I am perhaps unusual in that there are two languages I might call my two "equally first." I was born in December 1957 into a family of two Kyiv-based intellectuals-scientists who were both ethnic Ukrainians and yet so thoroughly Russified that they spoke almost exclusively Russian. On the other hand, they both worked, and my grandfather who was already retired when I was born, spent much time with me. Unlike his son (my dad), he spoke almost exclusively Ukrainian. So, I don't even know which words I heard and comprehended first: Ukrainian words said by my granddad or Russian words said by my parents. My mom claims that the first sentence I said was a Russian sentence, but my granddad always laughed at her and argued that in fact it was a Ukrainian sentence. Interestingly, my maternal grandmother, herself a Russian speaker, leaned toward my grandfather's side of the story.
Growing up, I attended school where all subjects except Ukrainian and English were taught in Russian. It was my parents' decision; not that schools where subjects were taught in Ukrainian did not exist in my home city (Kyiv), but they were not numerous, and they were considered by most Kyiv intellectuals to be weaker academically than those where all subjects were taught in Russian. I do not know whether it was actually true. Generally, the scientific and medical elite in Kyiv, to which my parents belonged, was (and still, actually, is) extremely Russified. For my parents, if was simply unconceivable that I would become an adult and a professional, and would speak Ukrainian rather than Russian. Speaking Russian was a "norm," and a "bon ton." Speaking Ukrainian was a sign of being from a village, or belonging to a different elite - the artistic and theatrical one. As my parents had no contact with the latter, they imagined that I, their son, would be taken as a stupid country bumpkin if I grew up a Ukrainian speaker. So my parents, and especially my mom, very strongly encouraged me to read books in Russain, learn Russian poetry, watch Russian plays and movies, etc. My grandfather did not like it at first when he saw me evolve more and more into a complete Russophone. Yet, in the early 1970-s, when P. Yu. Shelest was dismissed from the position of the chief of Ukrainian Communists and replaced by V.V. Shcherbyts'kyj, a hard-liner who cracked down on the Ukrainian "nationalism" and even ordered arrests of several well-known Kyiv Ukrainian-speaking intellectuals, my granddad decided that it was good that his grandson was growing up a Russophone. When I was in my 8th or 9th grade, he gave up his attempts to speak Ukrainian to me and switched to his poor, illiterate, erroneous, badly learned Russian.
I graduated from secondary school in 1975 and was admitted to the Kyiv Medical Institute (now re-named Kyiv Medical University). Formally, our professors were not forbidden to teach in Ukrainian; however, the atmosphere in this institution of higher learning was such that it was extremely difficult for any professor to keep the Ukrainian language. Many department Chairs were "transplants" from Russia (Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Novosibirsk, etc.); all official meetings were held with only Russian language being used; and many students, even though native Ukrainian speakes, had gone through the hell of the Soviet Army where the Ukrainian language had been completely beaten out of them and the Russian language, albeit illiterate, heavily Ukrainian-accented and erratic, had been drummed into them instead. So, over the course of six years of my studies at the Kyiv Medical Institute, I met only two professors who managed to lecture in Ukrainian. One of them was a microbiologist, who was already an octagenarian; the other was a relatively young person and a clinical adjunct professor-nephrologist, whose contact with students was very short, given the very high level of specialization of his course. All others lectured, gave exams, and conducted seminars or laboratory practicums exclusively in Russian. Some teachers insered Ukrainian words in their Russian lectures, which was always taken by the students as "humor..."
Given these circumstances, my inner world, my microcosm remained very predominantly Russian all the way through secondary school as well as college. When I graduated from the Kyiv Medical Institute in 1981 and was admitted into an M.D.-Ph.D. graduate program at the Institute of Medical Genetics of the Academy of medical Sciences of the Soviet Union in Moscow, it seemed even more obvious and logical that I will remain a Russophone and a psychologically and culturally Russian person, even though the "nationality" graph in my ID said "Ukrainian." Yet, things suddenly changed when, being in Moscow, I met there my future wife, Lesya. She had been born in the north-western Ukrainian region of Volyn', which became "Soviet" only in 1939 for a short time before it was occupied by the Germans in 1941; the Soviets returned in 1944. (In comparison, Kyiv was thoroughly and unbreakingly Soviet since 1920). Less "Sovietization" meant less Russification, so Volyn' remained a citadel of the Ukrainian linguistic and cultural identity as compared to my home city and the environment I had been growing up in. Lesya spoke Ukrainian, thought in Ukrainian, read a lot more in Ukrainian than in Russian, etc. Having fallen in love with my future wife, I also fell in love with the Ukrainian language. When we dated, I switched from speaking Russian to her to speaking Ukrainian to her. We spent more and more time together, speaking Ukrainian. Lesya introduced me to some of her friends who were Ukrainians living in Moscow and who spoke Ukrainian. Then I visited her parents in Luts'k, Volyn', and was completely amazed to find out that in Luts'k, not only "country bumpkins" or the artistic-theatrical Bohemia, but virtually all people - professionals, teachers, doctors, engineers, clerical workers etc. - were genuinely speaking a beautiful Volyn' dialect of the Ukrainian language! And I changed; gradually, day by day, week by week, month by month, I rid myself of my Russian linguistic and cultural identity and became a complete habitual Ukrainophone.
I still speak Russian with my mother, and with a few of the old friends of my childhood and youth who knew me in my Russophone days. But I am so reluctant to speak Russian with the general population of Kyivites. I know that all of them know the Ukrainian language. I have no doubt that if they only WISHED, they could make the same transition I made when I met Lesya. It is not difficult. No one would attack them for mistakes, irregularities, Russisms. If they only wanted, Kyiv would become a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking city in a flash. But they do not want to do it. They do not want this transition! Why, why why???..
In other European countries that broke from old empires, people were willing or at least did not resist much when they faced the necessity of linguistic transition. For example, in Finland, which was a part of the Russian empire, almost no one spoke Finnish by 1918, when Karl Gustav von Mannerheim became President. Intellectuals spoke either Russian or Swedish. One could hear Finnish only in remote villages, and there was no significant literature of theatre in that language. But Mannerheim - a very autocratic, dictatorial person, - started a rough, steep campaign that forced "Finnization" of Finland. Being himself Swedish by birth, he ordered the Finnish Army to use exclusively Finnish. His "Finnization" was a spectacular success; by the 1930-s, virtually every person in Finland mastered the Finnish language, even though officially Swedish has always remained the second "state" language of the country. In Czecholsovakia, large areas of the country and virtually all big cities were populated by people who never used Czech or Slovakian languages - these people were 100% Germanophones. But again, the presidents Benes and Masaryk launched an intense and ruthless campaign, enforcing Czech or Slovakian language in schools, in the army, in public service and even in restaurants. Germanophones receded (except in Sudetenland, where... we all know what happened).
In Ukraine, however, the attempts of the government to "Ukrainize" big cities like Kyiv or cities of the Ukrainian East have been a bust. To this day, about 85% of all printed matter in Ukraine appears in the Russian language. Russian dominates in radio and TV programs and on the Internet. Signs on roads and on the doors of businesses are in Ukrainian, but one can walk two or three hours down Kyiv streets and not hear even one person speaking the Ukrainian language. Most sadly, the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, earned the reputation of a "nationalist" because he promoted Ukrainization. And the word "nationalist" carries in Ukraine such a stigma that it can, and does, ruin politicians' reputations and careers. Just like Orwellian sheep in "Animal Farm," Ukrainians are almost completely indoctrinated to bleet, "Internationalism (actually Russification) - good, Nationalism - bad."
I am extremely saddened and pained by this situation, which I see only as idiotic, pathological, schizophrenic. There is no such thing, and there will never be such thing as "Ukraine speaking the Russian language." What speaks Russian is not Ukraine and what is Ukraine does not speak Russian. People who say that they are Ukrainians and that they "love Ukraine" but speak Russian because it is their "native language" are either hypocrites or severely misguided, fooled, deceived individuals. Russian is not native to any Ukrainian; and by Ukrainian I do not mean necessarily a person whose "blood line" is "purely" Ukrainian in the ethnic sense - no! I mean all people who LIVE in Ukraine and CARE for her, considering her their motherland, their contry, their sovereign territory and nation, which has her own unique history and her unique role in the world!
I am extremely saddened and pained when I see examples of the great readiness with which Ukrainian cultural and professional elite, as well as Ukrainian clergy, give up the Ukrainian language at a slightest provocation. We are somehow lured into believing that if there (somewhere!) is even one person who understands Russian but does not understand Ukrainian, we MUST drop Ukrainian and continue the conversation in Russian. For example, MOST people from Kyiv who chat between themselves on Facebook or other Internet fora use only Russian (even though they are completely fluent in Ukrainian), because they THINK that at some point their conversation might attract the interest of someone from Moscow. This attraction may or may not happen, but even if it is purely hypothetical, it keeps them from posting in Ukrainian. Also, very patriotic Ukrainians speak only Russian with their spouses and children at home. Yes, the privacy of one's home is sacred, but can't we think about the future? Why would we WANT to make our kids into Russophones? The usual answer is, oh, schools in Ukraine teach enough Ukrainian. No, they do not. They are not a substitute for families. If you speak Russian in front of your children, you contribute into the murder of the Ukrainian language and into the murder of Ukraine!
My dear good-natured, interesting, erudite, hhighly culturally refined friends from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities (except Halychyna and Volyn')! Please, give a thought to what I am writing here. Especially if you are Ukrainian clergy - bishops, priests, deacons, hegumens, - or if you are lay people but your professional responsibilities include discussing spiritual, religious matters. Be examples. Switch yourself to Ukrainian. You can do it. You SHOULD, you MUST. Not becoming a habitual Ukrainophone will make you psychologically, culturally, even, if I may say so, ONTOLOGICALLY vulnerable to various "thought viruses" from your northeastern neighbor and his perennial KreKGBmlin leadership. The latter seems to have completely assumed a quasi-Orthodox ideology, which cunningly takes a known and undisputable maxim that in the Kingdom of God there is no Jew or Greek, and twists it in such a way that you are made to believe that the less Ukraine and the more Russia is there in Ukraine, the better. And the more you believe it, thee more you are helping in the grandiose affair of assassination of Ukraine. Please think about it. "Thou shalt not kill."