I have lived in Ukraine for several years now and have dealt with both Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. In Ukraine, many people know both languages. But it is by far not all of them. Especially tourists and visitors from abroad always ask me how similar Russian and Ukrainian are. Today I will take the opportunity to introduce you to the differences and similarities of the two languages.
Russian and Ukrainian – The Slavic Language Family
Russian and Ukrainian are both Slavic languages belonging to the Indo-European languages. Slavic languages are spoken mainly in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. However, through migrants and international relations, they are also widely spoken elsewhere. However, Slavic languages divide additionally into subgroups. These are:
- East Slavic languages
In addition to Russian and Ukrainian, these include Belarusian and some extinct languages such as Old Russian (it is also called Old Ukrainian or Old Belarusian, depending on the country).
- West Slavic languages
These include, for example, Polish, Czech and Slovak, but also both Sorbian languages, the Sorbs native to Lusatia in Germany (we have taken a closer look at the Sorbian language here for you in our article on Sorbian Bautzen). Kashubian, native to quite a few people in Northern Poland, also belongs here with some extinct languages such as Pomeranian.
- South Slavic languages
South Slavic languages are spoken in the Balkans and include, for example, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Macedonian and Slovenian.
As you can see, Ukrainian and Russian belong to the same language branch. However, this says nothing about whether the two speakers understand each other.
History of Ukraine and Russia – United or Separated?
The knowledge about the history of Eastern Europe and especially about Ukraine is unfortunately not very big in the West. In addition, many supposed experts like to spread false facts about the history of Ukraine and claim that Ukraine and Russia have always belonged together. However, this is not correct. It is true that both Russians and Ukrainians refer to origins in Kyivan Rus. However, there were also several centuries when both nations developed completely separately.
It was not until 1667 that Ukraine was partitioned and the territories east of the Dnipro and the city of Kyiv came under the control of the Principality of Moscow. Other territories west of the Dnipro annexed by Tsarist Russia through the partitions of Poland by the surrounding powers. The Russians founded many towns in what is now eastern and southern Ukraine. Galicia, on the other hand, was administered by Austria-Hungary as a result of the Polish partitions and remained under this rule until World War I.
Attempts to establish a Ukrainian state
The Cossacks with their leader Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky wanted to found their own Ukrainian state, but failed. There was another attempt to found Ukrainian states after the First World War. However, the Ukrainian republics were pulverized between the radically expanding Soviet Union and Poland. Galicia remained Polish until World War II, Transcarpathia became Czechoslovak, and the Bukovina Romanian. After World War II, however, the Poles were expelled from Ukraine and the Ukrainian SSR, within the present borders of Ukraine, was part of the USSR.
Ukrainians and Russians in the Soviet Union
Radical russification was taking place in the Soviet Union. Stalin had already artificially triggered a famine in the 1930s. In this so-called Holodomor*, it is estimated that five to eight million Ukrainians died because the Communists seized all food. Entire regions were depopulated and then populated with Russians and other Russian-speaking workers. Eastern Ukraine, which until then had been culturally Ukrainian, became partially russified.
Even after World War II, Russians continued to be resettled in the territories of Ukraine, mainly in the context of the construction of large power plants and industrial facilities – the Chornobyl nuclear power plant is a good example. Russians dominated the Soviet nomenklatura, even though Ukrainians were also strongly represented among Soviet officials.
Independence of Ukraine
The collapse of the Soviet Union also promoted an independent national movement in Ukraine, which emphasized the independence of Ukrainian culture and language. After Ukraine’s independence on August 24, 1991, the differences between Ukraine and Russia on political issues grew, which was reflected, for example, in the prolonged discussion about Crimea and also in the resistance of the Russian-speaking population to an increase in the importance of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine.
Fueled by propaganda, there was not only an annexation of Crimea by Russia, but also the War in Ukraine, in which Russia supplied pro-Russian separatists with weapons and de facto moved entire army units to the Donbas. The war has created a deep rift between Ukrainians and Russians and continues to divide entire families.
Ukrainians and Russians – Different Identities
The war in Ukraine has extremely accelerated the centrifugal forces that distance Ukrainians from Russians culturally. There is still a great sympathy for Russians in Ukraine. But now even russophile Ukrainians have come to defend not only the independence of the country, but also the independence of Ukrainian culture. Even in the days of the tsarist empire, there were repeated attempts by Russians to deny Ukrainians their own identity. Thus, Russians like to call Ukrainians “Little Russians.” Ukrainians who grew up in Soviet Ukraine repeatedly report stereotypes that Russians made of them.
We are someone again
Ukrainians, however, are becoming increasingly self-confident in asserting their place in Europe and spreading the disadvantaged Ukrainian language more widely. Recent examples include initiatives in which Ukrainian cultural institutions are pushing internationally to change the Russian spellings of Ukrainian cities in favor of Ukrainian spellings: Kyiv instead of Kiev, Lviv instead of Lvov, Kharkiv instead of Kharkov. Ukrainians also like to argue that borsch should be considered the national dish of Ukraine, not a Russian dish. And these are only two examples.
Ukrainian and Russian – Language differences
Development of the Ukrainian language independently of Russian
As far as languages are concerned, over the centuries, of course, especially the separate affiliation has significantly fueled the different development of the two languages Russian and Ukrainian. Ukrainian, formerly also called Ruthenian, was spoken mainly in the countryside and remained the lingua franca in Ukraine. In the cities, on the other hand, Polish (in Galicia and until 1795 also in Podilia) and Russian (rest of Ukraine) were mostly spoken.
However, in the parts of Ukraine belonging to the Russian Tsarist Empire, it was forbidden to speak Ukrainian. Ukrainian was dismissed as a dialect and discrimanted as “Little Russian”. A Ukrainian national movement, however, formed already among the Cossacks and became strong in the 19th century. In the parts of Ukraine that belonged to Austria-Hungary, educational associations could be formed and the use of the language was permitted.
Influences from other languages
Due to the different affiliations, peculiarities developed in the respective regional dialects. In Galicia Ukrainian still contains many Polish words. In Transcarpathia, the local dialect uses many Hungarian words, in Bukovina not a few Romanian words, and in general Ukrainian contains some German and also Yiddish words.
In Russian, on the other hand, there was already a language reform under Tsar Peter the Great, during which many Western words were incorporated into Russian, especially from French and Latin but also some from German. As a result, both languages have become more distant from each other, as in Ukrainian the language was standardized especially in the 19th century.
Russian and Ukrainian – The alphabets
If you look at the simplest aspect, the alphabet, the first differences already become clear. Both Russian and Ukrainian have letters that the other alphabet does not use. These are highlighted in red here.
The Ukrainian alphabet
А а, Б б, В в, Г г, Ґ ґ, Д д, Е е, Є є, Ж ж , З з, И и, І і, Ї ї, Й й, К к, Л л, М м, Н н, О о, П п, Р р, С с, Т т, У у, Ф ф, Х х, Ц ц, Ч ч, Ш ш, Щ щ, Ь ь, Ю ю, Я я
The Russian alphabet
А а, Б б, В в, Г г, Д д, Е е, Ё ё, Ж ж, З з, И и, Й й, К к, Л л, М м, Н н, О о, П п, Р р, С с, Т т, У у, Ф ф, Х х, Ц ц, Ч ч, Ш ш, Щ щ, Ъ ъ, Ы ы, Ь ь, Э э, Ю ю, Я я
As you can see, Ukrainian has the І і, which also exists in Latin alphabets. In Russian, the letter И и is used for it. In Ukrainian, this letter also exists, but is pronounced differently. For this sound, again, there is an equivalent in Russian, the letter Ы ы. Є є in Ukrainian is the combination of J + E. In Russian Е е can be used for it, but only under certain circumstances – it’s complicated!
The letter Г г is similar. It is used in Ukrainian like an H in English. In Russian, however, it stands for the letter G. The city of Hamburg in Germany is pronounced Gamburg in Russian. Russians often have problems with the pronunciation of G. Ukrainians, by the way, also have the letter G. In their alphabet, it is the letter Ґ ґ.
Double letters sometimes here sometimes there
I find it particularly entertaining how both languages have letters that combine two sounds, like the letter Ї ї in Ukrainian. It is pronounced like J + I, i.e. ji. In Russian, the combination of и and й must be used for this. But if you thought this was a Ukrainian peculiarity, you are in for a surprise. Russian has the letter Ё ё. It consists of the sounds J + O, i.e. jo. In Ukrainian, of course, there is no such letter, but there it consists of the letters й + о.
To be fair, I should mention the Ъ ъ, which exists in Russian but not in Ukrainian, but is not pronounced and is the least used letter in the Russian alphabet. In Ukrainian, an apostrophe is simply placed for it. It is not a sound, but a so-called hard sign.
Russian and Ukrainian – Vocabulary
Now that I’ve shown you the differences in the alphabet, I’ll shake your beliefs further. Because even though Ukrainian and Russian both belong to the East Slavic languages, both languages share many more common words with other Slavic languages.
Ukrainian – Vocabulary similarities
Ukrainian is most closely related to Belarusian. Linguists have compared the languages and 84% of the words of Ukrainian are also found in Belarusian. This is also due to the fact that both territories were under the same rulers much longer than Ukraine and Russia.
Anyone who thinks that Russian must now follow is mistaken. Polish comes first (70%), followed by Slovak (68%) and then Russian (62%). I have to say that different sources come to slightly different results, but this is also due to different methodologies. Nevertheless, in all the sources I have read, Russian is always clearly behind Slovak and Polish in terms of comparability.
Example: The months in both languages
The months are a perfect example of how languages differ. Ukrainian is similar to Polish and other West Slavic languages here, using the old Slavic words for the months, which are sometimes very poetic. For example, November in Ukrainian is meaningfully called “leaf fall” and April “bloom” because in one month the leaves fall from the trees and in the other the flowers bloom.
||Ukrainian – місяць
||Pronounciation – mjesjaz
In general, Russian and Ukrainian are very similar, at least in grammar. In most cases, the use of tenses and cases is the same. That means, the structure has the same principle. However, the endings differ. In addition, Ukrainian knows three future tenses, while in Russian there are only two. Also, Ukrainian knows not six, but seven cases. The seventh case is the vocative, which is used only when directly addressing someone, such as in letters. This changes the ending for names in a greeting. In Russian, this case has already been abolished, and Ukrainian linguists also assume that this case may be eliminated in Ukrainian in a future language reform.
For me personally, both languages have an interesting sound. However, Ukrainian usually sounds a bit softer to me. This is mainly due to the fact that in Ukrainian everything written is also pronounced. In addition, the pronunciation does not change. In Russian, for example, the letter O is often pronounced as A. Best example: There is the same word for milk in Russian and Ukrainian which is spelled молоко, In Russian it is pronounced malako. In Ukrainian, however, it is moloko as it is written.
My sense is that Ukrainian uses significantly more vowels than Russian. Also, more soft consonants are used. But this impression may be subjective.
Dialects are an interesting topic. Because actually, in Russian itself, despite the size of the country, there are hardly any dialects. However, Russian can be divided into three branches. There is Northern Russian, Central Russian and Southern Russian. Nevertheless, someone from Vladivostok can understand someone from St. Petersburg without any problems. It becomes interesting when Russian is a lingua franca in countries and regions and is spoken there. In Ukraine, for example, the Russian spoken in Odessa is very well known because it has many influences from Yiddish. Russian spoken in the Caucasus also differs from standard Russian. Since Russian is spoken in many areas of the former Soviet Union, there are many different influences, but they remain regionally limited.
Ukrainian Dialects – Greater Diversity in a Smaller Area
There are many different dialects of Ukrainian. Commonly, Ukrainian from the Poltava region is actually considered the standard Ukrainian, since the written language is based on the language of this region. However, that was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, many people there speak Russian or Surzhyk (more on that in a moment). In terms of percentage you can find the highest amount of Ukrainian speakers in western Ukraine. However, in all regions there are dialects which, due to historical influences, have many loan words from Polish, German, Hungarian and Yiddish. Therefore, sometimes it is not easy for Ukrainians from other regions to understand the Western dialects.
Surzhyk – Mixed language of Russian and Ukrainian
However, apart from the dialects of Ukrainian, there are many people in central and eastern Ukraine who speak a mixed language of Ukrainian and Russian. This language, called Surzhyk, combines features of both languages. Surzhyk actually refers to a mixture of different flours. The mixed language was created by forced Russification, especially in central and eastern Ukraine. Non-Russian speakers were forced to speak Russian and mixed learned Russian words with Ukrainian grammar. This language is actually frowned upon by both sides, but is still widely spoken in many regions today. Especially in eastern and central Ukraine, many rural residents speak a mix of Ukrainian and Russian rather than the pure forms.
Do Ukrainians understand Russians and vice versa?
One of the most frequent questions I get from foreign visitors to Ukraine is whether Ukrainians understand Russian and vice versa. I must say that understanding in this case is like a one-way street.
Russian-speakers and the Ukrainian language
Many Russians do not consider Ukrainian to be a language in its own right, as few engage with it and Russian state propaganda in particular likes to give the impression that differences between countries and languages are marginal. That is despite Russians with no prior knowledge of Ukrainian not being able to understand Ukrainian. Also, of course, only about 40 million people speak Ukrainian and that is limited to Ukraine and Ukrainians in the diaspora. Russian is a world language and has over 200 million native speakers – and many with second language proficiency. Even when Russians move to Ukraine, in many parts of Ukraine they are not dependent on learning Ukrainian, as a majority speaks Russian at least fluently.
Ukrainians and the Russian language
Russian, on the other hand, was compulsory in Ukraine’s schools until the fall of communism due to the forced Russification. However, recent Ukrainian governments have done a lot to protect the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian is becoming popular again among Ukrainians. In radio and TV there are quotas for a share of Ukrainian content, which are strictly enforced.
Since Russian is no longer a compulsory subject, there are young Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine, who no longer know any Russian at all, but have learned Polish or English fluently. In western Ukraine, Russian is not needed in everyday life. In central and eastern Ukraine, however, at least 50% of the people in the cities still speak Russian on a daily base. The more east or south and closer to or in cities you are, the more people speak Russian. It’s also save to say that still a very large majority of Ukrainians understands Russian without problem.
Should I learn Russian or Ukrainian?
You might ask yourself this question if you want to visit Ukraine. And hey, that’s great, because many people want to learn Russian in Ukraine in the first place and don’t even think that Ukrainian might be a better choice.
When to learn Ukrainian?
To make it short: If you go to Western Ukraine, for example to Lviv, Transcarpathia, the Carpathians or Volyn, learn at least the most important phrases and words in Ukrainian. Here people are proud of the Ukrainian language. Ok, they are in the capital and central Ukraine as well. However, the probability of meeting a native Russian speaker here is higher than in the West.
Nevertheless, even there it is very welcome if visitors know a few words of Ukrainian. I have even been complimented for my Ukrainian in Kharkiv, a city where 80-90% of native speakers of Russian live. This is also because there are many ethnic Ukrainians who are very patriotic, but their native language is Russian. You see, it is complicated!
When to learn Russian?
You should learn Russian if you plan to travel to Russia and other countries where Russian is the lingua franca. Even if you are going to southern and eastern Ukraine, Russian is a good choice in most cases. And after all, it’s great that you’re venturing into a Slavic language at all. And even though I have explained the many differences between Ukrainian and Russian in this article, it is still easier to learn another Slavic language with the prior knowledge of one.
Book tips for language learners
There are textbooks for both languages. Of course, the selection for Russian is much larger than for Ukrainian. But Ukrainian enthusiasts will also find what they are looking for.
Learn Ukrainian – book tips
- This is a Ukrainian textbook with many practical exercises for beginners.
- Much more comprehensive is this book with Ukrainian for beginners and advanced learners, because here you can find lessions for advanced Ukrainian learners. There are also interesting exercises that help to learn the language.
Learn Russian – Book tips
- The book introduces Russian with audio examples, a good textbook, practical examples and tests.
- Cheap book for beginners with many practical examples. Especially the grammar is explained in a simple and understandable way.