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Ukraine’s Explosive Language Question

It is no longer a sustainable social contract in Ukraine that the east can be a Russian-speaking enclave and de facto ignore the state language.

The so-called “language question” has been a recurring motif of political conflict in Ukraine for the past 25 years. Too often, debates between proponents of obligatory Ukrainizatsiya (Ukrainianization) and of the two-language (Ukrainian and Russian) status quo have veered into culture war.

The question has proven particularly dangerous during the actual war in eastern Ukraine that began in spring, 2014. In the first days after the victory of the Euromaidan revolution, the Ukrainian parliament repealed the Regional Languages Law of 2012, which the disgraced ex-president, Viktor Yanukovich, had pushed through to placate his Russian-speaking political base in the country’s southeast.

The repealing of the law’s certainly would not “make Russian illegal”—it would only have limited its use in some public functions—but this is how it was interpreted in much of the restive Donbas Region, which was deeply upset by the ascension of pro-Western revolutions in Kiev. The acting president vetoed the repeal, understanding the disastrous effect the repeal was having on public opinion in the east. But the damage was done.

Indeed, language rights became one of the main fronts of the Moscow-backed Russian Spring project that engulfed Donetsk and Luhansk. Living at the time in distant Vladivostok, I recall radio appeals to Russians to join the Donbas “militias” to defend their common native tongue. In the early days of the war, Moscow-based journalist Marina Akhmedova asked Donbas rebels what they were fighting against. They railed against the supposed humiliation of having Ukrainian imposed on them: “We couldn’t read the labels on our medicine bottles!”

But while deep ideological fissures opened up in Ukraine, Kiev set the dangerous language question aside. No serious restrictions were imposed, and those regions of the Donbas under government control continued their familiar Russian-speaking existence. However, this hands-off approach ended several weeks ago, when President Petro Poroshenko’s party introduced a draft law that would mandate near-total conversion to the Ukrainian language in schools and universities, local government, print and online media, and even in stores and restaurants.

To judge the wisdom of such a move is necessary to answer several questions: Is Ukrainizatsiya a just policy? And is it necessary at this time of profound national crisis for Ukraine?

Language of the Aggressor

The history of Luhansk Oblast (province) in the Donbas, where I presently live, offers a compelling prism of which to answer this question. Most of the initial settlers who braved nomadic and Turkish raids in this dangerous steppe frontier were Ukrainian peasants. But they were joined by fugitive serfs from overcrowded central Russia, Don Cossacks and Balkan refugees from the Ottoman Empire.

The proportion of ethnic Russians increased greatly with the opening of vast coal reserves and industrialization in the province’s south. But when the Bolsheviks seized the region in 1917, it was an ethnic and linguistic mosaic in which Ukrainian played a central role.

The Bolshevik’s language policy lurched wildly from enforced promotion of Ukrainian in the 1920s (to the deep resentment of some Russian-speaking proletarians) to mass repression of Ukrainian national activists, which came on the heels of mass death of Ukrainian peasant farmers in the artificial famine of 1933. This was followed by moderate promotion under Khrushchev and finally to Russification as an instrument of pan-Soviet unity. In 1972, the Ukrainian dissident writer Oleksa Tikhiy wrote bitterly of the disappearance of his national language and culture in the Donbas, as Russian was imposed as the exclusive language of educational and professional advancement. Calling out the imperial nature of this policy was enough to get Tikhiy sent to a Russian prison camp, where he perished.

Today, Russian thoroughly dominates in Luhansk province, and not only in the separatist-controlled industrial cities. Soviet language policy obscured Ukrainian linguistic and cultural character even in the rural north, where its roots run deepest.

Thus, reviving the Ukrainian language in Luhansk Oblast, as in much of the country’s east and south, is a fitting and justified answer to this earlier, deliberate marginalization.

But there must be limits. Repressive Soviet policies helped the Russian language expand its range in eastern Ukraine but did not establish it there. It can be legitimately considered one of the indigenous languages of the Donbas, spoken by a significant proportion of the region’s pioneers and their descendants.

Having asserted that Ukrainizatsiya would be a just policy if it recognized the legitimate place of Russian in the cultural mosaic, we need to understand whether Ukraine needs it right now.

For proponents of the new law, pro-Russian separatism in the Donbas shows the need to eliminate mixed loyalties and mixed identities once and for all. They believe that the dominance of the “language of the aggressor” makes that region’s residents susceptible to Russian world ideology.

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This concept legitimizes Moscow’s main propaganda point that Russian speakers comprise an organic, transnational community with shared identity and interests. But Ukrainian realities test this assertion. A huge proportion of the volunteers that rushed to the frontline to fight the separatists and their Russian allies speak the “language of the aggressor.” So do most of the pro-unity local residents I have met. Speaking Russian does not obstruct them from being patriots of Ukraine if their hearts so direct them.

Furthermore, many of Ukraine’s most popular papers, news websites and blogs express their uncompromising support for Ukrainian unity in the Russian language. Indeed, sweeping Ukrainizatsiya of these news outlets would directly contradict another key policy goal for Kiev: combatting the dominance of Russian media (especially television) in the Donbas. It is crucially important that Ukraine keep open lines of communication to Donbas residents. Will limiting the ability of Ukrainian media to reach out to them in their native language assist in that goal?

Ukrainian and Russian are related languages, perhaps as close as Spanish and Italian. Nonetheless, gaining fluency in Ukrainian would take at least a year of concerted effort. In wartime, many Donbas residents will not find the opportunity to dig into their textbooks, especially internal refugees struggling to eke out a survival wage, or frontline civilians taking refuge in basement bomb shelters.

Put bluntly, this is not the time for Ukraine in the battle for hearts and minds.

How Much Coercion?

But the problem goes far beyond timing. All efforts to revive national languages require some amount of coercion. Experience shows that in moderate amounts coercion can produce more benefits than it incites resentment and resistance, such as requirements that all foreign films shown in theaters must be dubbed into Ukrainian. Many of my acquaintances from eastern Ukraine (and even Kiev) initially resisted this requirement, but with time realized that it was helping them achieve passive bilingualism and communicate better with Ukrainian speakers.


The process should nurture and restore Ukrainian language and culture where it has been extirpated, especially in the Donbas. But it should not seek to tear out Russian identity that has roots in the region’s black earth and chalk hills.


But there is nothing measured about the coercion in the draft law on Ukrainizatsiya. It is downright punitive. No transition period is anticipated for Russian speaking public officials or educators, and fines will be imposed immediately, theoretically on a daily basis, for failure to employ Ukrainian. “Language inspectors” will help enforce the requirements that the state language be used in government offices, schools and stores. No particular resources will be expended on helping Russian speakers learn Ukrainian, besides the placement of textbooks in public libraries.

The bill shares its punitive character the recent Ukrainian “De-Communization” laws. They approached the task of a long-needed honest reckoning with totalitarianism’s dark legacy by smashing and scrubbing out all things Soviet while breathlessly whitewashing right-wing nationalism. No particular public dialogue or debate was involved, no real attempt to engage or persuade those immersed in Soviet nostalgia. This was history by diktat, which is to say entirely in line with the way history was treated in the Soviet Union.

The proposed Ukrainizatsiya bill also echoes early coercive Soviet policy in method and intent, aiming to drive what millions of eastern Ukrainians consider their native language out of the public sphere and “into the kitchen.” Such a sharp change from the permissive linguistic status quo of the past 25 years will release anti-Kiev and pro-separatism political energies at the worst possible time.

I have seen after three years of war that many Donbas residents who voted for separatism in the unofficial referenda of May 2014 are now prepared to accept Ukraine if it can provide stability, relative law and order and economic recovery. But a language policy that reaches into nearly every aspect of their lives could re-ignite dormant ideological anger. Even many pro-unity residents are frustrated that the government in Kiev is stoking culture war rather than focusing on policies that address their sharp decline in quality of life.

Getting Ukrainizatsiya Right

The proposed law needs a dramatic overhaul, which re-focuses it on an achievable goal: assuring the proficiency of all Ukrainian citizens in their state language. That goal will be much better achieved by establishing a realistic and implementable program and funding it accordingly. The core of the Ukranizatsiya strategy should not be fines for offenders, but investment in Ukrainian language adult education. The latter is practically absent in the Donbas today.

That said, the right dose of obligation and coercion must be found. It is no longer a sustainable social contract in Ukraine that the east can be a Russian-speaking enclave and de facto ignore the state language. The very least that should be expected of all Ukrainian citizens is functional bilingualism.

But Russian speakers are likely to be far less alarmed and alienated by Ukrainizatsiya if they think it will respect the limits of their linguistic-cultural identity. The process should nurture and restore Ukrainian language and culture where it has been extirpated, especially in the Donbas. But it should not seek to tear out Russian identity that has roots in the region’s black earth and chalk hills.

Ukainizatsiya is too important and worthy a cause to be reduced to an instrument of culture war. It must serve and not undermine Ukraine’s identity as a pluralistic, multiethnic republic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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