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Putin claimed Russian-speakers were being killed in Ukraine. Was that true?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russian speakers in Ukraine are under attack, and he claims this invasion is to protect them. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley traveled across the country before the war to see whether that's true.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Oh, so you have three floors.

ANDRIY KONONENKO: Three floors. Come follow me.

BEARDSLEY: Andriy Kononenko opened his language school in Kyiv in 2001. Today he has branches across Ukraine. He says students come from around the world to study mostly Russian.

KONONENKO: Europe, U.S., Great Britain - also, we get quite a bit of people from Asia sometimes.

BEARDSLEY: OK. When I looked you up - I looked on the site. It said, come and learn Russian in Odesa and Kyiv. And I was thinking, oh, that's funny because Putin said there's a genocide against Russian speakers. So...

KONONENKO: Yeah (laughter). That's a big hoax. There's nothing of that going on. Kyiv is - by far and large is a Russian-speaking place.

BEARDSLEY: Kononenko says Ukrainian was suppressed during Soviet times, but since Russia launched a separatist war in the East eight years ago, it's enjoyed a resurgence. Ukraine's Parliament has made Ukrainian the country's official language, but the law does not prohibit the use of Russian, which the vast majority of the country speaks fluently. Russian is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's mother tongue. Polls taken before the invasion show the law had majority support, even in the east of the country, which traditionally has been closer to Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAFE AMBIENCE)

BEARDSLEY: I meet English professor Tatyana Smytska at a trendy cafe in the eastern city of Kharkiv before it came under attack. Today Smytska is hiding in a bunker.

TETYANA SMYTSKA: The law says that in public places, everything must be in Ukrainian, until you ask to speak another language.

BEARDSLEY: And then it's fine to switch to Russian, she says, pointing out that the law applies to the waitstaff in this cafe. Smytska says the grinding Russian-backed separatist war next door pushed many more people here to want to speak in Ukrainian.

SMYTSKA: Our language is the protection from Russian because when they come here, they say, we don't understand, and somehow they start to understand that we are different.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken). Thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Vadim Lyakh is the mayor of Slovyansk, a town in the eastern Donbas region that briefly came under separatist control in 2014. I meet him the day before the invasion. Lyakh calls Putin's talk of Russian speakers being persecuted absurd.

VADIM LYAKH: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "There's absolutely no discrimination," he says. "Official correspondence in our town hall is in Ukrainian, but people continue to speak Russian at work and at home, as we always have.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: Back in Kyiv, at Maidan Square, a few days before the invasion, a ceremony is taking place for those who died in the 2014 uprising against the pro-Russian government. Seventy-eight-year-old Maria, who prefers not to give her last name, chokes up as she thinks of them.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) My heart is breaking for all these young man who laid their lives for freedom, and my soul is breaking for the mothers who lost their sons.

(Speaking Russian).

BEARDSLEY: "We thought Russians were our brothers and sisters," she adds, "but I want to tell the world they're our enemies." This Ukrainian patriot, like millions of others, expresses her sorrow and anger in her native language - Russian.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT DE BORON'S "SICK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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