As Ukraine doubles down on its national identity, who is left behind?
- Photography by Andreea Campeanu
For 40 years, Dragos Olaru has been paying his respects to the great Romanian cultural figures buried in his home city of Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine. With its decorative tombstones and earthy paths, the cemetery on Zelena Street is the resting place of ethnic Romanian artists, activists and intellectuals who defined their culture and defended it when outside powers encroached upon it. Although he met none of these figures — his “friends,” as he calls them — before they passed, Olaru feels he knows them intimately in death. He tells me that he is continuing their work.
He is also trying to protect these Romanian graves from actual destruction. Local Ukrainian authorities have decided to exhume the remains lying beneath some 200 of the tombstones on Zelena Street — which they say are unidentifiable — and then auction the plots. But Olaru sees the campaign as a way to “Ukrainize” the cemetery.
“They are doing this to remove the traces of us,” he told me, as we passed the grave of Romanian philologist and revolutionary Aron Pumnul, who advocated for the Romanian language to be written using the Latin alphabet, instead of Cyrillic, in the mid-19th century.
The fate of the Zelena Street cemetery is just one incarnation of wartime tensions between Ukrainians and ethnic Romanians, the country’s second-largest linguistic minority after Russian speakers. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, respect for the rights and interests of Western ethnic minorities waxed and waned as the new country struggled to fortify its self-image in the face of ever-present Russian influence. But the 2014 Maidan Revolution marked a turning point, providing a new impetus to protect the Ukrainian language and establish it as the country’s lingua franca. The subsequent ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war between the Ukrainian government and Russian proxies in the eastern Donbas region left Ukrainians with an urgent need to define their day-to-day relationship with Russia and Russianness, and in turn, to define what it means to be Ukrainian.
The full-scale invasion in February 2022 brought a fierce embrace of Ukrainian culture and language. Yet while this hardening of Ukrainianness is clearly intended as a way to distinguish the country from its aggressor, minority communities in western Ukraine have become collateral damage. Linguistic policies aimed at strengthening Ukrainian are edging Romanian out of the public lives of many native speakers. And other moves, ranging from the exhumation of remains in the Zelena Street cemetery to political allegations against Romanian religious leaders, have left some ethnic Romanians unsure of their position in Ukrainian society.
Although Dragos Olaru was aggrieved by the events in the graveyard, which he sees as a mean-spirited move against Romanian culture, he still supports the Ukrainian state. “Putin is the biggest enemy of the world,” he said. I later learned that his nephew was serving on the front line in Bakhmut, more than 700 miles away on the other side of the country.
Ukraine has been home to ethnic Romanian, Hungarian and Polish communities since territorial lines were redrawn following World War I and World War II. Following Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, some 400,000 Romanian speakers became Ukrainian citizens, becoming a part of the nascent state’s heterogeneous social fabric. Through much of the 1990s, Ukraine was also consumed by economic turmoil, the result of hyperinflation coupled with rampant cronyism. Conversations about national identity were often relegated to the back burner as Ukrainians worked to keep bread on the table. When the economy stabilized in the early 2000s, the trickle-down effect was limited, and the country’s oligarchs continued to grow their power and wealth. Russia was ever watchful, supporting the campaigns of Russia-friendly politicians who would prevent the country from swaying too far west, toward the European Union and NATO. Whenever identity questions did arise, these lawmakers were eager to frame Ukraine in the context of Russia by highlighting the historical bond between the two countries.
In Ukraine’s west, Hungarian, Polish and Romanian minority communities lived their lives largely in their own languages, often benefiting from the policies of Russia-backed politicians who, at Moscow’s behest, sought to protect the Russian language with moves that tended to benefit other minority languages at the same time. When pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych passed a language law in 2012 that gave minority languages, namely Russian, the status of a “regional language” in areas where 10% or more of the population did not speak Ukrainian, it was seen by opponents as an attempt to undermine Ukrainian. But the measure found support among minority language speakers in the west of the country.
Following the Maidan revolution, Ukraine’s language issue took on a new urgency, and policymakers passed a series of laws to formally establish the use of the Ukrainian language in various aspects of public life, ranging from media to education to the legal system. In sum, these laws effectively dismantled Yanukovych’s 2012 language law. Its fate was finally sealed in 2018 when the Ukrainian Constitutional Court deemed the law unconstitutional. People who supported these changes argued that they would create a more cohesive Ukrainian society and lead to necessary improvements in the country’s struggling education system.
But the wave of legislation set off alarm bells for Ukraine’s Polish, Hungarian and Romanian minorities. These communities largely understood the motivations for the changes but also saw them chipping away at their own languages and traditions and at the practical bridge that their languages offered to living and working in the EU. Warsaw, Bucharest and Budapest stepped in, routinely chiding the Ukrainian government for not doing enough to protect minority rights. Supporting their pleas for a more considerate approach to the Ukrainian question was a report from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s top advisory body on constitutional matters, that said that a 2019 language law passed in Ukraine “failed to strike a fair balance” between promoting the Ukrainian language and “safeguarding minorities.”
Ukrainian authorities repeatedly argued that the changes were not an attempt to erode minority languages but rather an effort to buttress Ukrainian identity and introduce a sense of cohesiveness to everyday affairs across the country. And much of day-to-day life continued to play out in languages other than Ukrainian, including in Russian. Even today, while Ukrainian is the official state language according to the constitution, Russian is still the first language of approximately 20% of Ukrainians, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself.
But Russia’s incursions continued. In a 2021 speech that foreshadowed the invasion of Ukraine months later, Putin denounced the Ukrainian language laws and promoted the false claim that Russian proxies in the Donbas “took up arms to defend their home, their language and their lives.” The speech highlighted the extent to which Putin sees respect for the Russian language as a key component in the bond between Ukraine and Russia — and as a pillar in Russia’s political strategy toward Ukraine.
Months after the first Russian tank crossed into Ukrainian territory in February 2022, the Kremlin used Ukraine’s language policies as part of a robust disinformation campaign to justify carrying out what has become the greatest land invasion in Europe since World War II. “The Russian language is banned in Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC in April 2022.
When it comes to Ukraine’s language battles, the most sensitive issue for Romanians is education. The village of Petrashivka lies an hour south of Chernivtsi, a stone’s throw from the Romanian border. There I met Gheorghe and Mihaela Lupu, a middle-aged married couple who have dedicated their careers to running the Petrashivka Secondary School. Nearly all classes for the school’s 314 students are taught in Romanian.
“We speak Romanian, but we are Ukrainian,” Gheorghe, the school’s director, told me. The presence of both languages and nations is evident at Petrashivka. As we walked through the school corridors with their lace curtains and reddish-brown wooden floors, the couple told me about Ukrainian and Romanian government support for their work. A grant from Bucharest allowed them to buy new tables for the Romanian history classroom. Next door, in the Ukrainian language classroom, a TV, chairs and other materials were brought in with support from Kyiv. When we stuck our heads into the classroom, the students greeted us eagerly. The teacher prompted a 12-year-old girl, Anastasia, to recite a poem she had written about the war. “I pray in my thoughts,” she said with zeal. “Bring peace on the earth, God! Have mercy on us, God! Save us from this war.”
Gheorghe said that parents were happy that their children could speak both languages fluently, as it opened up more opportunities for future studies in Ukraine and Romania.
This transition has been in the works since Ukraine’s 2017 adoption of an education law that set the country on a path for public secondary schooling to be conducted in Ukrainian. Heralded as a move to align Ukraine’s school system more closely with European standards, the law gives space for EU minority languages like Romanian to be taught as a second language. But for the students of the Petrashivka Secondary School, nearly all of whom speak Romanian at home, the implementation of the education law will be a significant change.
When I asked how they felt about the language change, the teachers were hesitant to share their thoughts. Gheorghe offered only this: “If the change is state law, we will do it. We live under Ukrainian law.”
Their acquaintance, Iurie Levcic, was much more forthright. Back in central Chernivtsi, sitting in the Bucovina Art Centre for the Conservation and Promotion of Romanian Traditional Culture, which the 54-year-old man runs, Levcic described what he sees as the quiet dissolution of Romanian culture in Ukraine.
“They want to assimilate us, they try a total assimilation, starting with the schools,” he said. He excoriated the Zelenskyy government, arguing that officials were unwilling to meaningfully engage in dialogue with the Romanian community.
Levcic is not alone in his distrust of the Zelenskyy government. The current situation has also angered politicians in Romania, who feel slighted by Kyiv’s position on the minority issue despite Romania’s support for Ukraine in the ongoing war. Tempers flared in December 2022: The Ukrainian parliament adopted a law on national minorities to fulfill one of the conditions necessary to start negotiations for EU membership but did not take on board fully recommendations from the Venice Commission on the protection of minorities. Condemnation from Bucharest was swift and cemented the idea that, although Romanian speakers were not necessarily being targeted by Kyiv, they had become an afterthought in Ukraine’s corridors of power. Adding insult to injury, the move came months after Zelenskyy made a speech before the Romanian parliament, in April 2022, in which he promised to “start a dialogue” on a “new comprehensive agreement that guarantees the absolute protection and development of our national minorities” — a reference to the approximately 46,000 ethnic Ukrainians living in Romania. He reiterated this position to the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in January 2023, after the two heads of state had a call on the issue. A read out from the call said Zelenskyy “expressed his full openness to identifying solutions, so that the Romanian community in Ukraine benefits from the same rights enjoyed by the Ukrainian community in Romania.”
Back in Chernivtsi’s City Hall, Iryna Tkachuk, the head of the city's education department, took a more political stance. She defended the upcoming implementation of the education language law, arguing that it would ensure “minority speakers could have full access to university level education in Ukraine.”
The affinities of ethnic Romanian religious leaders have also come under scrutiny as Ukraine strives to shed its cultural ties with Russia. In Chernivtsi, many Romanians still worship in the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Although the Church claims it broke off communications with Moscow in May 2022, months after the invasion, and denies being influenced by Russia, Ukrainian political leaders have trained their focus on church figures, keen to identify and sever any remaining ties to the Kremlin.
Sitting inside the Ascension Church on the outskirts of Chernivtsi, clad in black robes and a matching puffer coat, Father Pavel Paulencu told me he feels a crisis setting in. He worries it is only a matter of time before the authorities arrive at his door.
“I’ve had people ask already why I’m doing a mass in Romanian in Ukraine,” he said. Ethnic Romanians make up 60% of his congregation, and Romanian is the language of priority for services. “I told them to go and read the history,” he said with a heavy sigh. “In church, it should not be politics, just God.”
Anxiety in Kyiv about ties between the Romanian religious community and Russia have been brewing for some time, but they reached a boiling point in late 2022, when Ukrainian Security Services (known as the SBU) raided the Chernivtsi-Bukovina Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as part of a series of searches across the country. The SBU Telegram account reported that law enforcement officers found Russian passports and pro-Kremlin literature among the belongings of the Chernivtsi-Bukovina clergy. Soon after, citizenships of 13 representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — including from the Chernivtsi-Bukovina Diocese — were suspended by presidential decree. In response, a Romanian cleric threatened to sue President Zelenskyy. The U.N.’s human rights office said that the nationwide SBU searches could “undermine the right to freedom of religion.”
In April 2023, a resident of the Chernivtsi region was arrested on suspicion of burning down a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the village of Milieve. In early May, prosecutors in Chernivtsi submitted to a court an indictment against the local Banchen Monastery, claiming that an assistant abbot helped men of draft age illegally cross the border. Ukraine’s wartime rules prohibit men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
The anxieties behind these actions by law enforcement have been exacerbated by the war. But they are not new. In 2019, politically-driven tensions within the Church led to a schism and to the establishment of the similarly-named Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which today has the full support of the Zelenskyy government. The schism was a blow for Putin, who sees the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliates as the centerpiece of his notion of a “Russkiy mir,” or Russian world, the idea that all Russian and Russian-identifying people should be united. But for Ukraine, establishing a church independent of Moscow was seen as a move to not only distinguish the country from Russia but also to stymie the Kremlin’s ability to influence certain clergy.
In the eyes of the Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church harbors a threat. But for the average ethnic Romanians, what’s happening to the Church is yet another way in which Kyiv is imposing upon their lives.
In a country traumatized by Russian war crimes, where people are struggling to survive each day, the space for debate on issues such as language and national identity is limited at best.
On the streets of Chernivtsi, one hears a steady mix of Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian languages, with most Russian speakers skewing older and Ukrainian ones younger. Although the war has hardened attitudes toward Russian speakers, there is no outward animosity toward the lyrical sounds of Romanian in daily life.
And while the language issue has riled up politicians and activists, most Romanians I spoke to seemed more focused on ensuring that their families survive the war. Chernivtsi has been spared from Russian rockets, but the war remains ever-present. Ukrainian flags dot almost every door. Every morning, the city takes a brief moment of silence to honor the men and women on the frontline. And in a new graveyard on the city’s outskirts, the groundskeepers can be seen digging graves for the bodies of soldiers, returning home from the frontlines for the last time.
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.