Blog in Ukraine: the language issue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 24 12:57:21 UTC 2007

Ukraine: The Language
September <>
23rd,<>2007 @ 21:37 UTC by
Veronica Khokhlova <>

   Countries: Russia<>,
Languages: Russian <>,
Ukrainian <>

Victor Yanukovych <>'s Party
of the Regions <> is pushing
for a referendum on granting Russian official status as a national language,
in addition to Ukrainian.

Taras of *Ukrainiana* points
irrelevance of such an initiative by citing the 2001 census data:

[…] Nationwide, some 77.8 percent identified themselves as Ukrainians, while
only 67.5 consider Ukrainian their native language.

Question: Which of the two languages needs protection?

In the comments section, Taras writes more on the language issue:

[…] If [Yanukovych] wants two languages, he should help his fellow
Donbasians learn Ukrainian. He should also work with the Kremlin — not for
the Kremlin — to do more for Russia's 3-million Ukrainian community.

Instead, he and his Party of Regions thrive on the antagonisms and fault
lines left by the Soviet policy of Russification.


As a Kyivite, I speak Ukrainian and Russian equally well. Never in my whole
life have experienced any anxiety or constraints while speaking Russian
either in public or in private. But I do remember those dirty looks that
some people gave me when I spoke my native language in public at the dawn of
Ukraine's independence.

I have no aversion to any language. But I do have aversion to people who
want Ukraine to be a colony of the Russian Empire, and are fishing for an
excuse not learn Ukrainian, a non-language to them. […] Of course, not all
people who speak Russian are unpatriotic. Kyiv, still largely a
Russian-speaking city, voted Yushchenko 78 percent in the third round of the
2004 presidential election. […]

Further on, in a comment to Taras' post, Peteris Cedrins of
*Marginalia*offers the Latvian approach to dealing with the language
issue as an example
and concludes:

[…] Learning another language is addition, not subtraction — protecting our
national languages is about reducing asymmetrical bilingualism, not
obliterating Russian.

Journalist Oleksandr Paskhover, who has recently interviewed Yanukovych for
*Korrespondent* magazine, also
about Yanukovych's referendum initiative on his
** blog:

During the interview for *Korrespondent* […], Victor Yanukovych asked me
more questions than I did. So I didn't really understand [who was
interviewing who]. I asked him a question about why the election campaign
had turned into mutual vilification, and he asked this in response: "Have
you heard me insulting anyone, ever?" I asked him a question about the
status of Russian as a national language. He asked me: "What's bad about
granting the Russian language the official status?"

And I support this! But I approach the issue from a different direction. If
the Russian language in Ukraine were given the status of a foreign language,
it would've gained so much more from it than from the status of the second
national language. Beginning this year, at the gymnasium that my son and
daughter attend, they've reduced the number of Russian lessons. The space
freed up by this is filled with French, in addition to English and German. I
have nothing against the language of Dumas, Zidane and Le Pen, but I think
that good Russian will be of more use to my children than half-literate
French. The school authorities explained to us that since Russian isn't a
foreign language, the ministry of education has cut the hours allotted to
its study, in favor of a foreign language. Dear ministers, please return the
status of a foreign language to Russian, and let my children study it along
with English and German - five times a week.

The discussion of this post has been going on for over a week now; at some
point, it has evolved into a brawl, and there's also a lengthy lecture on
linguicide <>, posted in
installments by one reader. Here's a translation of just a handful of them


I wonder if Victor Fedorovych [Yanukovych] has ever heard of Belgium, where
there are several national languages, and the country is on the verge of
splitting, and the language issue is one of the key reasons for this split.

Introducing a second national language in Ukraine - Russian - will place the
country on the verge of a split (Belgium is an example) and will destroy the
Ukrainian language (Belarus, where they've almost destroyed the Belarusian
language, is an example).

Sasha, you should've advised Victor Fedorovych to learn more about the
language situation in these countries, and perhaps then he wouldn't be
asking questions like this.


Ihor_Dudnyk, I think that the problem of Russian or any other language does
not exist in Ukraine. This pseudo-problem is dragged out of the closet every
time there is an election, dusted off and solemnly brought out in front of
the roaring crowd. And after the election, it's put back into the closet,
into the very same corner of it. […]


[…] The language issue is impossible to resolve, because it requires 300
votes in favor of the changes in the Constitution. Of course, [the Party of
the Regions] can bribe the deputies whose votes it's missing, but this money
would be spent in vain and won't bring any dividends. What will be left for
them to be screaming about at the next election […]?


The problem of the Russian language is inflated as an air balloon and is
exaggerated […]. There are folks from every corner of our motherland at our
university. A good example: there are bestest friends in my group, from
Lviv, Bila Tserkva and Sevastopol. And the language poses no problem to
their friendship… [Javier] Solana has said it best today: Ukraine's got more
significant problems than a referendum on the Russian language.


It's just that no one has ever thought of … how much the second national
language would cost. […] All laws, documents, etc. would have to be
accessible in two languages, and so on. That is, I, as a citizen, have the
right to come to any institution and interact (including through
documentation) in either of the national languages, right? And no bureaucrat
from Donetsk would be able to allow himself NOT to speak to me in Ukrainian,
and, vice versa, in Ivano-Frankivsk, they wouldn't be able NOT to interact
in Russian. Or am I misunderstanding the concept of the national language???

And street signs on the buildings… they probably have to be *on both
languages, nicht???* [sic]


*"And street signs on the buildings… they probably have to be on both
languages, nicht???"*

Oh, [it'd be great if they were there at all], even in one language, even in
the unofficial one :-)


I'm addressing supporters of the second national language here:

You say that you are "for" the Russian language.
This ain't so.
In fact, you're "against" the Ukrainian language.

Nothing is threatening Russian in Ukraine. Besides, it's got its own base -
the Russian Federation, where it will continue to develop.
But Ukrainian has nowhere to retreat.
Ukraine is its base.

And this is why your position is amoral.


I walked into EuroStar bookstore in Kyiv yesterday and eavesdropped on a
conversation between a [male customer] and the young salesperson. The
conversation was in Ukrainian - the man was asking if there was any science
fiction in Ukrainian, and the salesman was politely saying that there was
nothing - all books were published by Russian publishers and were available
only in Russian. The man left empty-handed.

I asked the guy how many books in Ukrainian did the bookstore had overall -
he said there were approximately 60-65 titles, and the rest - some
4,000-4,500 items - were in Russian. And then he added quietly that there
have been no additions in the past month.

I asked him whether this was the company's acquisition policy. He said it
looked like it was, and, in his opinion, this was being done deliberately,
because there is a demand for Ukrainian-language books, even though they are
more expensive than those published by Russian publishers.

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