In my series "Stolen Language" I confront the complex interplay between language, identity, and historical manipulation in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. As a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, my identity crisis deepened against the backdrop of a conflict where my native tongue became entangled with political discord and violence.
The series serves as an exploration of the internal struggle I face, torn between the language of my upbringing and the national allegiance I feel compelled to express.  I feel like I no longer can speak Russian daily without betraying my country.
In parallel to taking Ukrainian language courses, I started researching its history. Having been born and raised in the Soviet Union, I had felt its impact, yet it wasn't until I delved into my research that I truly grasped the extent of historical manipulation. Unearthing the covert Soviet strategy of russification, I uncover a systematic effort to erase Ukrainian national identity. The manipulation extended from public perception, where Ukrainians were disparaged as intellectually inferior, to the forced alteration of Ukrainian surnames into Russian ones and the intentional distortion of the Ukrainian language. A Ukrainian language reformation program was set up to shorten cultural distance and make it as close to Russian as possible thus slowly erasing Ukrainian national identity. Letters were excised from the alphabet and words were replaced, giving rise to "surzhik," a linguistic amalgamation of Russian and Ukrainian languages supposedly spoken by uneducated common Ukrainian people. Speaking Ukrainian fell out of favor and was deemed shameful, as it was directly linked to ignorance and perceived as lacking culture.
The surge in Duolingo users learning Ukrainian in 2022—a staggering 577% increase—mirrors the collective awakening to the language being a nation’s DNA. The echoes of war have catalyzed a re-birth of the Ukrainian nation, underscoring the transformative power of language in shaping individual and collective destinies. "Stolen Language" stands as both a personal journey and a broader reflection on the resilience of culture in the face of historical subjugation.
I can't speak
In this childhood photo of mine, Russian remains my mother tongue, and even now, I struggle to converse with my mother in Ukrainian. While I cannot alter my native language, speaking Russian leaves me feeling like a traitor. The internal conflict renders me speechless.

Nightingale’s song
Ukrainian language ranks as one of world’s top 10 melodic languages. Ukrainians lovingly call it “nightingale’s language” for its resemblance to a beautiful singing of nightingales.

Humanitarian aura of the nation
As I embarked on relearning the Ukrainian language, I unearthed the profoundly inspiring works of Ukraine's eminent poet, Lina Kostenko, which delve into the crisis of self-identification among a nationally disoriented segment of society. For both her and myself, language serves as a cornerstone of the nation's humanitarian essence. I incorporated excerpts of her writings into my collage.

Deformation of nation's main mirror
As a photographer I love using glass and mirrors to deform the reality. A former Soviet dissident and Ukraine’s leading poet Lina Kostenko believed that Soviet Union was doing the same to the Ukrainian national identity. She used a story when the Americans launched a research station from Cape Canaveral with a particularly powerful telescope that had a precisely accurate system of mirrors. At the last moment they discovered a defect in the main mirror and suspended the launch. They launched the telescope into orbit once the mirror was fixed. 
In a figurative sense, each society looks into a complex spectrum of such mirrors to have an objective picture of itself. Such main mirror of Ukraine was strongly deformed by Russian Empire and Soviet Union leading to the inferiority complex and shame of speaking Ukrainian language. 
Hammering in
The most insidious form of manipulation is the one that goes unnoticed. Initially, the Russian language was forcefully imposed upon the Ukrainian population through methods ranging from physical elimination to indoctrinating the younger generation to adopt Russian as the sole "correct" native language. A generation later, it became increasingly rare to encounter people speaking Ukrainian in urban areas.


It does not make any difference which language we speak
I once believed that the language I spoke in Ukraine mattered little as long as I was understood. It was common to hear one person speak Russian while another responded in Ukrainian. The war brought me to realization that I can’t be distinguished from Russian people if I continue to speak their language. 

As my school years were drawing to a close, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred. It wasn't until my forties that I discovered an extra letter in the Ukrainian alphabet, unbeknownst to me before. This letter had been removed from the Ukrainian alphabet shortly after the formation of the Soviet Union, only to be reinstated after Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

Not native language
As a non-native speaker, Ukrainian is a language I constantly strive to improve. Before speaking, I often rehearse phrases in my mind. When unable to express myself in Ukrainian, I opt for silence. Fluent in English and French, I am presently reacquainting myself with Ukrainian, embracing the journey of rediscovering my linguistic roots.

Hidden russification
I was raised in the Soviet Union, where Russian served as the sole language of education and cultural expression. Given Ukraine's strong history of preserving its national identity, it was viewed as a potential threat. The Soviet regime employed a covert strategy of Russification to diminish Ukrainian heritage and promote linguistic assimilation, striving to align Ukrainian with Russian as closely as possible.

Ukrainian language was never introduced in kindergartens for preschoolers, ensuring that Russian remained the sole native language for Ukrainian children. I captured this photo in the abandoned city of Chernobyl, frozen in time since the 1986 accident. It was only during my work on the 'Stolen Language' project that I noticed the scattered cards with Russian syllables on the floor.

The noodles (lapsha) – Feeding the lies
Throughout most of my adolescence, the only movies I watched were Soviet productions. In Russian culture, the metaphor 'hanging noodles' implies blatant deception. 'Mosfilm,' the largest Soviet film studio, functioned as a vital propaganda tool, enjoying near-complete dominance in Soviet mass media. Its Russian-language films were widely disseminated, to the extent that nearly every Soviet citizen could recite lines from them by heart.
Like many schools in the Soviet era, all my subjects were taught in Russian. Upon graduating from school in the early years of Ukraine's independence, a photo of my classmate and me was published in a local newspaper under the Ministry of Education. Despite the Ukrainian title "education" displayed alongside, the entire text was in Russian, highlighting how we failed to recognize the significance of this linguistic discrepancy at the time.
I was unaware of the extensive Soviet strategy of Russification, employing various tactics. This included manipulating public perception by portraying Ukrainians as inherently unintelligent and denigrating the Ukrainian language as inferior. Additionally, there was a systematic effort to Russify Ukrainian surnames and alter the Ukrainian language to closely resemble Russian, aiming to erase Ukrainian national identity. This linguistic manipulation resulted in the emergence of 'surzhyk,' a hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian spoken predominantly by less-educated Ukrainians.
School timetable
I attended a specialized English school where both English and Russian were taught from the first year. I began learning Ukrainian in my third year. This timetable from my final year of school illustrates the weekly distribution of each language: Russian is represented in red, Ukrainian in yellow, and English in blue.
Nation’s DNA
Just as DNA provides the blueprint for life, language provides the blueprint for a nation's collective consciousness. A minor change in one’s DNA may lead to disappearance of entire species. For a long time, Ukrainian language was dividing a nation instead of uniting it. With the beginning of war, I realized that the language I speak preserves my distinctiveness, connects me to my roots while propels me into the future.
Birth of a nation
I've always identified as Ukrainian, but it's only now that I truly understand the depth of that identity. Caught between its past and future, Ukrainians held diverse views on the importance of speaking their national language and other aspects of national identity. Intended to assimilate Ukraine with Russia, the war has had the opposite effect, giving rise to a new nation.
Finding roots
Since the onset of the war, I've felt as though my tree of life has been uprooted. In the aftermath, rediscovering my roots has become a profound journey, facilitated by reclaiming my own language. Amid severed connections to my cultural heritage, relearning Ukrainian has emerged as an act of resilience and self-discovery.
Back to Top