Words in a war

Mar 5, 2024

Tetiana Gubii fears her mother tongue is being silenced by war

My mother is Russian, and I’m Ukrainian. On the 24th of February 2022, we both woke up listening to the sound of explosions, which announced the beginning of the full-scale invasion. At that moment, we were in Mykolaiv, my hometown in the South of Ukraine, where the population mostly speaks Russian.

What language did I use to think about the Russian missiles falling on my city for almost a year? I may not remember the exact wording of my thoughts, but I remember clearly that these thoughts were in Russian. You can control what you read and write, but it’s not that easy to control the way you express your emotions. 

Language is something that you never think about. It is something that you use to express your thoughts on other matters. The limits of my language are the limits of my world. So, limiting the use of the Russian language might be able to limit the spreading of the Russian world, which is trying to erase us, Ukrainians, from the Earth’s surface just because we don’t want to be a part of that Russian world.  

The Ukrainian government seems to support the opinion that there is no place for the Russian language in Ukrainian society. There is freedom of speech, but if you speak Ukrainian, you are more likely to be heard. If you speak Russian, you are more likely to be blamed for using the language of the enemy. So it goes. 

When the war started, many people I know voluntarily switched to Ukrainian. Even if someone uses Russian in their daily conversations, their social media personalities speak and write Ukrainian.

I’ve committed the act of censorship as well. I’ve removed all the pro-war Russians from my library, playlists, and social networks. What should I do with the language my mother gave me? Does it make me less Ukrainian if I speak Russian? If I switch to Ukrainian and still think in Russian – will it be treason? 

On the other side, it is wrong to associate the Russian language with Putin’s Russia only. Not everyone who speaks Russian is Russian in the same way that not everyone who speaks English is from England. 

My Russian-speaking friends are fighting at the frontline. They are ready to give up their lives to defend their motherland. Should they be forced to give up their mother tongue as well? 

Tetiana Gubii lives in Switzerland and is a language teacher, translator, and illustrator. She was in Ukraine visiting her mother who was in a coma when the war began. Her mother woke up to the sound of bombs falling, with no memory of life before the war.



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