When Russia initially invaded Ukraine last week, one of its primary targets was the country’s capital and most populous city—which most English-language news outlets used to call “Kiev.” In recent reports, however, it’s much more common to see or hear “Kyiv.” Here’s the history behind the switch.
As The Guardian explains, Russian and Ukrainian have a lot in common: They’re both east Slavonic languages that use versions of the Cyrillic alphabet. But Ukrainian evolved in its own direction, borrowing from Polish and originating certain pronunciations, letters, and vocabulary. Plenty of Ukrainian words are similar to their Russian counterparts, and the name of Ukraine’s capital city is one of them. In Ukrainian, it’s Київ, which gets Latinized as Kyiv. In Russian, it’s Киев—or, in English, Kiev.
When the Soviet Union controlled the area during the 20th century, it systemically tried to quell Ukrainian culture in favor of Russian culture—a process known as Russification, with origins dating back to the 19th century. This included promoting Russian over Ukrainian language, which is essentially how Kiev became more popular than Kyiv among international audiences. As the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence and the country has been working to supplant Kiev with Kyiv ever since.
In 1995, as The Independent reports, the government made Kyiv the official Latinized name for the city; and in 2018, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs kickstarted a campaign called #KyivNotKiev to encourage the rest of the world to finally make the change official, too. The United States Board on Geographic Names did so in June 2019, and the media has gradually followed suit.
Using Kyiv as the standard spelling is one small way that the world can recognize and validate Ukraine’s independence from Russia, both culturally and politically. It’s the same reason we now say “Ukraine,” rather than “the Ukraine.” The word Ukraine is believed to derive from an old Slavic term for borderland, so the Ukraine loosely translates to the borderland(s), which could give the impression that Ukraine is one peripheral piece of a larger territory—not its own entity.