What’s in a Name? #KyivNotKiev Campaign for Correct Spelling of Ukraine’s Capital
7 October, 2018

“Are you tired of seeing the name of Ukraine’s capital written incorrectly?” asks a post on Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Facebook page. This week the MFA launched a campaign on social media to draw attention to the correct – as in, following Ukrainian transliteration – spelling of Kyiv.

Image used by Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to promote the #KyivnotKiev campaign. Photo credit: Facebook / Ukraine's Cultural Diplomacy by MFA

The #CorrectUA campaign, which began October 2, encourages Ukrainians to appeal to international media to write Kyiv rather than Kiev, a transliteration of the city name in Russian and still the most common spelling used by the global English-language press.

“In light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, including its illegal occupation of Crimea, we are once again experiencing Russification as a tactic that attempts to destabilize and delegitimize our country,” says the campaign statement on the MFA website.

Kiev is a spelling that appeared in the 19th-century, when the Ukrainian capital was a city of the Russian empire. Using the Russian name was also part of the USSR’s language policy, aimed at repressing constituent countries’ national identities, cultures and languages, according to the statement. Insisting on Kyiv over Kiev is also part of the broader process of decommunization the Ukrainian government initiated in 2015.  

“It is not just about literacy, it’s about political literacy and consciousness,” says Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

An image spread by social media users to promote the #KyivnotKiev campaign. One of the legend about the foundation of Kyiv goes that it was founded by four siblings: three brothers Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv and their sister Lybid. Photo credit: Facebook

Kyiv was officially adopted in 1995 by the Ukrainian government as the Roman spelling for Ukraine’s capital in legislative acts and official documents. At the Ukrainian government’s request, the United States Board on Geographic Names approved the spelling Kyiv in 2006, and the U.S. State Department soon followed suit.

However, leading international media like The New York Times, Reuters, and Associated Press still use Kiev as the spelling that is most recognizable to their readers.

“Changes in our style do occur, but the timing is always a judgment call. It’s difficult to know precisely when Peking becomes Beijing, Burma becomes Myanmar, Cambodia becomes Kampuchea and then Cambodia again.” wrote Reuters editor Robert Basler in a 2010 justification for writing Kiev.

The last time the spelling of Kyiv came under hot debate in the international media was in early 2014, as thousands of Ukrainians rallied in the city’s central square in protest of the current president steering the country into close alliance with Russia.

Just after Russian unmarked troops invaded Crimea in March 2014, the United States White House began using the spelling Kyiv in official publications.

The Ukrainian MFA has published guidelines for the correct spelling of Ukrainian place names on its website, with a table correcting the most common misspellings, which include Lviv, Odesa, and Kharkiv.

Anyone can join the campaign by updating their cover photo on social media, posting examples of spellings of Ukraine’s capital with the hashtag #KyivNotKiev, or by writing to representatives of international media and asking them to use the correct spelling of Kyiv.

The awareness-raising campaign, organized jointly with the Strategic Communications Center StratCom Ukraine, is showing results. On October 4 the BBC online news service used Kyiv in an article on Russia’s intelligence service, though the correct spelling of Kyiv has slipped past BBC editors before, especially in culture and sports stories since 2017.

/By Larissa Babij