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The war has many Ukrainians who speak Russian abandoning the language

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're 60 days into Russia's assault on Ukraine. Much of the fighting is now concentrated in the south and east of the country after Russian troops were forced to retreat from areas in the north near the capital, Kyiv. For the battles ahead, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it clear he wants more military aid from the U.S. and other nations. He said as much yesterday when he disclosed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would be visiting Kyiv today.

We're going to focus for the next few minutes, though, on something else that's going on in Ukraine as the war drags on. Many of the Ukrainians who speak Russian are distancing themselves from that language. Nearly a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. Some grew up speaking Russian. But as Ievgen Afanasiev reports, things are changing.

IEVGEN AFANASIEV, BYLINE: Every day, thousands of displaced Ukrainians pass through this train station in the western city of Lviv, looking for a safer place to live. On this chilly spring day, Svitlana Panova is among them.

SVITLANA PANOVA: (Through interpreter) Now I came to Lviv. I'm a patriot of my country, and I'll stay here.

AFANASIEV: Svitlana is a manager at a software company. Before coming to Lviv, she lived in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Before that, she lived in Crimea until Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.

PANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

AFANASIEV: "Russia left me without my home," she says, "without my family." In normal times, Svitlana, like many Ukrainians from the south or eastern parts of the country, would explain all this to me in Russian without much thought. For centuries, these areas were under the rule of the Russian Empire. The Russification of the region continued when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, where Russian was the lingua franca. But after all Svitlana has gone through, after losing her home now twice to Russia, speaking Russian doesn't feel quite right at this moment.

PANOVA: (Through interpreter) I do not speak Ukrainian, but I understand everything. It's hard for me to switch to Ukrainian, but I will learn it for sure.

AFANASIEV: Svitlana is one of many internally displaced people who are moving away from Russian and trying to learn Ukrainian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAZAR DANCHYSHYN: (Speaking Ukranian).

AFANASIEV: Soon after Russia launched its war on Ukraine, professor Nazar Danchyshyn helped launch a Ukrainian language class. It's taught at the International Institute of Education, Culture and Diaspora Relations of Lviv Polytechnic University.

DANCHYSHYN: (Through interpreter) When people moved away from their shock and were able to think of something other than saving their family, it was time for these kinds of courses.

AFANASIEV: The club quickly filled up.

DANCHYSHYN: (Through interpreter) More than 800 people signed up for the club in the first three days. We had to stop the registration.

AFANASIEV: Now, twice a week, Nazar and other professors teach multiple virtual classes. His students join from all over Ukraine.

DANCHYSHYN: (Through interpreter) Different regions - Kherson, Odessa, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, Kyiv, Luhansk. That's a very broad geography.

AFANASIEV: Nazar says that while students discuss Ukrainian culture and learn everyday phrases, these classes also serve as a psychological support club.

DANCHYSHYN: (Through interpreter) In class, most of them want to share their pain, their experience. They tell their stories of how difficult it was for them to leave their hometowns - Kharkiv or Irpin or other cities that were bombed.

AFANASIEV: One of the students taking the class is 57-year-old Oleh Myrhorodskyy He's connected from the southern port city of Odessa. He's been practicing his Ukrainian for a few weeks and is still a little bit shy-speaking.

OLEH MYRHORODSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

AFANASIEV: "I don't feel confident," he says. But Oleh eventually warms up and tells me why, for him, it's important to learn Ukrainian.

MYRHORODSKYY: (Through interpreter) It is a question of becoming a nation. It is a question of our existence. That's why everyone needs to put some effort into building a national foundation. And the language is that national foundation.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

AFANASIEV: At one point during the session, as I get ready to leave, one of the professors tells his students he's proud of them. He says listening to them speak Ukrainian gives him goosebumps, because learning this language in this moment, it is more than just an education. It is about asserting Ukrainian national unity. For NPR News, I'm Ievgen Afanasiev in Lviv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.