When identity is on the line—personal or national—every detail of a name matters
The President of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The President of Russia is Vladimir Putin. Two different given names. Or are they?
- In Russian, Zelenskyy’s name is written as Vladimir. In Ukrainian, Putin’s name is written as Volodymyr.
- In the capital of Ukraine, a towering statue honors the medieval leader Volodymyr the Great. In the capital of Russia, another towering statue honors the same man, Vladimir the Great.
- In a promotional video from 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy can even be heard introducing himself as Vladimir.
In usage and etymology, the two names might seem like one. Politically and symbolically, though, they stand in stark opposition.
The question of Volodymyr vs. Vladimir reflects a broader theme in Ukraine’s age-old struggle for self-determination. Names are the emblems of identity. And when identity is on the line, every detail—variations, phrasing, pronunciation, even spelling—matters. That makes Volodymyr the Name of the Year.
Recognition starts with a name. For most English-speaking adults, talking about the country “Ukraine” took some getting used to. The familiar term was “the Ukraine,” a phrasing that suggested a region rather than a sovereign state. We say “the Riviera” but not “the France.”
For an independent Ukraine, “the” was an unwelcome throwback to centuries of imperial domination. The country and its neighbors have been subject to the shifting political powers of the ages. In the 16th Century, Ukraine was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Later it was divided under the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. After the Russian revolution of 1917, a period of chaos and battles for independence ended with the land as part of the Soviet Union, as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
When Ukraine finally gained independence in 1991, the nation’s struggle to be called by its proper name came to symbolize the struggle for sovereignty itself. Convincing the world to drop the “the” was a first step. A more complicated battle was the naming legacy of generations of Russianization.
Kiev or Kyiv?
Imperial Russia promoted the spread of Russian language and culture, and restricted use of local languages in conquered lands. In the Soviet era, Russian was the de facto official language across the republics. As a result, Russian is the primary language of some regions of modern Ukraine.
Under Putin, Russia has used this history of cultural and political dominance to sow doubt on the legitimacy of neighboring Slavic nations. For example, Volodymyr/Vladimir the Great is the foundational hero of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Putin erected the statue of him that stands near the Kremlin today, pointedly recasting Kyiv’s history as Russian history.
Independent Ukraine has attempted to push back at this back at this cultural assimilation. Outside the country, one focus is the name of the nation’s capital. To the West it had been known as Kiev, which is a transliteration of the city’s name in Russian, Киев. In Ukrainian, the city is Київ, transliterated as Kyiv.
The Ukrainian-based spelling became the city’s official name, but foreign media was slow to change. After Russia invaded and claimed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the need for global awareness of Ukrainian identity became more urgent. Ukraine’s foreign ministry began an organized campaign called KyivNotKiev to get the word out.
Major news outlets made the switch, but public awareness still trailed. As of the beginning of 2022, Google searches for “Kiev” outnumbered “Kyiv” by a factor of four-to-one. Only after Russia invaded in February did the tide turn decisively toward Kyiv. As one Ukrainian scholar told the Forward, “(the spelling) becomes a very sensitive issue. It immediately shows ‘what side you’re on.’”
Similarly, English speakers are changing the way they pronounce the city’s name. Kiev was pronounced “KEE-yev” in English, while the emerging consensus choice for Kyiv is “KEEV.” KEEV is not notably closer to the actual Ukrainian pronunciation. (Judge for yourself.) The name is deemed more accurate by a geopolitical rather than linguistic standard.
How Do You Write That?
Part of the challenge of taking control of Ukrainian names stems from the Ukrainian language itself. It is written in a unique version of Cyrillic script, and there is no standard way to transcribe it in the Latin alphabet.
When a new Ukrainian president took office in 2019, English-language press releases from his own administration used multiple different spellings of his name. Spellings ending in -j like Zelenskij and Zelenskyj were common in European publications. The Atlantic Council’s publication UkraineAlert described journalists’ debate over the options Zelensky, Zelenskyi, Zelenskiy and Zelenskyy. As they explained, the muddle of contradictory spellings reflected a deeper problem for the nation of Ukraine:
“For a country that is still struggling to shake off decades of international obscurity, this is particularly unhelpful.
The past five years of hybrid warfare with Russia have exposed the extent of the problem surrounding Ukraine’s low international profile, with the Kremlin skillfully exploiting outside ignorance about the country in order to weave all manner of false narratives.”
Remarkably, the entire UkraineAlert article about the spelling of President Zelenskyy’s surname avoided using his given name at all. Volodymyr (VOH-lə-DEE-meer) is the Ukrainian version of a popular name derived from Slavic roots meaning “rule” + “great.” (The final syllable coincides with the word mir, meaning “world” and “peace,” so you will often see folk etymologies like “ruler of the world.”)
Vladimir (vlah-DEE-meer) is the Russian version of the name. It is also used in several other Slavic languages and is the most familiar variant around the world. It’s not surprising, then, that Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented himself as Vladimir to an English-speaking audience at one time. It’s even less surprising when you consider that Zelenskyy himself is a native speaker of Russian.
Language and Identity
Zelenskyy was born in a largely Russian-speaking region of Soviet Ukraine. While most Ukrainians are bilingual, the divide between Russian-first and Ukrainian-first communities is marked. During the 2019 election, Zelenskyy ran strongest in Russian-speaking areas that saw him as one of their own.
Speaking Russian, though, does not necessarily make a Ukrainian less Ukrainian. Zelenskyy’s opponent in the presidential race learned this when he tried unsuccessfully to make a patriotic issue of Zelenskyy’s spoken Ukrainian. Vladimir Putin learned it as well, when the Russian-speaking Ukrainians he claimed to be “liberating” through invasion instead defended their country against Russian aggression.
For an extra twist, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. That means that his forebears, many of whom were killed by the Nazis during World War II, presumably spoke Yiddish. And that their neighbors probably would not have considered them Ukrainian at all.
That a Russian-speaking Jew should become the face of Ukrainian national identity is a testament to the tangled web of culture and history. Cultural boundaries can be hard to distinguish amidst such a tangle. The people of Ukraine, though, have staked out their identity clearly along political lines.
The right to define your own identity is the most fundamental kind of self-determination. That means that Volodymyr and Vladimir are not the same name in 2022, and Volodymyr is the Name of the Year.
Profound thanks to all readers who offered nominations, comments and insights on the Name of the Year.