Ukraine and Russia's Cyrillic links

Current attitudes toward the use of the Cyrillic versus Latin script reflect religious differences and shifting political and economic ties.


Cyrillic writing is common across the former Soviet Union and in countries within its sphere of influence, but current attitudes toward it reflect religious differences and shifting political and economic ties. The script’s origins trace to 863, when the Byzantine Emperor Michael III sent two missionaries – brothers Cyril and Methodius – to Christianize the Slavs in Great Moravia, a territory centered on what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The brothers wanted to translate the Gospels into the Slavic vernacular, but found the Greek and Latin alphabets unsuitable. They devised their own writing system, called Glagolitic, to better capture unique Slavic sounds. Later their followers Clement and Nahum refined the script and named it Cyrillic, in homage to Cyril.

Slavic split into many different languages from the 10th to 12th century. Languages whose speakers practiced Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Bulgarian, Serbian, Russian, Ukrainian) kept the Cyrillic writing system; languages whose speakers were predominantly Roman Catholic (Polish, Czech, Slovenian) went with the Latin script.

Cyrillic is also used in areas that were historically part of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union: It is used to write Azerbaijani, Chechen, and Kazakh, for example. Soviet authorities insisted these languages be written in Cyrillic as a way to “Russify” their speakers and forge a continentwide Soviet identity. Since the breakup of the USSR, some have rejected this legacy of “Russia’s colonial project,” as Kazakh activist Dosym Satpayev calls it, and are choosing to write in other scripts. Kazakhstan has announced plans to switch to a Latin alphabet by 2025, as part of a strategy for “wider global integration.”

Russia once had plans to chuck Cyrillic too. The Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution dreamed of an international socialist brotherhood, and thought that the more widely used Latin script was better positioned to spread their message. Soviet leader Josef Stalin abandoned this change in the 1930s however, and homegrown Cyrillic was encouraged instead. 

Since the invasion of Ukraine, some Russians have been using the Latin letter Z, even though it is not found in Cyrillic, as an apparent symbol of support for the war. While no one seems to know exactly what it stands for, the letter Z has been seen on military trucks, billboards, and signs at pro-government rallies. The Russian language does have a “z” sound, but the Cyrillic letter is З. It seems odd for a symbol of Russian nationalism to be a Latin letter. Perhaps, taking a leaf from the Bolsheviks, it is meant to appeal to people outside Russia too. 

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