Authors: Nadiya Kiss, Liudmyla Pidkuimukha, Lesia Skintey, Daria Orobchuk
Translation from Ukrainian: Galyna Kotliuk
Editor: Clemens Poole

1) In a narrower sense, abrogation means a refusal to recognise and support the privileged status of the coloniser's language, usually standardised and normalised, as well as resistance to its influence; 2) in a broader sense — disagreement with the dominant colonial or imperial discourse, a discourse which was created in large part because of the language of the coloniser. The term became widespread in academia at the end of the 1980s, and started to appear outside of literary works [1]. Today, it is documented in several dictionaries of postcolonial studies [2]. The idea of abrogation has been developed in works devoted to the literary discourses of writers from India, the Philippines, and Kenya [3]. These studies emphasise that the processes of abrogation are aimed at depriving the coloniser of dominance in linguistic and cultural life, and the privilege of constituting its center. Moreover, these studies support the idea that abrogation can happen either as a conscious, determined political action, or take place on an unconscious level. Abrogation as refusal is accompanied by appropriation (these linguistic and literary strategies can coexist, cooperate, and be opposed to each other). In the Ukrainian context, language abrogation is a response to the centuries-long appropriation of Ukrainian culture and the imperialist policies conducted by Russia. Disagreement with these policies has been consistently manifested in the work of Ukrainian political, public and cultural figures in different periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Resistance to Russian narratives and propaganda has been significant since the very beginning of Ukraine’s independence, but the abrogation processes became truly vivid and massive after the Russian invasion in 2014.

An example of abrogation is, for example, the work of such Ukrainian writers as Volodymyr Rafeienko [4] and Iya Kiva. Both are from Donbas, and both studied Russian philology. However, in their texts and everyday communication, they have transitioned from Russian to Ukrainian. In various interviews, Volodymyr Rafeienko reflects on the issue of language: the Ukrainian language, in his opinion, is “the most powerful weapon in this war” [5]. He goes on to say that it is “sometimes the only opportunity to console myself, it is a place where my restless conscience can rest” [6]. The change in attitudes towards language for both writers had been happening gradually but became irreversible in response to the Russian aggression, as the poet Iya Kiva aptly described: “I have the impression that we are also fighting for language, for our ability to speak” [7]. While the importance of the Ukrainian language in their works has noticeably increased since 2014, the complete rejection of Russian was caused by the full-scale war: “I will only say that after February 24th, I decided that never again in my life would I write or publish any of my work in Russian. I no longer want anything to do with a culture of murderers and rapists” [8] (Volodymyr Rafeienko); “Now I just cannot force myself to write or translate anything in Russian. The expression “the tongue does not turn” [a popular Ukrainian idiom, can be roughly translated into English as “not having the heart to do something”. Trans.] best describes this feeling. Actually, my tongue does not return to write in Russian after February 24th” [9] (Iya Kiva). Similar processes of rethinking identity and language practices during wars, conflicts and protests are described not only by Ukrainian public intellectuals, but also by the Lebanese-American writer Etel Adnan, the Canadian-Caribbean poet Marlene Nurbiz Philip, and Siwar Krai(y)tem, a multilingual artist who lives in Beirut and Amsterdam [10].

Changes in the linguistic behavior of Ukrainians were already happening after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, and became more noticeable during and after the Ukrainian revolutions. These processes are described and analysed by experts in cultural anthropology, sociolinguistics, and sociology as “linguistic conversion” (Laada Bilaniuk) or “choosing a mother tongue” (Corinne Seals). Typical for representatives of indigenous people and national minorities — especially the younger generation — is individual bilingualism, formed as a result of preserving a native language (Crimean Tatar, Hungarian, Romanian, etc.) while studying Ukrainian as the state language in educational institutions, or through exposure to the media and volunteer language courses. Already back in the early 2000s, the movement Don't Be Indifferent! [ukr. Не будь байдужим!] began to promote the study and use of Ukrainian language among Russophone Ukrainians. The Revolution of Dignity and the Russian-Ukrainian war (2014–present) instigated an increase in initiatives promoting language and culture (for example, Switch to Ukrainian [ukr. Переходь на українську], E-Mova [mova is the Ukrainian word for “language”. Trans.]). After Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the results of polls by the sociological group Reytynh [eng. Rating] and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) indicated a situation of linguistic shift — Ukrainians actively began to refuse to communicate in Russian, especially in public spheres, and to use Ukrainian more in their everyday lives [11]. Giving up the Russian language for many people also means ceasing to consume Russian content and propaganda, (re)discovering one’s own ethnolinguistic identity and resisting the influence of Russian imperial discourse.

Language activists play a special role in the development of civil society,  applying their influence to state decision-making and policy changes, as well as fostering anti-colonial resistance [12]. Existing both in institutional and individual forms, using online and offline platforms, these public figures participate in the spread and popularization of the Ukrainian language, reducing, and sometimes even eliminating, the role of Russian, the dominant language imposed as a result of imperial policies. An example of institutional language activism would be the Yedyni (eng. United”) initiative, while an example of individual activism might be Danylo Haidamakha, the Ukrainian TikToker “Chornobroviy” (eng. Black-browed) [an adjective typically associated with beauty in Ukrainian culture. Trans., who became the first Ukrainian-speaking blogger with more than 100,000 followers on Tiktok.

The Yedyni movement, which already has more than 100,000 members, is a project of educational and psychological support for those who want to switch to Ukrainian [13]. The initiative provides free Ukrainian language courses, organises webinars with celebrities, linguists, and psychologists in which they discuss, among other things, issues related to overcoming psychological barriers caused by changing language code (the so-called language transition) and stabilizing the language. This way, decolonisation happens not through the abolition of the Russian language, but as a result of rethinking the role of Ukrainian, increasing its prestige and status in the society, and growing the number of Ukrainian speakers. Haidamakha points out that, first of all, it is worth “bringing Ukrainian to the shop windows and showing its status” [14]. He understands the transition to Ukrainian, on the one hand, as a return to his origins, to the language of his ancestors, and, on the other hand, as an orientation toward the future [15]. The activist interprets Russian as the language of murderers and colonisers, emphasizing that “Ukrainian land never gave birth to the Russian language, it appeared here with violence and blood, it invaded with the killing of our intelligentsia and linguicide against the Ukrainian language” [16], therefore considers it as something hostile, foreign, imposed by imperial policy.

As such, language abrogation in Ukraine  is identified as a process of the restoration of historical justice — an anti-colonial movement against centuries-old assimilation, a response to the imperial erasure and appropriation of culture.

Digital illustration "Switch to Ukrainian" author Oksana Fedko, commissioned by the Switch to Ukrainian initiative, 2016


01. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, (Taylor & Francis Group. 2002, 1989).

02. Bill Ashcroft, Griffiths Gareth and Tiffin Helen. Post-colonial studies: the key concepts. (Routledge, 2013), Pramod, K.Nayar. The Postcolonial Studies Dictionary. (Hoboken : Wiley, 2015).

03. Kammampoal B, “Literacy and orality: Between abrogation and appropriation in Ngugi Wa Thiong´O´s the River between,” European Journal of Literature, Language and Linguistics Studies, 4 (4) (2021): 64-87; Quinto, E. J. M., and Santos, J.C. “Abrogation and Appropriation in Selected Pre-war Philippine Short Stories in English.” Journal of Language Studies 157, Volume 16(1), (2016): 157-168.

04.  See also: Масенко Лариса. “Перехід на українську мову як чинник відновлення історичної пам’яті (на прикладі роману Володимира Рафєєнка «Мондеґрін»)”. Українська мова. № 3 (87), (2023): 34-43.

05. Володимир Рафєєнко: «Українська мова – найпотужніша зброя в цій війні». Інтерв’ю. The Ukrainians. December 20, 2021. accessed February 6, 2024.

06. “Володимир Рафєєнко: Українська як іноземна – DW – 21.04.2017.” 2017. DW., accessed February 6, 2024.

07. Ківа І., Мамчич О. Писати поезію як рити колодязь. Розмова з Ією Ківою // Посестри. Часопис. (2023). № 84.

08. Rafeenko, Volodymyr. 2022. “I Once Wrote—and Spoke, and Thought—in Russian… No More.” Literary Hub., accessed February 6, 2024.

09. “Про горизонт війни, переселенський досвід, межі страху, російську мову як мертвого звіра і ''хороших русских'' – розповідає поетка та перекладачка Ія Ківа.” 2022. Українська правда. accessed February 6, 2024.

10. Adnan Etel (1989). To write in a foreign language. accessed February 7, 2024; “M. Nourbese Phillip reads “Discourse on the Logic of Language”  from She Tries her Tongue. February 5, 2011. YouTube. accessed February 7, 2024; “Siwar Krai(y)tem” BAK – basis voor actuele kunst. accessed February 7, 2024.

11. See also: Kulyk, V. (2022), Die Sprache des Widerstands. Der Krieg und der Aufschwung des Ukrainischen. In: Osteuropa, 6-8, 237-248; Соколова, С.О. (2023). “Зміни у ставленні українців до мов на тлі повномасштабного вторгнення Росії в Україну.” Українська мова, 1(85), 3–19; Ренчка І. (2023). “Зміни мовної ідентичності українців на початку повномасштабного вторгнення Росії в Україну (на матеріалі соціальних мереж та інтернет-видань кінця лютого – початку квітня 2022 р.).” Мова : класичне – модерне – постмодерне, 9, 72–98.

12. Kiss, N. (2020). Language matters: Language Activism in Contemporary Ukraine. Kulturelle Kontakt- und Konfliktzonen im östlichen Europa Abschlusskonferenz des gleichnamigen thematischen Netzwerks in Gießen (1. und 2. Dezember 2016), Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 105-124

13.  «Єдині»  (accessed 05.02.2024).

14.  Данило Гайдамаха: Людяність не загорнеш в російську мову (15.12.2023). Український кризовий медіацентр (відвідано 05.02.2024).

15. Оголосили війну: алгоритми TikTok вибухнуть від українського контенту – Данило Гайдамаха Чорнобровий. YouTube, 29.10.2020 (відвідано 05.02.2024)

16. Данило Гайдамаха: «Нам болить російська». Інтерв’ю (05.10.2023). НТА. (відвідано 05.02.2024).

For further reference

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The empire writes back: Theory and practice in post-colonial literatures. (Routledge 2003): 37–76.

Rafeenko, Volodymyr. “I Once Wrote—and Spoke, and Thought—in Russian… No More.” Literary Hub, July 29, 2022.

Dovzhyk, Sasha. “Mother Tongue: The Story of a Ukrainian Language Convert.” New Lines Magazine, February 23, 2023.

“Ukraїner - Повернення до української мови • Ukraïner.” YouTube, November 16, 2023.


Nadiya Kiss

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Liudmyla Pidkuimukha

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Lesia Skintey

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Daria Orobchuk

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