians for things wrongly (po[ʒ]al…) or unconsciously using the retroflex ж (po[ʐ]al…): closer to the latter, I hope, and with the vowel reduction that Russian favours. To keep on-topic I offer this which suggests that [ʐ] is found in W Ukrainian only.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 4:44 pm

    I suspect a portmanteau word made up for comedic purposes. But with my limited vocabulary my best guess is the second part is южна(я), Russian for "southern"…

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