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Talking Past Each Other

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by Kseniya Pasechnik 29 September 2009 SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine | A range of possibilities are on offer to the students of Crimea, Ukraine’s only autonomous republic. They can study in schools where all classes are taught in Ukrainian, or Russian, or Crimean Tatar. Or they can study in multilingual schools where different classes are taught in different languages.

Chances are, however, that most will choose Russian-language schools, a reality that the government in Ukraine is trying to change, largely through financing Ukrainian-language education programs much more than those in Russian. That strategy has met with much local resistance.

The continuing dominance of Russian in Crimea, which is located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, is hardly surprising given that ethnic Russians make up 59 percent of the local population of just over 2 million, compared with 24 percent ethnic Ukrainians and 12 percent Crimean Tatars, according to the 2001 census. Data provided by the Ukrainian Education Ministry indicate that around half of the schools in Ukraine where classes are taught predominantly in Russian are located in Crimea, and that nearly all schools in Crimea – 555 of 576 – hold classes predominantly in Russian (the only exceptions being Ukrainian literature and history, and, of course, Ukrainian language classes).

“In Crimea only seven schools provide teaching [mainly] in Ukrainian,” complained Ivan Vakarchuk, the Ukrainian minister of education, at a recent press conference. “Only 7.3 percent of students receive their education in the country’s official language, compared with 81.3 percent in the rest of the country. It is the lowest percentage in Ukraine.” According to the ministry, not a single school in the rural areas of the Crimean peninsula provides instruction primarily in Ukrainian.

The minority Crimean Tatar population does not factor much in the linguistic debate. A few schools in the Crimean district of Bakhchisaray, opened with funding from the Turkish government, conduct lessons only in the Turkish language, as do some Sunday schools, also with Turkish-language instruction, typically at mosques. But most Crimean Tatars study at ordinary institutions, in Crimean-Tartar language classes, if possible. If not, they receive their education in Russian or Ukrainian.


Marina Chernysheva, a teacher at Yalta City School No. 4, contrasted the government’s methods today with those of over a decade ago, under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma. In 1998, the authorities introduced measures to improve the study of Ukrainian in schools where other languages predominated by increasing the number of hours taught in Ukrainian. Looking back, Chernysheva views this policy as “soft” Ukrainization, encouraging the use of the language by linking it with a quality education.

“The best teachers, computers, textbooks, were sent to those classes. There were about eight students per class. Certainly, many children, even those who had previously been instructed in Russian, wanted to receive their education at those establishments,” she said. “Since the quality of education in those classes was higher, Ukrainian was becoming more and more prestigious, as an increasing number of people wanted to study in Ukrainian-language schools. Separate lyceums and gymnasiums were created where teaching was conducted solely in Ukrainian.”

Chernysheva and many others in Crimea feel the situation changed after the popular protests of the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004 helped usher in a more Western-oriented government. Now the talk is more of “forced Ukrainization.”

“Linguistic pressure increased with the arrival of President Viktor Yushchenko,” said Olga Orel, the mother of a Sevastopol schoolgirl. “That has caused tension and resistance in pro-Russian Crimea.” She said the local community, including the city council, opposed the Ukrainian Education Ministry’s plans to open a Ukrainian-language gymnasium in Sevastopol next year.

Some students complain that they must study Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian history in Ukrainian only. “I want to learn about Russian history and literature. I don’t need to study Ukrainian, and I’ll receive a better university education [in the future] in Moscow,” said Rustam Lebanov, an eighth-grader at a Simferopol city school.

Respondents to a poll conducted in June echoed those views. According to a survey of Crimean residents by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center, 85.2 percent want their children to study in Russian-language schools. Only 4.4 percent desire a Ukrainian-language education and 2.8 percent an education in Crimean Tatar. An overwhelming majority – 85.3 percent – believe that the Crimean population is exposed to forced Ukrainization.


Others, however, call this supposed “forced Ukrainization” largely a myth cooked up by politicians. Georgiy Kasianov, director of education research at the International Renaissance Foundation in Kyiv, accuses the pro-Russian Party of the Regions as well as the Communist Party of playing the language card in their battles with political opponents, whom they mock as nationalists.

“When they speak about forced Ukrainization, they point to some decrees of the central government that were never implemented in Crimea, since the Kyiv-based Ministry of Education has no direct jurisdiction over Crimean education,” Kasianov said. “As a rule, directives from Kyiv on ‘Ukrainization’ were never fulfilled,” he added. As an autonomous republic, Crimea has its own parliament and ministries; only in extraordinary circumstances can the national government overrule their decisions.

Kasianov said the only way to change the situation is to make the Ukrainian language more attractive. “One example: the Ukrainian gymnasium that opened in Simferopol is extremely popular. It’s funded directly from Kyiv and it has excellent premises and technical equipment. Every year there is a long line of parents, including Russians, who want to enroll their children there.

“There is no real state policy directed from Kyiv toward the Crimean educational sphere,” he added. ”It is mostly wishful thinking, decrees, and an endless stream of paper.”

In Crimea, locals counter Kyiv’s arguments about the lack of Ukrainian instruction by insisting that educational programs adopted over a decade ago to foster cooperation among different ethnic groups are working. Under one such scheme, developed in 1996 by the Crimean Education Department, new schools with both Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar as languages of instruction were introduced. And, according to the department’s annual analysis of the ethnic composition of students and interviews with parents, this program has helped to ameliorate the situation, in part by creating a situation where multi-language schools have become increasingly popular.

In the beginning, enrolment at such schools was considerably below average: only eight requests from parents in city schools and five from those in rural areas were enough to launch such classes. But as with the Ukrainian-language schools launched in the late 1990s, the low number of students per class was very attractive, allowing teachers to focus on particularly difficult concepts and spend more time on foreign languages. A report by the Crimean Department of Education and Science indicates substantial growth in the number of these classes over the last few years, from 264 in the 2002-2003 school year to 434 in 2004-2005, the last year for which data are available.

“Schools with multiple languages of instruction became a godsend in small settlements, where there is one school for everyone,” said Alexander Gluzman, a former minister of education in Crimea. As a result, children from all different nationalities have been able to study at such establishments.

Yalta A view of Yalta from Ai-Petri, the mountain overlooking the Crimean resort town. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

Kseniya Pasechnik is a journalist in Kyiv.

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