[lg policy] Ukraine: One Language, No Unity
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Mon Aug 15 15:05:42 UTC 2011
One Language, No Unity
Kiev's Ukrainian-only language policy has failed. It is time to
recognize the realities of history (and European rules) by recognizing
Russian. by Oleg Varfolomeyev 28 June 2002 KIEV, Ukraine--Russian and
Ukrainian, being very similar languages, are understood by everyone in
Ukraine. But if somebody addresses you in Russian in Lviv, he must be
a tourist. In this formerly Polish town, now the unofficial capital of
western Ukraine, Ukrainian rules the streets. In eastern Donetsk,
meanwhile, a person speaking with a Lviv accent would be regarded as
Culturally, the Ukrainian nation is no longer homogenous. Christian
Easter is respected as "a truly great holiday" by 97 percent of
western Ukrainians, according to a recent poll by the Kiev-based
Oleksandr Razumkov think tank. It is of similar significance to only
65.2 percent of their southern compatriots, and for 25.4 percent of
them it is "just an ordinary official holiday." May Day is a "great
holiday" for only 8.1 percent of western Ukrainians, but as many as
40.4 percent of easterners regard it as such.
The political differences between eastern and western Ukrainians are
even more stunning. In the west, Our Ukraine--an opposition bloc of
Europe-oriented nationalists and liberals--won a landslide victory in
the 31 March parliamentary election. In the east and south, support
for Our Ukraine was counted in single digits, while Communists and
pro-government parties shared the victory.
Is this one or two nations? If two, the government in Kiev has
certainly chosen the wrong tool to unify them--language.
Ukraine was divided for centuries, with its eastern and southern areas
developing as part of the Russian state from the late 17th century
onward, while its western territories were fragmented among Central
European kingdoms. Much of this western area was under the control of
Poland, which viewed Ukrainians as a foreign group--"them." By
contrast, Russian tsars and Soviet general secretaries, though looking
down on Ukrainians as "little Russians," viewed them as a rural group
that, if "educated," could become part of Russian "higher
culture"--"us." That is why eastern Ukrainians, especially in towns,
ended up assimilated (or "russified"), while western Ukrainians,
defying foreign rulers, stuck to their language and traditions.
Ukraine came into being as a Soviet republic in its current borders
only in the 1940s. It obtained independence only half a century after
that, so it was acutely in need of a tool to create a common identity.
The ruling elite in the early 1990s assigned this role to the
Ukrainian language, while Russian--the preferred means of
communication in towns (except in western Ukraine)--was to be
sidelined as the language of former "colonial rulers." The government
viewed Russian as a threat to Ukraine's culture and independence.
The constitution passed in 1996 made only Ukrainian an official state
language. Legally, 100 percent of all TV and radio broadcasting must
be in Ukrainian. The number of Russian schools and kindergartens is
dwindling with every passing year. Ukraine persists in not ratifying
the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, which most
European countries have adopted. If Kiev were to ratify the charter,
it would be obliged to revise its attitude toward the Russian
In matters of language, Ukraine has repeated the same error in
relation to russified Ukrainians and ethnic Russians that Poland made
toward Ukrainians in past centuries. The "them-us" divide does not
nurture unity--and, over the decade that has passed since
independence, Ukrainian has duly failed to become a truly national
The official "one country, one language" policy is not working. The
transition to Ukrainian is being silently sabotaged in schools in the
south and the east. Russian dominates the mass media, including the
Internet. It is preferred to Ukrainian in the streets of the capital
Kiev (and even the name Kiev is preferred to the Ukrainian Kyiv), and
it dominates in most other cities. Government officials work with
documents printed in Ukrainian, but most of them communicate in
Russian. Councils in several eastern and southern cities, openly
defying the official line, voted throughout 1998-2002 to allow Russian
or Ukrainian to be used in municipal documents. On 31 March, in an
unofficial plebiscite sponsored by local authorities and held on the
same day as the national elections, 83 percent of voters in
Kharkiv--Ukraine's second-largest city--voted for Russian to
officially be put on a par with Ukrainian.
Perhaps it's time for Kiev to understand that it is impossible to
impose Ukrainian upon those who have spoken Russian since childhood,
just as Moscow failed to impose Russian upon western Ukraine in the
Soviet era. Perhaps Russian is a lesser threat to national security
than enforced Ukrainization. It does not forge a common national
identity, but it undermines russophones' trust in the government.
Passive resistance to the official language policy may never turn
active, but what if it does? Natural cultural and linguistic diversity
is better than imposed uniformity. Perhaps Kiev should leave Ukrainian
to Lviv and Russian to Donetsk and Kharkiv.
Oleg Varfolomeyev is a journalist based in Kiev and a regular
contributor to TOL.
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