On National Unity and the Status of the Russian Language

March 12, 2014
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On National Unity and the Status of the Russian Language

It would seem that during a war one should put aside discussions about language and other dividing issues; nevertheless, paradoxically, the increased need in the country’s unity to withstand external aggression has actualized the problem of the place of the Russian language in this country. In the political and intellectual discourse of the last weeks I have seen two opposite tendencies that appear equally unproductive to me.

The thoughtless abrogation of Kolesnichenko’s language law, which, regardless of the intentions of the initiators of this move, was seen by many Russian-speaking citizens as a sign of hostility or, at least, indifference of the new Ukrainian government towards them and their language, raised a wave of indignation that urged the politicians to justify and rehabilitate themselves. The chief policy-makers of the new majority, including the leader of “Svoboda” Oleg Tyagnybok, started to explain that they actually had no intentions of banning the use of Russian. Instead, they allegedly wanted to abolish the bad and incorrectly adopted law in order to pass a new one, which would enable all citizens to use their languages freely, and as soon as possible. The acting President Oleksandr Turchynov decided not to wait until the parliament would pass a new, good law before choosing to veto the abrogation of the old, bad one; thus, to leave this law in force and not the law of 1989 that would have been returned by this abrogation. That said, the parliament leaders did not say no to the plans of the quick adoption of a new law – as evidenced by the creation of the working group of deputies and experts that have to present their project within a month. Although a representative of each faction was included in the committee, at least two of these assignments will not facilitate the successful work of the committee or public trust in it. Besides the fact that the chair of this committee is a representative of “Svoboda”, and not of some more moderate faction, the quota of this party is represented by the language extremist Iryna Farion, whose reputation among the supporters of the Russian language is no better than Kolesnichenko’s reputation among the defenders of the Ukrainian language. These assignments greatly depreciated the committee’s work before it had even begun.

Furthermore, even in the appeasing statements of the parliament’s majority members, in which they promise that everyone will be happy with the new law, one could make out certain unattractive signs of how they imagine that. For instance, Turchynov reassured that the new law would “provide opportunities for the development of all languages” and that “in Ukraine there would be no restrictions by language, nationality, or religious belief.” In this statement one can see a misunderstanding of the important difference between the place of religion and language in the politics of a democratic state. If religion could be transferred from the state to private sphere, limiting the role of the state to that of the guarantor of equal rights to its citizens regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof), language cannot be treated in the same way as the functioning of the state is unavoidably connected with the use of a particular language or languages. Therefore, there is a need for a special language act (or language norms in different “fields” of law) and not a mere article in the Constitution prohibiting language-based discrimination. Naturally, functioning of the state relies to a great extent on its interaction with citizens; hence, choice of the state language inevitably entails imposition of certain restraints on the citizens’ language – that is, on guarantees of their rights. This is why the language law cannot satisfy everyone and is doomed to be something that satisfies nobody or satisfies everyone but only partially: a compromise. This compromise must concern not only the actual usage of languages in different places but also symbolic reassurances of the right on such use, i.e., the language statuses which are thought of both as a declaration of both legitimacy of the languages and dignity of their speakers. After all, Ukrainians have known for a while that a language law should first-most grant certain statuses to languages, since it is these statuses that have been the subjects of the hottest disputes during the adoption of all previous laws. Nevertheless, the politicians seem to be not fully aware of this task.

Equally inadequate, given the language situation and the public expectations, is Tyagnibok’s promise that the major factions together with “representatives of all national minorities in the parliament” will soon adopt a “new language act that will satisfy everyone. I assure you that no national minority will be oppressed in any issues, including the language ones.” This thesis suggests traditional understanding of a society as a sum of an ethnic majority and national minorities, when each part speaks mainly the relevant language of the group. This understanding fully corresponds to the language situation in the established national states of Europe, but does not correspond to the situation in postcolonial and post-imperial countries where a lot of citizens speak non-titular languages and their languages do not conform to the ethnicity. In Ukraine, the main contradiction lies in the well-known fact that a lot of people who consider themselves Ukrainians speak mainly Russian, or that the majority of Russian-speaking people consider themselves Ukrainians. Some politicians and intellectuals desire to overcome this peculiarity of the Ukrainian situation, stipulated by the imperial Russification, and to return Ukraine to European “norm,” whereas others want to keep it and leave us in the space known as the “Russian world.”

Over twenty years since the passing of the 1989 language law, which was targeting the first goal, have proved that the hopes for the radical change in the language practice of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have been unrealistic – not only because politics did not correspond the law in practice, but also because the Russian speakers opposed even cautious attempts of switching to Ukrainian. That is, certainly there have been some changes that have led to the greater usage of Ukrainian and/or its recognition as a native language, but the self-awareness of Ukrainians strengthened even more and it is no more solely in ethnic terms, but rather in increasingly civic terms (I am a Ukrainian because I live in Ukraine). Russia’s current aggression, undoubtedly, will further strengthen this awareness, leading to further increase in the gap between civic awareness and language practice (perhaps, even language identity). The main challenge for the state language policy is how to avoid alienation of the Russian-speaking citizens from Ukrainian-ness and at the same time to create conditions for better knowledge and wider usage of the Ukrainian language. In other words, how to combine granting Russian the status that would satisfy its speakers, with the creation of conditions for the proper use of Ukrainian as the language of the Ukrainian-speaking citizens and the language that symbolizes unity of the multilingual nation.

As discussions on Facebook illustrate, many people understand this challenge and are thinking of how to solve it. However, the answer that has been popular among intellectuals in the recent weeks – to grant Russian the status of the second state language – seems inadequate to me, because it concerns one part of the challenge and ignores the other part. The initiators of this answer, like Ievgen Hlibovytsky, argue that it removes the language question from the agenda, and that is extremely necessary for saving the independence. They see an increase of the status of Russian as a moral gesture of gratitude to the Russian speakers for their Ukrainian patriotism and as a pragmatic answer to Moscow’s speculations in respect of violation of the rights of their “compatriots.” Meanwhile, the opponents say that this step would instead push the language issue to the forefront, and that by sacrificing a language for the sake of independence one might ultimately lose both of the languages. Moreover, they are convinced that the status of the Russian language is not of great significance for those Russian speakers who support independence, and its increase will not stop Moscow and its local accomplices.

Without doubting the solely instrumental role of the language argument in the Russia’s politics I would like, however, to concentrate on the internal Ukrainian context of the proposed elevation [of the language status]. To estimate whether this step would remove the language question from the agenda of the Ukrainian society, it is necessary to find out whether it gives something really important to the Russian speakers and does not take away something important from the Ukrainian speakers. Since quite a few people are inclined to moral gestures of gratitude (like one-day conversion to Russian in Lviv and to Ukrainian in Donetsk) and not for a long time. The rest is guided, first of all, by their interests (personal and group) and will consider other interests as far as they do not threaten theirs. Naturally, the unity of the country is one of the key interests for many citizens, and not only for the Ukrainian speakers; however, it does not surpass the interest in saving one’s language and ability to speak it. A participant of the discussion about the Hlibovytskyi’s commentary asked frankly, “Is there any sense in independence without language?”

So, what do the Russian speakers want the most and would its provision threaten the Ukrainian speakers? Research shows that the majority of members in the first group worry about the recognition of the proper status of Russian and also about the real possibility of using it in several areas, where its usage does not prevent others from using Ukrainian. The participants of the focus groups in Donetsk and Odessa remembered most the annoying necessity of filling different forms in Ukrainian, impossibility of reading the medicine instructions and undesirable school teaching of their children in Ukrainian, especially, learning Russian literature in Ukrainian translations. The last complaint concerns directly the state sphere, so it is not difficult for the state to answer it: the law must confirm the freedom of language choice in education, and the government must stop pressures on parents and allow to study the Russian writers in the original. Two other cases concern the private sphere, fully or partially. However, the state, which gives out licenses for the relevant activities, can set one of the requirements for provision of information to the consumers to be the presentation of information not only in the state language, as it has been until now, but also in other languages spread in the area.

This spread, measured via a certain minimal percent (for instance, 20%) of the speakers in the area, should be determined by the status of this language as a local official or as a regional (for those who want the present term) language, which would guarantee the right for its use in the spheres outlined in the law. Although the majority of the Russian speakers would like a higher national status, they (at least, their constructive and patriotic part) will accept the status that would enable them to speak, write and read in their language, especially if the government and media announce the compromising character of this status. The Russian speakers would also have to admit that the same right is given to the Ukrainian speakers and the speakers of other languages on the relevant territories. Of course, the right of choosing the language should be given to the citizens and not to the officials, for whom the requirement of usage of the state and local official languages is not discrimination but a condition of professional suitability. By the way, the citizens do not deny it: in a survey conducted two years ago the vast majority of respondents supported the idea of testing public servants for knowledge of the state language and agreed that they should respond in Ukrainian to questions asked in Ukrainian throughout the entire country and respond in Russian to questions asked in Russian in the areas where the majority of population speaks it.

Will this status of the Russian language threaten the Ukrainian language, i.e., its freedom of use and perspectives for development? Not at all, provided that the law and its executors ensure the same freedom of use to the Ukrainian language, find a way to compensate for the inequality of its chances in the market competition as compared to Russian, and ensure its use as a symbol of national individuality and state independence. Observance of all these conditions will comfort the Ukrainian speakers, whose main complaints (stated by the focus groups in Lviv and Lutsk, in particular) are marginalization of Ukrainian in mass media, its widespread ignorance in the parliament, the government and other symbolically important areas, and an even more widespread practice of using Russian to answer questions asked in Ukrainian at the governmental and non-governmental institutions. The overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian speakers have absolutely no problems with Russian being used alongside Ukrainian (but not instead of it) in the forms at the passport registration office, in the medical instructions or restaurant menus, as well as with employees who respond in Russian to those visitors who ask questions in Russian (but the Ukrainian speakers must be answered in Ukrainian). Even in Galicia, people generally object not to the presence of the Russian-language newspapers and TV programmes, but to the incomparably lesser amount of Ukrainian ones, which means a complete absence of many types of media products.

Therefore, to fulfill the wish of the Ukrainian speakers, there is no need to deny the Russian speakers something important for them, but also to give something unimportant for the latter and annoying for the former. Even the requirements regarding a certain minimum of the Ukrainian language on TV and in cinemas on the condition that they are moderate (i.e., correspond to the native language of the population, and therefore, are different in Galicia and Donbas), do not entail deprivation of an ability to use the relevant products in Russian (the provision level differs in different regions, naturally, but the necessity in it is unequal). Tax preferences for the Ukrainian books will not cause protests among the Russian speakers, as long as they have enough books in their language, which will stop being much cheaper, but also would not become much more expensive. While the there is no strong necessity in requiring all taxi drivers and waiters speak Ukrainian (although, it is possible and necessary to meet the preferences of the client), whereas the lack of knowledge or ignorance of the state language among the officials should be treated not as an annoying necessity but as a violation of the law. Thus, in view of all the importance of selecting Taruta and Kolomoiskyi for the public offices, they must be required to master the Ukrainian language over a specified period of time (this does not mean making them use only Ukrainian publically, since some local citizens would see it as a disrespect for Russian), whereas the Minister Avakov must be made to speak Ukrainian immediately. All of this does not require granting Russian the status of a state language; that is, making it compulsory in those regions where almost nobody speaks it, simultaneously aggravating the widespread idea of danger to comprehensive functioning of the Ukrainian language.

The same approach must be used to all other popular languages, though the territories of their official status and guaranteed right of use will be much smaller than those of the Russian language, in accordance with the number of speakers. In addition, one can guarantee usage of these languages only after the specialists and infrastructure are prepared, and that requires not only time, but also costs. Hence, it is only possible for these languages to acquire the corresponding norms of law at the expiry of a certain transitional period, which must be clearly and responsibly outlined, especially in the light of the economic crisis. It is important that the law is not only about a compromise, but is also realistic and appropriate, since only then its execution can be demanded. It is noteworthy that the commentary of Leonid Tsodikov, which stimulated one ‘thread’ of the Facebook discussion, grounds the appropriateness of granting national status to the Russian language in assertions that the reasons for complaints about discrimination of the Russian-speaking population will disappear, whereas “nothing will change in the real life. There will be no collapse in communications. Everyone will speak with one another in the same way as today”. In other words, Tsodikov sees the advantage of the proposed norm of law in the possibility of ignoring it. Instead, I would like to avoid it, because I do not understand, how one can build a European democracy, ignoring the law.

I do not believe that the deputies and engaged experts will be able to quickly develop a compromising, realistic and well “prescribed” law. Therefore, I would rather not hurry with adopting it until the presidential elections and even until the parliamentary elections, which will be conducted this autumn, I hope, and in the meantime not make any drastic movements in the language policy, in order not to agitate people. However, by abolishing the law of Kolesnichenko, the deputies have driven themselves into a corner to some extent, and many consider the adoption of a new law as the only way out. There is nothing else left but to hope that the members of the working group and international expert advisers will manage to avoid both tendencies considered here and provide for at least a compromise, as it is the precondition for the law to facilitate unity and not separation.

From Ukrainian translated by Anna Ray; edited by Marika Aleksieieva.

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