One of the most confusing aspects of Ukraine is the language that’s spoken in the country. If your first guess is Ukrainian, then, you’re both right and wrong.
In reality, in Ukraine two languages are spoken: Russian and Ukrainian. Both of these languages are spoken more or less equally, depending on which part of the country you’re in.
Ukrainian is the official language. It’s mandatory in government and law offices. All of the official paperwork is done in Ukrainian. Contracts, agreements are all done in Ukrainian.
Russian, on the other hand, is the language that’s native to half of the country. Which means it’s the language of choice that’s spoken at home, in the family, among friends, etc.
The reason for this such divide is historical. Before 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, where the official language was Russian. The Soviet Union was made up of 15 distinct republics, each with its own official language. Each republic was allowed to teach that language in schools, but nevertheless, the government language was always Russian.
When the Soviet Union broke apart and Ukraine gained independence, Ukraine was mostly a Russian-speaking country thanks to heavy Russification during the Soviet era.
As of around 2015, Ukraine started a heavy process of reversing all of this called “Ukrainization.” There has been a big push for everyone to speak more Ukrainian, even for those whose native language (the language people speak at home) is Russian.
As of 2019, Ukraine is still a very much bilingual country with Russian being a more preferred language overall except for cities in the West side of the country such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankist and a few others.
Which language to learn?
Of course, the politically correct answer is to learn Ukrainian. After all, Ukrainian is the official language of the country. However, Russian is a much more versatile language to use in Ukraine.
Now only will you be able to communicate without problems with the entire country, but as a foreigner, you won’t have issues speaking Russian in the Western part of the country, where, although they understand Russian, they consider it hostile (more on that below).
Will people get offended if you speak Russian?
The only people that *might* get offended if you speak Russian are those from the Western part of the country in cities such as Lviv and Ivano-Frankovsk.
However, I do say *might* because when I visited that region back in 2016, I spoke Russian to everyone and never had a problem.
Actually, this was more of a problem during the Soviet Union era. Back then, speaking Russian was considered to be more or less a hostile act and people would even ignore you if you started speaking in Russian in the Western part of the country. Here’s an account of someone who tried $speaking Russian in Lviv, but the other person took offense at this.
The bottom line
If you're having trouble picking the right language to learn, here's a handy chart:
- The official language is Ukrainian. This means all government correspondence, contracts, etc are all in Ukrainian.
- Russian is spoken by over 150 million native speakers
- Ukrainian is spoken by some 37 million native speakers
- The major cities in Ukraine all speak Russian (Kiev, Odessa, Dnipro, Poltava, Kharkiv)
- Ukrainian is predominantly spoken in the Western part of the country as well as villages in the central part of the country
- Russian is predominantly spoken in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country
- Everyone in Ukraine understands both Russian and Ukrainian
- In the Western part of the country, you may have some people who will refuse to reply if you speak in Russian (or they may only reply in Ukrainian)
Ukraine Real advice: unless you have a good reason to learn Ukrainian, you're much better off learning Russian since it's a much more versatile language.