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Forked Tongues

Judging by opponents' rhetoric in the presidential elections, Yushchenko was set to launch a linguistic revolution in Ukraine. So far, he hasn’t. by Ivan Lozowy 1 September 2005 There was a time, a Soviet time, when language was never an issue in Ukraine, at least in public. Soviet citizens were expected to know Russian, the official language of the “Soviet peoples” and that was that. Ukrainian was the language spoken at home by most families, but they would often switch to Russian at work and almost always to Russian at school (in 1987, for example, 72 percent of the schools in Ukraine taught in Russian and only 16 percent in Ukrainian). The countryside and villages, in particular, remained a forepost for Ukrainian in the east (producing, as it happens, one of the country’s greatest Ukrainian-language poets of modern times, Vasyl Stus). In large swathes of central, southern and eastern Ukraine, the languages intermingled. Ukrainian-speaking locals mixed in Russian words with such frequency that observers claimed they were speaking a new language, surzhik, or “mixture.” But there was no doubt that Russian was the language of state, the public language.

That changed in the 1990s. Ukrainian became the official language. Russian was no longer a state language. Ukrainian became the primary language of tuition in schools. Broadcasters were required to produce a certain proportion of programs in Ukrainian; all national television programs were expected to be in Ukrainian. Ukrainian was the language spoken at home by an increasing number of families, but they would often switch to Russian at work. Over the decade, use of Ukrainian rose grew both absolutely and relatively. According to a 2001 census, 67.5 percent of Ukrainians considered Ukrainian their native tongue, while 29.6 percent were native Russian speakers. Somewhere in that number were the 20 percent of Ukraine’s populace who regularly speak surzhik.

But that paints an unrealistic picture of Ukrainian’s progress. Though most books printed in Ukraine are in Ukrainian, their print runs are typically small. Moreover, imports account for a large part of the total book market: while the exact number is unknown, vast numbers of books cross the border from Russia onto the Ukrainian market. Those anxious about Ukrainian now talk about a market-driven russification of publishing. Publications in Russia are freed from most taxes, which is not the case in Ukraine. The number of newspapers printed in Ukrainian dropped from 68 percent in 1990 to 39.6 percent in 1998, with publishers switching to printing in Russia and in Russian to avoid duties. During that same period, the percentage of Ukrainian-language magazines dropped from 90.4 percent to 11.5 percent. And for all the regulation, a mere 18 percent of all television broadcasts in 1999 were in Ukrainian. Ukrainian may have dominated the home, but Russian dominated the media.

It was against this mixed backdrop that language became such a divisive issue in the presidential elections in late 2004. Promoters of Ukrainian looked to Viktor Yushchenko, a Ukrainian-speaker with a base of support in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, to nurture the language. In the Russian-speaking east, he was portrayed as a nationalist (though that is a milder term than was usually applied) who would relegate Russian from public life.

It already looks clear that language will again be a prominent issue when parliamentary elections are held, in March 2006. Even an ally of Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution – the leader of the Socialist party Oleksandr Moroz – is seizing on the status of Russian to win political points. Since the Socialists are grabbing defectors from the once-mighty Communist party, who are strongly pro-Russian, Moroz has apparently staked out his position on the left and in opposition to Yushchenko’s policies, on language included. That was demonstrated in January 2005 when Moroz introduced an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have granted Russian the status of an “official” language alongside Ukrainian.

But what are Yushchenko’s policies? And has anything actually changed since the revolution?


Going into the elections, there were voices on both sides – from Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers – demanding a change in the status quo. Promoters (or ‘defenders’) of Russian wanted official status for Russian and argued that Ukraine, as a signatory of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, should do more to ensure that Russian-speakers had the right to use Russian in schools, courts, and government offices.

Promoters (or ‘defenders’) of Ukrainian argue that this would, in one fell swoop, entrench Russian’s status as the dominant public language, giving them carte blanche to justify the exclusive use of Russian across large parts of Ukraine’s territory and relegating Ukrainian in all spheres of life even in western Ukraine, where Ukrainian is freely heard. Instead, they argue, the government should take special measures to loosen the grip of Russian on public life, and television in particular.

However he might choose to change the status quo, Yushchenko will be making treading on sensitive toes as the roles of the Ukrainian and Russian languages are, of course, part of a broader theme, the debate about Ukraine’s national identity. Language therefore touches on raw issues, including the touchiest of all, history.

There is much to be touchy about. Following the Russian empire’s gradual conquest of Ukraine, largely complete by the end of the 18th century, the Ukrainian language was severely restricted. In 1720 Peter the Great forbade the use of Ukrainian. In 1863, the empire’s interior minister, Count Petro Valuyev, decided that “there never was, is not and cannot be” a Ukrainian language, and issued a decree restricting it. In 1876, the Emsky Decree prohibited the use of Ukrainian in literature, theatre and science. And in the Soviet era, Stalin decimated Ukraine’s cultural elite in his ‘red terror’ and ravaged the largely Ukrainian-speaking countryside in the man-made famine of 1932-33, which killed six to ten million people. Those deaths halted a revival in the use of Ukrainian, but could not wipe it out. If he could not stop people speaking Ukrainian, Stalin could, though, “russify” Russian, which he did by changing traditional Ukrainian orthography to make Russian and Ukrainian closer in style and syntax. Over the Soviet era Ukraine’s population was also russified: encouraged by official government policy and the need for manpower for huge industries in the east, Russians flooded into Ukraine, raising the percentage of Russians from 8.2 percent in 1926 to 22.1 percent in 1981.

Amid those setbacks, there were moments of revival and relative liberalism. For example, in order to win the support of the peasantry and consolidate their rule, the Bolshevik leaders of the young Soviet Union embarked on a program of “Ukrainization” in the early 1920s and, until Stalin arrived, the use of Ukrainian was encouraged; and the perestroika and glasnost of the 1980s brought a significant relaxation of russification policies. Indeed, Ukrainian became Ukraine’s sole official language in 1989, even before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Nonetheless, the calls for the promotion of Ukrainian are rooted in the bitterness of that history. That is not surprising since the language issue has left a deep stamp on the nature of the country: the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, came to the fore in the struggle against russification, and the strength of Ukrainian in the west and its weakness in the east is attributed to the difference between the laissez-faire language and cultural policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the west and the repressive policies of the Russian Empire in the east. Unsurprisingly, the most fervent and vocal of lobbyists for the Ukrainian language are the “Sixtiers,” former dissidents who spent time in the prison camps of the Soviet gulag for their patriotic devotion to Ukraine. They include figures such as Ivan Dziuba, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 1968 for writing Internationalism or Russification, a book that is probably the primary work setting out the agenda of those who opposed the roll-back of the use of the Ukrainian language during the Soviet period.

“We fought for an independent Ukraine and the revival of the Ukrainian language and we will not give up our goals now,” says one of them, Les Taniuk, who now chairs the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on Culture and Spirituality.


In practice, the proposals of the Sixtiers are vague: eloquent in their support of the Ukrainian language, they rarely propose concrete steps to further their goals. But politicians like Yushchenko have little chance to be vague since much of the challenge of promoting Ukrainian is legal – to introduce new legislation or to ensure that existing legislation is observed. All potential moves are politically fraught. And past efforts to pass laws that would seriously help Ukrainian, such as freeing book publishing of taxes (as Poland and Russia both did in the mid-1990s), have failed to be adopted.

Still, despite those in-built political obstacles, there were reasons to expect Yushchenko to take action. "I think the Ukrainian language is still hugely under threat," Yushchenko said soon after the revolution, for example. "The previous administration didn't think there was a problem but if we lose our language we lose our culture."

But, just like every government before it, Yushchenko’s team has not given serious consideration to a national program encouraging the use of Ukrainian (though that would seem to be a constitutional requirement: the constitution, adopted in 1996, says the state should “provide for the all-encompassing development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all areas of societal life across all the territory of Ukraine”). Indeed, the government has chosen to do nothing to promote the use of Ukrainian. In the years before the revolution, Yushchenko’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, learnt Ukrainian to add to her native Russian. She has not, though, made the promotion of Ukrainian – and getting other state officials to follow her lead – a public issue. The government itself continues to use a mix of languages. Ministers such as Transport Minister Yevhen Chervonenko and the minister for emergency situations, David Zhvania, an ethnic Georgian, speak only Russian. Yushchenko himself has said nothing on the topic that would produce headlines.

The issue of language has, it seems, fallen by the wayside, apparently in the hustle and bustle of economic reform, the struggle with corruption, and the tricky task of handling Ukraine’s international relations. In fact, in some ways, Yushchenko’s supporters pay less attention to language now than they did before the elections. Previously, his Our Ukraine faction in parliament had regularly stood very strongly against the introduction of Russian as a second state language and in favor of legislation favoring Ukrainian. Now, they are saying and doing nothing on either front, even about the removing taxes on Ukrainian-language books.

In effect, Ukrainian is being promoted by inertia, not policy. Its advance – if there is one – is in “stealth mode.” Gradually, its status as the country’s official state language and a number of legislative provisions are probably making Ukrainian a slightly greater presence in daily life (bureaucrats, for example, are obliged to know the state language, Ukrainian, though their use of Ukrainian is left largely up to them).

The same too applies to education, though more actively. Schools can choose their language of instruction, though they also have to teach pupils Ukrainian. There are, for example, Hungarian-language schools funded by Budapest and Romanian-language schools supported by money from Bucharest. Ukrainian is the language used in most schools across Ukraine, with the notable exceptions of the Donbas and the Crimea, where teachers regularly favor Russian. This means that in places there are different patterns of language use in and out of school. In the capital, Kyiv, schools overwhelmingly teach in Ukrainian – though, as any stroll through the center indicates, it is not an overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking city. On balance, there seems at present to be a wavering in the policy of using Ukrainian in schools.

In higher education, the situation is theoretically better still for Ukrainian, since the law requires teaching to be conducted in Ukrainian. But this rule is routinely ignored in the south and east of Ukraine. Even in central Ukraine and in Kyiv, there are instances of college professors switching to Russian for their lectures, at times at the request of students. Still, education is perhaps the area of life where the Ukrainian language is establishing itself most firmly outside the home.

The Ukrainian language, though, has one intangible advantage: since the revolution, more Ukrainian has been heard on the streets of Kyiv, an indication perhaps that national pride and political allegiance are translating into a switch in language.


For the time being, an uneasy truce prevails in public life. Everyone is simply using the language they wish to, with small, occasional flare-ups, such as demands by students that a professor switch to Russian or a demonstration in the Crimea in favor of introducing Russian as the second state language or a congress held on 16 July by the Russian Movement, an NGO whose stated goals include Ukraine’s integration into a union with Russia and Belarus and “granting Russian a status equal to that of Ukrainian.”

In the long run, Yushchenko may choose to be more active. That, at least, is suggested by a nationwide television address that Yushchenko made in May, in which he said that “in contrast with the past, this government understands the significance of the state language and we will form a state policy to support the state language... The problem is more or less understood, [as is] the direction in which we should move.”

However, with elections coming up, it seems certain that Yushchenko will want the language issue to lie dormant at least through the middle of 2006.

Whether it remains dormant is another matter. The issue is undoubtedly explosive, with small groups on both sides geared towards confrontation and politicians already taking up positions. And, while a large proportion of the population is uninterested in the issue, the role of the Ukrainian language is among the most consistently hot topics on Internet forums. These debates will continue, in whatever language.
Ivan Lozowy is a TOL correspondent and also runs an Internet newsletter, the Ukraine Insider.
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