Last week, fists flew in the Ukrainian parliament over the latest attempt to grant the Russian language a measure of official status in the country. Fat politicians brawled with other fat politicians, while outside, an angry crowd protested. From her jail cell, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko denounced the bill as a “crime.” Earlier, she had characterized it as an apparently sacrilegious assault on “an issue that is holy for many of us.”
Tymoshenko, who could not speak Ukrainian until she was 36, is a demagogue. But the word “holy” reveals the extremes of passion felt on this subject. Politically and culturally, language is a hot kartofel (or should I say kartoplia?) in Ukraine and the “Russian Question” provokes defensive outrage from Ukrainian nationalists.
Taras Shevchenko: he could speak Ukrainian before he was 36
I witnessed Ukrainian language policies in action in 2005, when I visited Kiev. I confess that I thought it rather strange that many people were speaking Russian, but all of the signage was in Ukrainian. The apotheosis of absurdity came when I watched a Russian action movie, where the credits were in Ukrainian but the language of the film was Russian. Pretentiously, there were English language signs on some government buildings, but nothing in Russian. I also recall a story about a town in western Ukraine, where some micro-fascists had banned Russian pop from the airwaves.
The struggle to forcibly impose the Ukrainian language on the country’s large Russian-speaking population – about 30% of the total – has a long pedigree. In his fascinating book, The Affirmative Action Empire, Terry Martin details a barking mad attempt in the early revolutionary period to compel everybody working in government administration to switch from Russian to Ukrainian in two years – a move that was endorsed by Moscow in order to defeat “Great Russian Nationalism.” It failed because it was a stupid idea, and ground to a complete halt when Stalin, a Russifying Georgian, came to power.
It is of course natural that many Ukrainians feel anxious about their language. Russia is a powerful neighbor located right next door. Ukraine has only been independent for 20 years, and nationalists fear that the use of Russian will divide the nation, and threaten its very identity. But the country is already divided, and what in fact is that identity? It’s not as if all those Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea arrived last week to destabilize a hitherto homogenous Ukrainian culture.
Most Russians living in Ukraine were born there. The only reason the Russian-speaking Crimea is part of the country because Nikita Khruschev “gifted” it in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s union with Russia. Much of southeastern Ukraine was captured by the Russian Empire in the 18th century, and was settled by both Russians and Ukrainians. For centuries there was no border, and Kiev is the “mother city” of Russians and Ukrainians alike. Russian is also the lingua franca of most of the other long-established ethnic minorities in Ukraine.
The millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine are hardly interlopers, then. Some are as “indigenous” as the ethnic Ukrainians themselves. So it is not surprising that many object to the policy of forced Ukrainization, active since the 1990s, which has seen education in the Russian language largely eradicated and eastern and southern government offices conducting business in a tongue predominantly spoken in the western half of the country.
Embarrassingly, independent and democratic Ukraine is more oppressive in this regard than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was in 1970. At that time, in the autonomous region of Tatarstan, 70% of schooling was conducted in Tatar, not Russian. By 1990, schooling in Tatar had dropped to 24%. By 2001, however, the figure was at 49.3% and rising. Thus Russia – the Grand Villain of Ukrainian nationalism – grants its linguistic minorities more rights than independent, democratic Ukraine.
Perhaps I am more relaxed about language because although I am Scottish, I speak Standard English, not Gaelic, and don’t feel any less Scottish for it. I freely admit that the Scots and the English are very similar, just as Ukrainians and Russians are very similar. Life is too short to dwell on the narcissism of small differences.
In Texas, meanwhile, I see Spanish language signs all the time, most often in big stores, because the politics of immigration aside, it’s good for business if your clientele can read the signs. Second generation immigrants assimilate and become bilingual, because if you don’t learn English you will be doomed to a life of low-paying, menial jobs.
Perhaps if Ukrainian politicians could concentrate less on punching each other in the face and focus more on giving Ukraine a prosperous future, the language issue would become less contentious. Anybody with ambition who wanted to play in the big leagues would be motivated to learn the language of the unitary center, which is Ukrainian and will remain so. Russian speakers might look over the border at their cousins and feel pity. They might even read a volume of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry by choice instead of as a legal obligation in school.
Well, OK, that last one’s probably going a bit far. But you get my drift.