Four Rules of Using Russian in Ukraine

If you are a Russian speaker or a student of Rusisan language, then often you would have heard from your friends or teachers that you can survive with Russian almost anywhere in former Soviet Union. While this may be partly true, it is not as easy as it sounds due to political, ethnical, lingual and cultural differences within former Soviet Union. If you are travelling to Ukraine as a Russian speaker or to practice your Russian language, then read through the following rules of using Russian in Ukraine.

1. Understand that Russian is not the language of Ukraine

Russian in Ukraine

This is the first rule of using Russian in Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian might sound similar sometimes since both are Slavic languages, but they are essentially different than each other. Unsurprisingly, Russian is not one of the official languages in Ukraine. In a poll conducted by Razumkov Centre in August 2011, 55.3% respondent claimed using Ukrainian in everyday life while 44.5% of Ukrainians claimed using Russian in their everyday life. In fact, almost everyone in Ukraine understands Russian as first or second language due to the Soviet past and due to large number of ethnic Russians living in the eastern part of Ukraine.

When you are in Ukraine, use Russian as lingua franca. Imagine yourself as a tourist in Germany, you communicate with the locals in English since that will be your second-best bet to facilitate communication after German language. Similarly, Russian language can be used in Ukraine, but there is a difference! England and Germany are not in any conflict recently unlike Russia and Ukraine, who are engaged in a long conflict. This brings political elements making the use of Russian language complex.

2. Do not speak in Russian in Ukraine right away.

This is the second Rule of surviving in Ukraine with Russian language. If you are in a shop, or in a restaurant or meeting a new person, do not straight away start talking in Russian. This will make them think that you think that Russian is the default way of talking in this country. This is like the situation where you look like a South Asian, so I will assume that you are Indian, but you could be a Pakistani. Similarly, I might think that you look Asian, so I begin talking to you in Korean, but you could be Chinese. Now there are chances that a Pakistani person will understand Hindi just because of similarities between Hindi and Urdu. However, essentially Hindi is not the language of Pakistan.

During my trip in Ukraine, I realized this many times. If I would order something in a restaurant in Russian, I would get a strange look. I was under assumption that I should get a green slip to speak in Russian, since I am a tourist and I may not know Ukrainian. But it looks like I did not get green slip from every person.

So, what is the best approach to talk in Russian with locals?

Speak in English. That’s right. When you meet someone new, speak in English. If they reply in English, then you are lucky. If they say they do not understand English, then politely ask for permission to speak in Russian. This will form understanding between you two that now Russian is the only possible way of communication.

3. Ask for permission to speak in Russian

Often it will not be you who will initiate a conversation. Someone might approach you first in Ukrainian language. If that happens, politely say in English that you do not know the language and ask for permission to speak in Russian or English. This is one of the keys to using Russian in Ukraine

I learnt this rule during my time in Kyiv. A man approached me to say that I am rocking in my traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka. However, before that he asked me if I speak Russian or Ukrainian. I said Russian and then he continued in Russian.

4. Learn some words in Ukrainian

This applies not just in Ukraine, but everywhere. I always learn a few words and sentences in a local language of a place I am visiting. If you know Russian, it won’t take much time learning few Ukrainian words. Although Ukrainian as a language is closer to Polish than Russian, there are still many similarities between these languages due to their Slavic roots. Chances are that you might already understand some Ukrainian. I had no problem reading a text in Ukraine but understanding someone who is speaking Ukrainian was little bit of a challenge.


You can easily survive in Ukraine with Russian language if you follow these rules. Sometimes you might not need these rules depending on how generous people you find on your way and in which part of Ukraine you are. You can talk in Russian at all the times in Eastern Ukraine, you might have to follow these rules in Kyiv, and you must use these rules in western Ukraine. I found many kind people during my time in Ukraine who helped me find my seat in the train, helped me choose vegan dishes from the menu, helped me find my way in Kyiv, etc. In a poll held in November 2009, 54.7% Ukrainians claimed that issue of language is irrelevant and that there are other important issues that the people should pay attention to. Usually people will help you no matter what, but there is always a chance that you might meet a few people who will get offended when you speak in Rusisan.


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