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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.


  • Taras:

    Let me add, that the instances of Switzerland, Canada and Kazakhstan prove that officially multi-lingual nations exist without any related problems.

    Not all nations are the same. One can find different histories and different levels of linguistic diversity.

    Regarding this subject with Ukraine: below is a link which replies to a recent Global Voices promoted blog post by Paul Goble:

  • Excerpted from Peteris:

    “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.”


    Peteris & Co:

    Many Ukrainians don’t see Russia as an imperialist presence in their land and some of Latvia’s present day policies are nothing to laud and emulate.

    Some related views on this:

  • Taras

    Thank you, Michael. No further questions:)

  • Justice Taras has excused me (at least for now).

  • Mike Averko wrote, among other things:

    “Not all nations are the same. One can find different histories and different levels of linguistic diversity.”

    That’s what I meant to suggest by dilating a tiny bit upon a few situations. That’s also why it is really not instructive to draw up a superficial list of officially bilingual or multilingual countries. As you say, the levels differ — so does most everything else, from the political system (e.g., federative, unitary, centralized, democratic, etc. ..and the degrees of these) to the demographics, the language and education policies, what a status entails, to the languages themselves — Irish is one of two official languages in the Republic of Ireland, for example, but it is endangered; English, not indigenous, dominates.

    Belarusian and Russian are official in Lukashenko’s dictatorship — but, as Alexandra Goujon notes in one of her insightful studies: “The Belarusian language is rarely used in everyday inter-personal communication, schooling and the news media; Russian
    dominates all these areas.”

    I am quite accustomed to critics of Latvia’s language policies bringing up Canada, Belgium, and Finland as examples of why Russian should be an official language here. One can find points of comparison between most things, but but for such comparisons to be useful — they shouldn’t be superficial. The Swedish language, for example, does not threaten Finnish; it’s the mother tongue of less than 6% of the population. Switzerland bears no comparison to Ukraine or Latvia whatsoever. Belgium is coming apart at the seams.

    A comparison to Canada is more instructive in many respects, but I see more comparisons between Québec and Ukraine than I do between Ukraine and Canada as a whole — there are, of course, profound differences, too. Canada was never totalitarian, as the USSR was, and British rule in Canada, however ugly at times, does not compare in hideousness to Russian imperialism. The demographics are very different — native Anglophones are less than 8% of the population.

    Unlike Ukraine, Québec is not a sovereign country. The Québécois do form a nation, however, as even the Canadian Parliament has finally recognized — a nation within a united, federal Canada. Ukraine is an independent nation-state. It is not within a federation of other nations (sorry, the CIS is not a federation!), and the Russophones in Ukraine are Ukrainian nationals.

    Mike Averko writes that “officially multi-lingual nations exist without any related problems” — this would depend upon what one means by “problems,” but I’d hardly look to Canada as an example of a lack of problems on the language front. Being hyper-democratic with a long tradition of a civil society, Canada has sought solutions to those problems — there are concepts like “the two solitudes” and “the Quiet Revolution” that might give one an idea of just how problematic the language question has been. Loi 101 was passed a full three decades ago — some aspects are at least as stringent as the language laws in the Baltic states.

    French is a major language and not native to Canada. Ukrainian has only a single home that can be made comfortable, and that is Ukraine. Between 1971 and 1996, the percentage of Anglophones knowing French rose from 37% to 63%. That’s a profound shift — one that I suspect many if not most native speakers of Ukrainian would like to see.

    I don’t plan to address the article by an American Gonzo expat in Moscow, a publisher of Limonov, recommending arson. It’s off topic and doesn’t contribute to serious debate. I’m well aware of the fact that many Ukrainians share Mike Averko’s views, and I’m not suggesting that there’s only one view. I do think that discussions of language in the former Russian/Soviet empire should address important questions like asymmetrical bilingualism, the language of prestige, coercive assimilation, Russification, etc. Otherwise it’s just blowing smoke. I think Ukrainian is a lot healthier than Belarusian, and I hope it becomes yet more robust. There are different ways to accomplish that.

  • Peter Winterson

    Greetings from Belgium, still existing at the moment but the clock is ticking. :)

    In my ountry, we have 3 official languages : Dutch, French and German and a rising influence of English in the city of Brussels because of the presence of tens of thousands EU administration workers, NATO people and families.

    In the last 150 years, we have evolved from a country with one official language (french) to this situation, which has cost the blood and efforts of thousands of people.

    At present we are indeed looking at a split of the country because the economic and social realities in the french and dutch part of the country have become so different.
    Dutch and flemish people are already for years separated ‘in the minds’ because they have nothing in common except beer, chocolate and the royal family.
    We will see what the future brings but Belgium will not be missed, that’s for sure.

    About Ukraine : this may be the start of a -very- long proces altough the situation is more easy since Ukrainian and Russian are linguistic close to each other.
    The problems will start only when ukrainian speaking people will refuse to speak russian and russian people will be forced to use ukrainian.
    At that time, it will become dangerous.

  • Peteris:

    When supporting Russian not being made an official language in Ukraine, you’ve no opposition to having the language situation in Belgium raised. On the other hand, you’re more dismissive on the comparison with other countries (Canada, Switzerland and Kazakhstan) when used to support making Russian an official language in Ukraine.

    As for the language situation in Belarus, there’s no Belarusian Orthodox Church as well. I’ve relatives in Belarus, who prefer speaking Russian as does much of the population there. By the way, in the early years of Soviet rule, the Belarusian language was essentially developed as part of an attempt to have the image of a multi-national union. Russians and Belarusians are closely related to each other, with both of them overwhelmingly rejecting your slant. BTW, you’re aware that there’s an on paper Union State of Russia and Belarus? In an honest Belarusian referendum asking if its citizenry would like to join Russia, it wouldn’t surprise if the answer would be affirmative. Only Lukashenko prefers such an arrangement to be in a union arrangement as opposed to Belarus becoming a Russian republic under the current RF provisions. He doesn’t want to lose clout. This is why Slovak leaders favored leaving Czechia, with many in Czechia not wanting to be affiliated with the poorer Slovakia. This same issue relates to Moldova and Romania not reunifying.

    Those trumping up “Russification” omit noting the attempt to linguistically Ukrainianize territory where Russian was the desired tongue. This happened in the late 19 twenties/early thirties. I suspect that this attempt helped popularize the Russo-Ukrainian dialect known as Surzhyk.

    Putting aside some of Mark Ames’ views, he raises some valid points about the imperfections evident in present day Latvia and Estonia.

  • WRY

    Put simply, the question is whether one wants a Ukrainian language to survive at all.
    We live in an era of “strong” languages – English, French, etc. – and weak ones: tongues that are dying out because they are unprestigious and the young will not learn them. See how many speak Welsh in Wales, for instance.
    To put Russian in equal status to Ukrainian in Ukraine is to sign the death warrant of Ukrainian. Can anyone doubt this? With Russian as a state language there would be no incentive to learn Ukrainian at all, and because of Russia’s greater clout, every incentive to fortify Russian dominance.
    In fact, even with no official status for Russian the prospects for Ukrainian look challenging at best: A language traditionally perceived as one for “country bumpkins” has got to somehow attain the prestige of a world-class language.
    If it can be done it would take great effort. With Russian as a state language, Ukrainian goes the way of Belarusian, or even Wendish!

  • In that my question about the assertion that Poltava is the only place where Ukrainian is spoken has met with resounding silence I must conclude that the assertion is false. Apparently Ukrainian can be found in other places. So much for that.

    The fact is, there is a strong undercurrent of dislike and distrust between the Russian speaking East and the “bastardized” Ukrainians in the West. Please note the use of “bastard” is not my contrivence, it has been introduced by others in this thread. You have to listen carefully to the dialogue which comes out when the parties east and west have to speak in English about these relationships. Perhaps this is so because having to discuss in English forces the comments to be more basic and from the gut.

    My thinking is: Russian culture is far removed from Western Europe and constantly moving further away. Making Russian an official language in Ukraine will solidify the longing of the Russian speaking regions to return to the Russian fold. Ukraine will split. A house devided against itself can not stand. In this case it’s more than just words snd grammar for they are of no consequence. It’s a matter of culture. A young western Ukrainian lady said it best, “We don’t like the Russians.”

  • From the looks of things most of Ukraine’s citizenry seek the two language route. Having Ukrainian as the sole language can arguably/eventually end Russian language use in Ukraine against how most feel there.

    If I correctly recall, it was earlier stated that modern day or “canon” (if you may) Ukrainian is the one typically spoken in the Poltava/Kiev central area of Ukraine where Russian is also spoken. Keep in mind that during the so called “Orange Revolution,” most of the pro-Orange demonstration placards were in Russian. As earlier mentioned in this thread, there’re two dialects in Ukraine which can be considered as languages: the Russo-Ukrainian Surzhyk, prevalent in the east of the country and a western Ukrainian dialect influenced with German and Polish words. In addition, there’s the language of the Carpatho-Rusyns in Trans-Carpathia. A group which isn’t officially recognized as a ethnic group in Ukraine.

    I found this article to be quite informative on the matter of languages in Ukraine:

    I take issue with this recently posted thought: “Russian culture is far removed from Western Europe and constantly moving further away.” Don’t confuse Russian disagreement with neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies as a sign of Russia moving further away from the West. Furthermore, if anything, Russia is more “European” than Hungary vis-à-vis race (without meaning to appear Hitlerian) and language. Geographically, it’s arguably more “European” than the British Isles.


    On a somewhat different issue related to Global Voices, I’ve been unsuccessful in posting a reply to Douglas Muir’s most recent piece dealing with the former Moldavian SSR (Moldova and Pridnestrovie). Among other things (like how some of the leading Pridnestrovian politicans have a cleaner track record than the Kosovo Albanian ones), I wanted to bring to the attention of GV readers the thoughts expressed in these two recent articles:

    Half of Moldova’s Workers Have Left Moldova

    The above linked article is from a Moldovan in Moldova, who acknowledges the reasons why most Pridnestroivans don’t desire having the Moldovan government rule over them and express reluctance at being reunited with Moldova (especially one which steers away from closer ties with Russia).

    Press Freedom Curtailed as Moldova Shuts Down TV Station

    As per the two above linked articles, Id’ like to be informed about any inaccuracies.

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