All Ukrainian adverts, laws, education, business transactions and legal precedings must be in Ukrainian, despite deep language divide
A common question from people who have never visited Ukraine is Do Ukrainians speak Russian or Ukrainian? The answer (in true Ukrainian/Russian fashion) is that it depends.
Just before the Euro 2012 football (soccer) championship, Ukraine’s Rada (it’s parliament) erupted in a brawl. Fist fights in the Rada are quite common. They are a good way for deputies to let off steam from the constant pressure of trying to steal everything they can from the Ukrainian people. There have been fights over the leasing of the Sevestopol to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. There have been fights over NATO. There have been fights over Julia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. This time, the fight was over the whether the Russian language should be officially (re)recognized. ( Read the details about the fight over the Russian language)
Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine. All business transactions, all legal proceedings, all laws, and all major advertising (such as billboards and TV ads) must be in Ukrainian. Most schools and universities have to teach in Ukrainian. If a film or TV serial is in Russian (on the TV or at the cinema), it has to have Ukrainian subtitles. This makes sense (it is Ukraine, after all), except that it doesn’t really work. The President and Prime Minister don’t speak Ukrainian. Neither do a majority of deputies, judges, and senior government officials or business people.
In fact, most of the country prefers to speak Russian. Look at the map below (it’s from 2003, but the information hasn’t changed much):
I live in the city of Kherson, which is in Southern Ukraine. I have met some students from the rural areas of Kherson Region who prefer to speak Ukrainian, but not many. Most of the people I know and meet, regardless of age, speak Russian.
Even if the dominant language of a region is Ukrainian, most people will understand and be able to speak Russian easily. The exception to this rule is the far west of Ukraine. Many people in these regions see Russian as the language of oppression and outright refuse to listen to, or speak in, Russian, even if they know how (it’s a bit like most French people with English).
Before you spend your time learning Russian for a trip to Ukraine, you need to figure out in what part of Ukraine you will be spending time. If you’re going to be in the south, the east or the central regions, or if you are planning to travel all across Ukraine, learning Russian is your best bet. If you will only be in the far western regions, then learning Ukrainian is your best option. Of course, you can always do both.