Ukraine: The Language Issue

Victor Yanukovych
‘s Party of the Regions is pushing for a referendum on granting Russian official status as a national language, in addition to Ukrainian.

Taras of Ukrainiana points out the irrelevance of such an initiative by citing the 2001 census data:

[…] Nationwide, some 77.8 percent identified themselves as Ukrainians, while only 67.5 consider Ukrainian their native language.

Question: Which of the two languages needs protection?

In the comments section, Taras writes more on the language issue:

[…] If [Yanukovych] wants two languages, he should help his fellow Donbasians learn Ukrainian. He should also work with the Kremlin — not for the Kremlin — to do more for Russia’s 3-million Ukrainian community.

Instead, he and his Party of Regions thrive on the antagonisms and fault lines left by the Soviet policy of Russification.


As a Kyivite, I speak Ukrainian and Russian equally well. Never in my whole life have experienced any anxiety or constraints while speaking Russian either in public or in private. But I do remember those dirty looks that some people gave me when I spoke my native language in public at the dawn of Ukraine’s independence.

I have no aversion to any language. But I do have aversion to people who want Ukraine to be a colony of the Russian Empire, and are fishing for an excuse not learn Ukrainian, a non-language to them. […] Of course, not all people who speak Russian are unpatriotic. Kyiv, still largely a Russian-speaking city, voted Yushchenko 78 percent in the third round of the 2004 presidential election. […]

Further on, in a comment to Taras’ post, Peteris Cedrins of Marginalia offers the Latvian approach to dealing with the language issue as an example and concludes:

[…] Learning another language is addition, not subtraction — protecting our national languages is about reducing asymmetrical bilingualism, not obliterating Russian.

Journalist Oleksandr Paskhover, who has recently interviewed Yanukovych for Korrespondent magazine, also writes (RUS) about Yanukovych's referendum initiative on his blog:

During the interview for Korrespondent […], Victor Yanukovych asked me more questions than I did. So I didn't really understand [who was interviewing who]. I asked him a question about why the election campaign had turned into mutual vilification, and he asked this in response: “Have you heard me insulting anyone, ever?” I asked him a question about the status of Russian as a national language. He asked me: “What's bad about granting the Russian language the official status?”

And I support this! But I approach the issue from a different direction. If the Russian language in Ukraine were given the status of a foreign language, it would've gained so much more from it than from the status of the second national language. Beginning this year, at the gymnasium that my son and daughter attend, they've reduced the number of Russian lessons. The space freed up by this is filled with French, in addition to English and German. I have nothing against the language of Dumas, Zidane and Le Pen, but I think that good Russian will be of more use to my children than half-literate French. The school authorities explained to us that since Russian isn't a foreign language, the ministry of education has cut the hours allotted to its study, in favor of a foreign language. Dear ministers, please return the status of a foreign language to Russian, and let my children study it along with English and German – five times a week.

The discussion of this post has been going on for over a week now; at some point, it has evolved into a brawl, and there's also a lengthy lecture on linguicide, posted in installments by one reader. Here's a translation of just a handful of them (UKR, RUS):


I wonder if Victor Fedorovych [Yanukovych] has ever heard of Belgium, where there are several national languages, and the country is on the verge of splitting, and the language issue is one of the key reasons for this split.

Introducing a second national language in Ukraine – Russian – will place the country on the verge of a split (Belgium is an example) and will destroy the Ukrainian language (Belarus, where they've almost destroyed the Belarusian language, is an example).

Sasha, you should've advised Victor Fedorovych to learn more about the language situation in these countries, and perhaps then he wouldn't be asking questions like this.


Ihor_Dudnyk, I think that the problem of Russian or any other language does not exist in Ukraine. This pseudo-problem is dragged out of the closet every time there is an election, dusted off and solemnly brought out in front of the roaring crowd. And after the election, it's put back into the closet, into the very same corner of it. […]


[…] The language issue is impossible to resolve, because it requires 300 votes in favor of the changes in the Constitution. Of course, [the Party of the Regions] can bribe the deputies whose votes it's missing, but this money would be spent in vain and won't bring any dividends. What will be left for them to be screaming about at the next election […]?


The problem of the Russian language is inflated as an air balloon and is exaggerated […]. There are folks from every corner of our motherland at our university. A good example: there are bestest friends in my group, from Lviv, Bila Tserkva and Sevastopol. And the language poses no problem to their friendship… [Javier] Solana has said it best today: Ukraine's got more significant problems than a referendum on the Russian language.


It's just that no one has ever thought of … how much the second national language would cost. […] All laws, documents, etc. would have to be accessible in two languages, and so on. That is, I, as a citizen, have the right to come to any institution and interact (including through documentation) in either of the national languages, right? And no bureaucrat from Donetsk would be able to allow himself NOT to speak to me in Ukrainian, and, vice versa, in Ivano-Frankivsk, they wouldn't be able NOT to interact in Russian. Or am I misunderstanding the concept of the national language???

And street signs on the buildings… they probably have to be on both languages, nicht??? [sic]


“And street signs on the buildings… they probably have to be on both languages, nicht???”

Oh, [it'd be great if they were there at all], even in one language, even in the unofficial one :-)


I'm addressing supporters of the second national language here:

You say that you are “for” the Russian language.
This ain't so.
In fact, you're “against” the Ukrainian language.

Nothing is threatening Russian in Ukraine. Besides, it's got its own base – the Russian Federation, where it will continue to develop.
But Ukrainian has nowhere to retreat.
Ukraine is its base.

And this is why your position is amoral.


I walked into EuroStar bookstore in Kyiv yesterday and eavesdropped on a conversation between a [male customer] and the young salesperson. The conversation was in Ukrainian – the man was asking if there was any science fiction in Ukrainian, and the salesman was politely saying that there was nothing – all books were published by Russian publishers and were available only in Russian. The man left empty-handed.

I asked the guy how many books in Ukrainian the bookstore had overall – he said there were approximately 60-65 titles, and the rest – some 4,000-4,500 items – were in Russian. And then he added quietly that there have been no additions in the past month.

I asked him whether this was the company's acquisition policy. He said it looked like it was, and, in his opinion, this was being done deliberately, because there is a demand for Ukrainian-language books, even though they are more expensive than those published by Russian publishers.


  • There is no reason why Ifrance could not and should not adopt two or more official languages. I speak english not Gaelic, shakespearean or the language of Jane Eyre. Language is for ever changing. More and more English words are entering both the Russian and Ukrainian vocabulary. May words are Latin or French. Over the centuries every nation has added to the Ukraine’s linguistic.

    Canada, Switzerland and Finland all have multiple official languages.

    No one is trying to stop Ukrainian being spoken or taught at schools. But language is more and more being used as a “Nationalistic political tool”.

    IN Ukraine there are many linguistics groups. Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Tarar, Swedish, German, Hutzal. True Ukrainian is only spoken in Poltava the Ukrainian in the west is a bastardization of Ukrainian.

    Time to move on. The sooner Ukraine adopts a multiple language policy the sooner it can address the real political issues that divide this new nation. Its strength is in history and its diversity. Like it or not Russian is very much part of Ukrainian Culture.

    This will be Ukraine’s second such referendum on the question of official language.

    If a referendum is held then all sides should respect the outcome of the referendum.

  • With language comes culture. It will depend on who wants the culture. Do the Ukrainians want Russian culture or do they want Ukrainian culture? I understand that there are centuries of the two countries joined at the hip. Was this by free will or by the force or arms?

    I’ve never been to Ukraine, it’s a universal question for all nations.

  • Taras

    Ukraine Today,

    How far have you progressed in implementing your policy in your home country?

    Would you support this policy in Russia?

  • Ann

    “True Ukrainian is only spoken in Poltava the Ukrainian in the west is a bastardization of Ukrainian.” I know some western Ukrainian who would very much resent the notion that they speak a bastardized form of Ukrainian.

    Yet, at the same time there is a sort of language that mixes both Ukrainian and Russian that is spoken throughout Ukraine.

    Not all western Ukrainians are so much against having a 2 national languages. What difference does it make if both languages are treated equally, they ask. In fact, I don’t remember anyone telling me that Ukrainian should be the only official language.

    Yes, the real political issue is when will the political establishment in Ukraine start doing something for the people, the working classes, the small business persons and all the others, instead of worrying about their financial interests. The introduction of large business interests from the West is certainly not helping small businesses here. Imagine trying to run a business when a large German-owned “super-mart” plants itself next door. Comparable to a Wal-Mart opening up in a small town in the USA?

  • A question for those who have studied the history of the language. I am wondering how it has been determined that Ukrainian is spoken only in Poltava. How does the language spoken there differ from that spoken in Lviv for instance, or from any other oblast that primarily speaks Ukrainian? Serious questions. Please instruct this friend of Ukraine. Thanks, David Cottrell

  • Surzhyk is the hybrid Russo-Ukrainian dialect. The West Ukrainian dialect has German and Polish influences.

    The above referenced Global Voices promoted blog post is overly one sided and doesn’t reflect the views of many of Ukraine’s citizenry, be they Russian or Ukrainian.

    Canada is an officially bilingual country with Switzerland having three official language. Bias against the Russian language is a reality.

    Discrimination against the Russia language has been evident.

    Ukraine’s First Lady and the Ugly History of the Captive Nations Committee

    There’ve also been attempts to propagandistically downplay the close ties between Russia and much of Ukraine.

    Galicia and the Russian-Ukrainian Relationship

  • Canada is an officially bilingual country, yes — but the only province that’s officially bilingual is New Brunswick. The official language in Québec is French, which has used what Dominique Arel called “a barrage of legislation” to “reverse assimilatory trends.”

    Switzerland, which hasn’t been a victim of imperialism for centuries, is a special case that is not particularly comparable to other multinational states. Belgium is deeply divided linguistically, to the point of possible disappearance. In Catalonia, within Spain, public education is almost entirely in Catalan.

    I doubt that Ukraine can be stable unless it tackles asymmetrical bilingualism, as the Baltic states have done.

  • Ann

    Thank you, Michael Averko.

  • Taras


    Where do you come from?

    How many languages do you speak as fluently as you speak your native language?

    How many official languages do you have in your home country?

    Would you prescribe a multilingual policy to Russia?

  • Ann:

    You’re quite welcome.


    I’m from America and I’ve many contacts throughout the former USSR.

    How about Switzerland having three official languages and Canada two?

    You didn’t address those points.

    I know enough about Ukraine to know that a good number of its citizenry share my views.

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