Speaking Russian banned at leading Ukrainian university

NaUKMA head defends dropping ‘language of aggressor’, despite concerns over freedom of expression

二月 3, 2023
Russian dictionary
Source: iStock

A leading Ukrainian university has banned the use of Russian language in its corridors, prompting warnings over “illiberalism”.

Students and faculty members of a general assembly at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) have decided to prohibit the use of Russian, “the language of the aggressor state”, on its campus.  

The move comes nearly a year since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which began the ongoing war between the two nations, fracturing global academia. But well before February 2022, language was a contentious issue for Ukraine, with its long history of cultural repression.

The Russian tongue – seen by many Ukrainians as a lasting reminder of Russian colonisation – continues to cause heated debates in the country.

In 2019, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law cementing the role of Ukrainian as a state language and relegating Russian to minority language status.

More recently, lawmakers proposed to ban the use of Russian-language teaching materials – to the dismay of critics, who argued that dropping Russian was next to impossible in some disciplines with a heavy foundation in Russian research, such as physics.

The recent move by NaUKMA takes things a step further, restricting even casual conversation in the language.

NaUKMA’s rector Serhiy Kvit told Times Higher Education that its council’s decision to stop the use of Russian reflected a consensus among its community.

“This step is not connected with punishments, fines or repressions. It is aimed mainly at informing first-year students about the peculiarities of our corporate culture,” said Professor Kvit.

He noted that language is an important part of Ukrainian national identity – with Ukrainians subjected to centuries of “forced Russification” under imperial Russia.

“The Ukrainian language was persecuted for more than 400 years: the Russians first burned Ukrainian books in 1622. They continued the same policy in 2022,” he said, referencing reports claiming that Russian troops had destroyed Ukrainian literature.   

“The imperial politics of Russia in the past and the politics of Putin’s regime currently are built on the statement that the Russian army supposedly protects the interests of those people who communicate in Russian.”

He was doubtful the ban would negatively affect students. “Almost all of our students call Ukrainian their native language, although some of them may communicate in Russian among themselves,” he said.

NaUKMA currently uses Russian language texts as part of academic course materials, Professor Kvit noted. Faculty at the institution already stopped using Russian in their lectures some time ago; the university has two working languages, Ukrainian and English.

But among some Ukrainian academics, the move has sparked concern. 

Ivan Katchanovski, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, called the ban “an illiberal, undemocratic, and unconstitutional decision that goes against values of freedom of expression and academic freedom” and “counterproductive”, given that the Russian government justified its invasion of Ukraine by false claims of genocide of Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

He said that the decision would make the use of Russian as a minority language “even more restrictive than in the totalitarian Soviet Union”.

Professor Katchanovski also worried that the decision to prohibit Russian by NaUKMA, given its high profile, could cause other institutions to follow suit.

Responding to the criticisms, Professor Kvit maintained that NaUKMA was the country’s “most liberal and democratic university” and said that “critical reviews” of the decision were “in the overwhelming minority”.

“This public reminder has practically no new effect on the daily life of our community,” he said, adding, “the centuries-old legacy of Russification must be overcome”.




  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.