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When in Ukraine, Never Say 'The Ukraine'

Published: March 14, 2014 (Issue # 1801)


В Украине: In Ukraine

If you are having trouble understanding Russian-Ukrainian relations, take a look at Russian discussions about prepositions used with Украина (Ukraine). They will tell you everything you need to know.

Also by this author: Lawmakers Need to Brush Up on Their Russian

In case you forgot, in Russian на (on, at, in, to) is used with islands, mountains, and areas without fixed borders, like на Руси/на Русь (in or to Rus). В (in, to) is used with countries, like в России/в Россию (in or to Russia). This is a bit similar to distinction in English between "in the Ukraine," which sounds like a territory, and "in Ukraine," which sounds like a country. Before the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the norm for most Russian speakers was на Украине. But when Ukraine became a country, the leaders requested that the Russian grammatical norm for countries be applied: в Украине. People have been arguing about it ever since.

Here is a breakdown of the main arguments.

The "tradition says" argument: мы, носители языка, привыкли так говорить (we native speakers are used to saying it this way). This would be a good argument if it were true. Over the centuries both на and в have been used. В Украине has been used by such political and cultural leaders as Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov and Peter the Great.

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The "authority says" argument: Справочное бюро gramota.ru предпочитает консервативную норму — "на Украине" (The Inquiry Bureau of gramota.ru prefers the conservative norm of "in the Ukraine"). The problem with this argument is that the most recent edition of the Rozental grammar book supports "в Украине" and the Academy of Sciences says "есть две традиции" (there are two traditions).

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