Why Ukraine’s New Language Law is a Good Thing

July 4, 2019
Ukraine’s new language law helps its national language after centuries of oppression. Russian and other languages will be freely used but Ukrainian gets more incentives.
article-photo
Photo credit: UkraineVerstehen.de

See also: Ukraine’s Language Law in Questions and Answers

My eldest daughter is studying at a school in Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv. The school’s language of teaching is Ukrainian, but she is one of 3 or 4 out of more than 30 children in her class who speaks Ukrainian at home in their families. In a parents’ online school chat I am one of a few parents who writes their messages in Ukrainian. Others (roughly 90%) do this mostly in Russian.

In my neighborhood Russian is also lingua franca between children in their private conversations. During their lessons in class they speak Ukrainian, the official language of education, but between them they speak Russian. When my daughter approaches a child of her own age, she mostly speaks and responds in Russian: perhaps she believes that the children’s language is Russian. One of my other Ukrainian-speaking friends, whose daughter goes to school in Kyiv, says that she is the sole Ukrainian speaker in her class.

This situation is typical for Kyiv or its suburbs, many other big cities, especially in the East and South of Ukraine. Five years after EuroMaidan, coined by Russian propaganda as a “fascist” uprising trying inter alia to “ban” the Russian language, this is an ironic confirmation of the fact that Russian continues to be the dominant language in Ukraine, at least in everyday communication.

Russian continues to be the dominant language in Ukraine, at least in everyday communication

Kyiv is the capital city of Ukraine, and its moods often define where the country will go. The last two revolutions (Orange Revolution and EuroMaidan), driven by a mixture of liberal and patriotic passion, would have been impossible without Kyiv’s strong voice. This is what makes Kyiv a paradoxical place: the city remains mostly Russophone, but also an engine of opposition against Russia’s political expansionism. This is what makes Ukraine so paradoxical: here, you can have Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots (or even nationalists); and you could see many Russian-speaking people who were active during the Maidan uprising and later volunteered for the army. Russian speakers did a lot to defend Ukraine’s independence.

Russian speakers did a lot to defend Ukraine’s independence

The domination of the Russian language in a country that fights against Russian aggression and has a different (more plural and democratic) political culture is perhaps a post-colonial trait. The Russian empire systematically erased the Ukrainian language, and even officially banned it from public use.

The Russian empire systematically erased the Ukrainian language, and even officially banned it from public use

In 1863 Russia’s interior minister Piotr Valuev issued a “circular” limiting the public use of Ukrainian to only “belles lettres”, thereby banning it from education and religious practice. Later, in 1876, a “liberal” Tsar Alexander II issued the so-called Ems decree enlarging the ban to literature, theatre, public singing – i.e. to all public cultural activity.

The restrictions were valid until 1905; in those years one could study in Ukrainian or publish Ukrainian books or magazines in the Austro-Hungarian empire, but not in the Russian empire. This disproportion shifted the centre of Ukrainian culture in late 19th – early 20th century to Austrian Galicia, which had long-term consequences.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was first seemingly eased from the early 1920s: the short cultural renaissance of the 1920s brought books, plays, theatre, cinema, advertising, street signs, bureaucratic language back to Ukrainian. But this was a trap: after Stalin’s «great turning point» of 1929, everything was brutally ended, and hundreds of Ukrainian artists were first forced to follow the «official line» (this took place already in the 1920s), then they were arrested, brought to camps, exterminated or forced to commit suicide.

The short cultural renaissance of the 1920s was a trap: after Stalin’s «great turning point» of 1929, everything was brutally ended

Ideological distinctions didn’t play much of a role. First, the Soviet regime exterminated the national democrats of the formerly independent Ukrainian People’s Republic (the so-called SVU process in 1930 in Kharkiv); then, the time come for all the others: dissidents in «proletarian» art (Mykola Khvyliovyi and his circle), artists with a classical education and thinking (Mykola Zerov and “neo-classicists”), peasant writers (Serhiy Pylypenko and his circle) and, finally, «truly» proletarian writers. Their key fault was the fact that they were all writers in the Ukrainian language.

Later, in 1959, a Ukrainian emigrant, Yuriy Lavrinenko, with the help and inspiration of Polish emigrant Jerzy Giedroyc, published an anthology called “Executed Renaissance”: the works of dozens of Ukrainian writers were put together (of course, the number of artists killed was much higher) to indicate the scale of the culture that we had lost.

In parallel to the extermination of the intelligentsia, the regime struck a major blow to the key social class that spoke the Ukrainian language: the peasantry. In the artificially-created famine (Holodomor) of 1932-1933 it starved to death at least 4 million Ukrainian peasants, by expropriating all grain, banning peasants from collecting the remains of food from the fields, banning them from traveling to the cities or having paid jobs. It later repeated the famine after World War II, in 1947, with the result being about 1 million dead.

In the artificially-created famine (Holodomor) of 1932-1933 it starved to death at least 4 million Ukrainian peasants

A then 30-million nation lost at least 5 million people through starvation, up to 9 million died, emigrated or were deported during World War II, and millions were sent to camps. After the War, with so many speakers of the language “erased”, the aim of Soviet tactics was to prove that the language and its culture have nothing original, that they are only “lower” versions of Russian and culture, and that both will soon «unite» into one Soviet language (Russian, presumably), a language of a new homo sovieticus.

This process of artificial approximation of Ukrainian to Russian was a softer continuation of tsarist «linguicide»: authentic Ukrainian literature (not its Soviet simulacrum in agitprop) was banned or censored, available only thanks to samvydav (Ukrainian version of samizdat, i.e. “illegal” underground literature distributed as texts produced with the help of typewriters) or trafficking from foreign countries; dissident writers like Stus, Sverstiuk, Rudenko, Chornovil, Marynovych and many others were sent to GULAG camps; translators were persecuted as well (Lukash, Kochur and others); dictionaries artificially brought Ukrainian language vocabulary and grammar closer to its Russian counterparts, etc.

Centuries of linguicide have not passed without trace. But the Ukrainian language survived after it was banned, after the exterminated renaissance of the 1920s, Holodomor of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II and Stalin’s terror. And this survival was miraculous.

Now in 2019, through Ukraine’s adoption of a language law to ensure “the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language”, it has made a soft attempt to help a language that could have died, and to weaken these colonial wounds. Ukrainian is still a weaker language than Russian; it cannot freely compete against the language of the empire, still spoken not only in Russia, but in many post-Soviet countries too, and still enjoying much bigger human, financial and institutional resources for development. The law is an attempt to give Ukrainian incentives to grow – maybe, the first systematic attempt in all 28 years of Ukraine’s independence.

The law is an attempt to give Ukrainian incentives to grow – maybe, the first systematic attempt in all 28 years of Ukraine’s independence

Europe still knows very little about Ukrainian culture, - very dynamic, interesting, intelligent and surprising today; so support for this almost unknown (in Europe) language will only enrich Europe’s cultural diversity. The law is not banning Russian, and it can never do this. Russian will be as freely spoken as it was before.

The law is not banning Russian, and it can never do this. Russian will be as freely spoken as it was before

My daughter will most probably still speak Russian with her friends. Books in Russian will be available in bookstores: only 50% of books will need to be in Ukrainian. The press in Russian will still be available for sale: only 50% of the press in retail will need to be in Ukrainian. Newspapers and websites in Russian will not close: they will only need to have versions in Ukrainian. Exceptions are made for products in EU languages of languages of autochtone peoples: these publications will be exempt from the requirement to have a Ukrainian version. In the service sector, the default language is Ukrainian but people can speak whatever language they like, with the agreement of both parties.

In the service sector, the default language is Ukrainian but people can speak whatever language they like, with the agreement of both parties.

In TV the ratio of Ukrainian will gradually increase to 90%, but it does not relate to the languages spoken by guests or interviewees; in many cases it will be Russian.

There are some norms of the law which I personally don’t support. I would support more opportunities to broadcast movies in their original languages (including Russian, but also English, French, German, etc.), with Ukrainian subtitles. However, according to the law, movies should in the main be dubbed with a Ukrainian voice-over. And this is not a progressive norm.

I would also support a bigger quota for other languages in movies produced in Ukraine (the law states it will be only 10%, which is too little), and have some targeted quotas for the Russian speaking audience on TV and in cinema. Furthermore, I would back exemptions for Russian-language content with which Ukrainians will need to address the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea.

But in general terms the law is moving in the right direction: it helps Ukraine get free from its colonial past, by supporting a weaker language (which is, surprisingly, its national one, as well as the languages of autochthone people) but also by creating room for other languages to be used, spoken and studied.

The law helps Ukraine get free from its colonial past, by supporting a weaker language

I have three daughters, and I hope they will have more Ukrainian in their lives. But I am sure they will be as multilingual as I am, as I speak Ukrainian and Russian as my native languages, English and French fluently, I can read German, understand Polish, Belarusian, and some Italian. I am sure my daughters will be even better than me, in a multilingual country, where their national language is booming, and not degenerating.

See also: Ukraine’s Language Law in Questions and Answers

The article is published with support of International Renaissance Foundation

The article first appeared in Ukraine Verstehen website, in German translation

Volodymyr Yermolenko
Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld.org

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