The politics of public language-use and why English must be Ukraine's second language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 5 13:38:58 UTC 2006

ForUm 2001-2006

18:42 04 May 2006

The politics of public language-use and why English must be Ukraine's
second language

By Stephen Velychenko,
Resident Fellow, CERES, Research Fellow, Chair of Ukrainian Studies, Munk
Center, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Action Ukraine Report
Washington, D.C., Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Ukraine faces the challenges of globalization without having overcome the
legacies of its past.  Because independence came peacefully soviet
Russophile elites remained in positions influence and Soviet migration
policies that directed Russians into and Ukrainians out of Ukraine left
them a constituency. This immigration and "ethnic dilution", combined with
deportations and millions of unnatural Ukrainian deaths between 1917 and
1947, created large Russian-speaking urban enclaves in the country's
easternmost provinces. Educational and media policies, meanwhile,
channeled upwardly mobile non-Russian rural migrants into Russian-speaking
culture and allowed urban Russians to work and satisfy their
cultural/spiritual needs in Russian culture and language.

Second and third generation urban Russian immigrants and assimilated
migrants thus spoke in Russian and were Moscow- oriented culturally and
intellectually.  After 1991 most of the urban population accepted the
legitimacy of the Ukrainian state, but few changed their language-use or
Russian intellectual/cultural orientation. The neo-Soviet Russophile elite
is now engaged in a campaign to make Russian an official "second
language." The thin edge of the wedge is represented by local assemblies
giving Russian legal status in their provinces --- as Luhansk has recently
done. Although the language issue is overshadowed in the domestic media by
well-merited concern over poverty and corruption, and foreign neo-liberal
commentators ignore cultural issues because they think them irrelevant,
public language-use in Ukraine should not be overlooked as language-use is
closely related to political orientations and Ukraine's future.

At a time when the educated in every country in the world, including China
and Russia, are learning English as a second language, because English is
the de facto world-language, a small group of Ukraine's neo-soviet
Russophile politicians threaten to isolate the country from the rest of
the world with their Russian language legislation. If enacted on the
central level such a policy would throw Ukraine back culturally 100 years.
Scholars and intellectuals will learn whatever language they want whenever
they want to. But not everybody is either a scholar or an intellectual and
they have better things to do than learn languages. If Russian becomes the
"second language" it will mean that the average Ukrainian citizen who
wanted direct contact with the rest of the world would have to learn a
third language. Continued use of Russian for business and in the public
sphere would also send the message that "capitalism and modernity speak
Russian." It would reinforce Russophile orientations and the notion that
Ukrainian is only suitable for domestic use.

Russian politicians with neo-imperial ambitions and their neo-soviet
Russophile allies in Ukraine consciously obfuscate between Ukraine's
Russians and all Ukraine's Russian speakers in an attempt to prove
"anti-Russian discrimination." Anyone with elementary knowledge of either
everyday life or the academic literature realizes such claims are
demagogy. The legacy of over 200 years of direct Russian rule is reflected
still today fifteen years after independence as public life, business and
the media are largely Russian-speaking outside Ukraine's three westernmost
provinces. At the beginning of this century, in a country where 20 percent
of the population were Russian speaking Russians, 33 percent were Russian
speaking Ukrainians and 47 percents were Ukrainian speaking Ukrainians; 10
percent of Ukraine's annual published book titles, 12 percent of its
magazines, 18 percent of its television programs and 35 percents of its
newspapers were in Ukrainian. Even in independent Ukraine, Ukrainian
remains a minority language and, as such, according to EU norms qualifies
for protection.

Although since the spring of 2004 national Ukrainian radio and television
broadcasters had to use Ukrainian, almost all of them have continued to
use Russian. Much more than the legally permissible 50 percent of
television programming is in Russian. The head of the National Television
and Radio Council, Vitaliy Shevchenko, told Radio Free Europe that
"Ukraine is becoming a unique country in Europe because it is losing its
own language, which is being squeezed out by the official language of
another country." The government does not enforce its current language
legislation.  According to law, all government employees must speak
Ukrainian, but most do not and continue to be paid nonetheless. As of
2004, many teachers still used Russian in "Ukrainian language"  schools,
some of which also had separate Russian language classes. Parents who
sometimes have to seek their children from "Ukrainian language"
day-cares are shocked to approach their room and hear them singing Russian

Secondary and university students studying non-Ukrainian subjects still
rely overwhelmingly on Russian-language literature because there is little
in Ukrainian on their subjects and libraries cannot afford to buy
English-language publications. Attendants on Ukraine International
Airlines use Russian to address passengers and either do not have or
run-out of Ukrainian-language publications, while never running-out of
Russian-language publications. The pre-2006 neo-soviet Russophile
dominated parliament, for its part, refused to follow the lead of the
Russian government and abolish taxation on domestic publications, thus
keeping Russian-language products in Ukraine cheaper than Ukrainian - or
English-language products. Whether or not foreign corporations use
Ukrainian inside their stores is ignored.  McDonald's does use Ukrainian
on its menus. Baskin Robbins does not. The fact that Ukrainian speakers
buy fewer books and audio visual products than Russian speakers because
they are poorer also plays a role, as does the fact there is no Ukrainian
low-brow urban mass-culture. Perhaps Ukraine's business moguls and tycoons
could produce and sell Ukrainian-language audio-visual products and books
for less than Russian-language products and finance a Ukrainian-language
mass culture. But they do not seem to have tried.

Ukrainian writers and producers and scholars, meanwhile, must accept the
reality that modern mass culture does not consist only of "the classics"
and that if Ukrainian is to win the market competition with Russian, trash
must be written, filmed and recorded in Ukrainian - just like it is in
Russian or in English or French. The yellow press in all languages sells
in millions of copies while the quality press sells only tens of
thousands. Ukrainians watch Russian junk-films because there are no
Ukrainian-language junk-films. Ownership is also an important issue. It is
thought that as much as 80 percent of Ukraine's media is owned either by
Russians or Russophile Ukrainian citizens. Sixteen years after
independence, however, no one really knows who owns Ukraine's media.

In 2006 the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, funded by George Soros's Renaissance
Foundation, was able to reveal partial information about 10 stations.
Foreign companies, of which 3 are Russian, own all or part of at least 9.
Individuals unknown own all or part of 3. One channel is partly owned by a
Russophile Ukrainian oligarch. Mass-circulation Russian-language dailies
like Bulvar, Kievskie Vedomosti and Fakty i Kommentarii are not merely
sympathetic to neo-soviet Russophile politicians. They regularly belittle,
ridicule and mock things Ukrainian, and highlight Russian rather than
Ukrainian pop-stars, movies and television programs. Ukrainian-language
anti-Russian opinion is limited to low-run fringe publications. Russian
popular newspapers and domination of the public sphere does not promote
political loyalty to Russia. What it does do is promote Russophile
orientations. This reinforces the old imperial Russian tie and impedes the
creation of new ties with the EU and the rest of the world - which speaks

Logically, there is no necessary correlation between language-use and
loyalties. Scots, Irish, Indians, Americans, Australians, and Canadians,
have all expressed their nationalisms in English. Corsicans and Bretons
have used French, and Latin Americans have used Spanish. Former Prime
Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Ukraine's Communist Party leaders speak
Ukrainian when they must, using it as a medium for neo imperial and
neo-soviet ideas. It must be stressed that few of Ukraine's Russian
speakers support political reincorporation into Russia and that almost
none have emigrated to Russia since 1991. Ukrainian Russian-speakers can
be as pro-European Union as Ukrainian-speakers, Russian-speaking
Ukrainians can be Ukrainian patriots, and Russian-speaking eastern
Ukrainian political leaders sooner see themselves as representing a
territorial region than a Russian-speaking population. Russian-speaking
Kyiv voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential
elections and Russian speakers are as critical and contemptuous of the
pervasive criminality and corruption of Ukraine's elites as are Ukrainian

However, because of tsarist and soviet politics Russian never became a
medium for Ukrainian national ideas and today Russian is rarely used to
publicly promote Ukrainian national ideas or integration with the EU. For
this reason it is unlikely that Ukraine could become an eastern European
Ireland. A Russian-speaking Luhansk province is more likely to gravitate
towards Russia than the EU. Consequently, to the degree that the
correlation between Russian language-use and pro-Russian political
orientations remains high, Russian as Ukraine's second language would
reinforce Russophile orientations.  Russian language-use in business and
the public-sphere will return Ukrainian to its pre-1991 status a
second-rate medium suitable only for folk-culture and market-place
bartering. Fostering public Russian language-use, in short, impedes
Ukraine's integration with the EU and the rest of the world. Teaching
Russian as a second language in Ukraine's schools will isolate it from the
rest of the world. Teaching English would not.

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