A young woman called Lyudmila walks into a cafe in Odessa, the southern Ukrainian city. Her phone is switched on and the camera set to record mode. She approaches the owner and asks for service in Ukrainian.
He declines. He says his Ukrainian language skills are poor. When she insists he makes excuses, then tells her the cafe is closed, and finally asks her to leave. But unbeknownst to the owner, Lyudmila is a member of a small Ukrainian-language vigilante group.
The group, who call themselves ‘Getting on your Nerves’, has made it their business to turn this Russophone city, founded in 1796 by Catherine the Great, into a Ukrainian-speaking one, one small intervention at a time.
Backing them up is a law, passed in 2021, that stipulates that service personnel throughout the country address and serve their patrons in Ukrainian, and only switch to Russian if that is their client’s preference.
In this case the cafe owner was reported to the authorities and soon backed down, avoiding a €200 fine. Film taken of the incident, meanwhile, shared on Tiktok, went viral among locals, ensuring that many more got the message.
The incident may count as a minor one in a country where entire cities are being reduced to rubble in artillery duels in the east.
But it represents just one small salvo in a parallel war for the heart and soul of Ukraine that is being fought in cafes, shops and restaurants throughout the country.
In Kyiv, clerics are at each other’s throats over control of church property and congregations. A minority still cleave to Moscow for spiritual guidance but most now ally with the homegrown Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In Lviv, for centuries a Polish town, Ukrainian culture is being promoted and celebrated in everything from music to the veneration of controversial nationalist leaders of the past.