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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Anastasiya Byesyedina, PhD Candidate, Department of Government and International Relations, Sessional Teacher and Student Writing Fellow, University of Sydney

I’m an Australian-Ukrainian researcher and I moved back to Kyiv from Sydney in 2022 after the full-scale Russian invasion. My life in a war zone has given me the chance to witness firsthand Russia’s brutality and Ukraine’s limitless bravery.

In late 2022, Russians began targeting critical infrastructure in major cities. Many residents were left without access to electricity, heat and water. My cousins spent most of their school days in shelters.

I spent many winter nights writing my dissertation by candlelight, while searching for Wi-Fi and mobile hotspots and hot meals for my grandma and mother. The sounds of air-raid sirens and missile explosions were as ubiquitous as the sounds of birds chirping in Australia.

In the past year, Russian attacks on large cities have intensified in frequency and volume. Last month, for example, my family woke to a massive explosion. The impact of the missile was so close that my bedroom walls were shaking.

I ran outside to witness the horrendous scene. An apartment building just next to ours was engulfed by flames. Shocked residents were covered in soot, clenching their cats and dogs while watching their homes burn.

Four people died in the strike. A few days later, Anastasiya Nosova, the godmother of a friend who lived in the building, died in intensive care. On March 6, Anastasiya’s father Yurii also died, becoming the sixth victim of the attack.

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Challenging Putin’s notions of Ukrainian identity

Ukrainians are understandably fatigued by Russia’s war. According to a poll in September 2023, just 60% of respondents believed the country should continue fighting until it won – a 10% decrease from a year earlier – while 30% favoured negotiations with Russia.

Despite this exhaustion, Ukrainians remain deeply committed to safeguarding and fortifying their national identity in the face of Russian attempts to erase it.

I research the ways in which Ukraine’s various forms of identity, such as religion, collective memory, language and education, have changed during times of unrest. The study and conservation of Ukrainian identity matters now more than ever because it directly challenges Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chauvinistic and derogatory ideology of Russkiy mir (“Russian world”), which has fuelled his justification for the invasion.

In 2021, Putin published an essay on the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, foreshadowing his imperial ambitions for Ukraine. For example, he conveniently distorts language to challenge Ukrainian sovereignty by referring to it as a “periphery” state, from the Old Russian word okraina.

In reality, the name “Ukraine” means “country” or “piece of land” in Ukrainian, which clearly connotes sovereignty.

Guardians of Ukrainian language

In its attempts to erase Ukrainian identity, Russia is specifically targeting the use of the Ukrainian language in the regions it now illegally occupies.

Following the invasion, Russia’s Ministry of Enlightenment began developing and introducing “classic Ukrainian” textbooks in these regions. However, Russia has fabricated a language that is not Ukrainian in any shape or form. It is presented and taught as a Ukrainian dialect of the Russian language.

What this means is that Russia has actively rewritten the Ukrainian language in a way that mimics the Russian language, erasing the understanding of Ukrainian as a language of its own. As such, Russia is blatantly detaching Ukrainian children from their roots.

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This is not a new effort. There is a long history of oppressive Russification policies, dating back to the Russian empire (1793-1917), that aimed to destroy Ukrainian nationalism. In 1876, for example, Tsar Alexander II banned book publications in the Ukrainian language.

When Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union in 1922, the new government mandated the Russian language be used in administrative, educational and social spaces. While Ukrainian language was still taught in schools, Russian was the dominant language of instruction.

Since the invasion in 2022, I have observed everyday Ukrainians becoming new custodians of the Ukrainian language. My neighbours, friends and family who have spoken Russian their whole lives have made efforts to practise and relearn Ukrainian with great vigour.

Across the unoccupied regions of the country, around 71% of Ukrainians now report using Ukrainian in their daily lives, up from 64% in 2021.

Furthermore, Ukrainians have changed the way they value the Ukrainian language. Those who considered Ukrainian as their native language grew from 57% in 2012 to 76% in 2022. And 83% believe Ukrainian should be the only official language.

These efforts to speak the language in social and private spaces should not be overlooked because this is a conscious practice of reasserting Ukrainian identity to actively reverse some effects of Russian colonialism.

A cultural rebirth

Ukrainian perceptions of cultural self-worth have also changed, signalling a departure from a culture once dominated by Russian history, philosophy, literature and the arts.

For instance, Ukrainians have made changes in their home libraries. Since 2022, I have witnessed many Kyiv bookstore initiatives for customers to recycle Soviet-era and Russian literature. Last year, I recycled an entire dusty shelf of family-owned, Soviet-era literature that propagated Russian imperial rhetoric and misconceptions of history and Ukraine.

In 2023, two-thirds of Ukrainians reported being more interested in Ukrainian history than before the war, opting for books in Ukrainian instead of Russian.

A revival of Ukrainian culture has also taken place in the arts. For instance, the patriotic 1875 song Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow has made a viral comeback thanks to a new variation by Ukrainian musician Andriy Khlyvnyuk. It has inspired Ukrainians to sing a song that was once banned under Soviet rule.

A Latvian film of people around the world singing Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow.

And last year, a children’s animated film, Mavka: The Forest Song, was released. It tells the story of Ukrainian forest mythology based on a 1918 play written by the poet Lesya Ukrainka.

The official trailer for Mavka: The Forest Song.

Memorialising Ukrainian heroism

Every morning at 9am sharp, I hear the Ukrainian national anthem echo through my neighbourhood. All Ukrainians share a minute of silence to remember and reflect on the loss of Ukrainian life in the war.

Military farewell and burial ceremonies also take place every single day in cities across Ukraine. Last month, my neighbours gathered to farewell Oleksiy Zahrebel’nyy, a Ukrainian soldier who died in battle.

There are many other ways in which the war and acts of bravery are being memorialised to reaffirm Ukrainian historical narratives and identity. For instance, Ukrainians have appealed to their local authorities to change the names of streets to commemorate fallen soldiers. Last year, my neighbourhood changed a street from “Marshal Yakubovsky” (marshal of the Soviet Union) to “Heroes of Mariupol”, commemorating the soldiers who died in one of the bloodiest battles in the war.

Similarly, the artist Volodymyr Manzhos (Waone Interesni Kazki) has painted murals across Ukraine and Europe depicting acts of Ukrainian bravery and Russian aggression. Ukrainians have also become enthusiastic collectors of postage stamps illustrating Ukrainian heroism and events from the war.

Such examples demonstrate how Ukrainians are creating new national narratives that challenge the Soviet history that has long dominated society. This, in turn, is writing a new history for the country for future generations.

The Conversation

Anastasiya Byesyedina does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. As the air-raid sirens sound, I am studying Ukrainian culture with new fervour. I’m far from alone –