Kyiv Not Kiev, And Why It Matters

Ukraine’s biggest flag flies above Kyiv 

As a news junkie, I have watched over the decades as the spelling of Libya’s former strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi morphed about with spelling changes. From “Gathafi,” “Kadafi,” and “Gadafy,” the newspapers and magazines seemed to have variations on the spelling.

Over the decades the pronunciation of Qatar has bounced about and different news operations will place an emphasis on different parts of the word. Some people say “kuh-TAR,” others say “KUH-tar” or “cutter” or even “gutter.”

As a fan of Russian history, I have long read about Kiev, a Ukrainian city that is rooted in the rich narrative of Russia. Today, Ukraine is a sovereign nation and must be treated as such.

As I type that last paragraph my spell checker has flagged the word Kiev. It wants me to switch the spelling to Kyiv. Over the past number of years, newspapers and online resources have made the change in spelling of this large European city almost universal.

The reason for this has to do with Ukraine’s rejection of the Soviet Union’s heavy-handedness during the time globes would have USSR mapped out. After Ukraine’s 1991 independence, their government introduced what can be summed up best as the Latinization of geographic locations in the nation. So Kiev, as my professor husband of languages would say, was “romanized” to now sound and spell as Kyiv. There was a concerted effort to promote the use of official Ukrainian spellings in place of Soviet-era spellings and pronunciations.

I applaud the post-colonial name changes, wherever they occur. I grew up as a child with Bombay often in news headlines and stories. Today we know the city as Mumbai. The list of such names changes and updates is a long one.

But there is more to all this than just a name change. Russian leaders have fought and argued for generations to have Ukraine be part of the Russian nation. While there are, historically speaking, very deep and similar cultural experiences between the peoples, there is also a vital Ukrainian identity that must be respected. Too often it was not.

Russification at the expense of Ukrainian independence plays out in books and maps, with a tragic narrative. The Russian military build-up now underway which is aimed at threatening sovereign Ukraine underscores why national efforts were made starting in the 1990s to reclaim their identity.

The world now stands with Kyiv and the people of Ukraine.

And so it goes.

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