Language and Liberals: The Ukrainian Opposition’s Russian Problem

Ukrainians used Russian as their literary language until the second half of the 19th century, when the language spoken by ordinary Ukrainians was elevated to literary Ukrainian under the influence of romantic nationalism.

Surprisingly, Russia’s ostensibly Europe-oriented liberals have denounced a bill supported by Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions that would enshrine in law an entirely European principle and sanction public use of Russian and other languages along with Ukrainian, the country’s sole official language. The law would apply to regions (areas, cities, districts, and even villages) where speakers of a language other than Ukrainian exceed 10% of the population.

Not long ago, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an op-ed by Kiev-based spin doctor Taras Berezovets that abounds with “arguments” against providing a legal framework for the language rights of non-Ukrainian speakers. Berezovets is obviously unconcerned with the contradiction between what some Ukrainian politicians say about their country’s “European choice” and their diametrically opposed position toward European legislation, specifically the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which has been ratified by the Ukrainian parliament.

Each of his “arguments” can be easily refuted, but that would exceed the scope of this article. Instead I will limit myself to two points. The opponents of the bill claim there are more pressing matters than the rights of Russian speakers: health, employment, pensions, security, and so on. Let’s deal with these problems first, they say, and then, possibly, we will get back to the language issue. In other words, let’s leave everything as it is, which implies waiting for the “true patriots” – the Ukrainian nationalists like Yushchenko & Co. – to regain power. My first counterpoint is this: the 20-odd years of Ukrainian independence saw the proportion of Russian-language students at secondary schools decline from 54% in 1991 to 17% in 2011, accompanied by a parallel surge in Ukrainian instruction from 45% to 82%. Large regions offer little to no instruction in Russian: just one Russian school in Lvov with its population of one million, and not a single one in Rovno! In Kiev, there are only six Russian schools out of total 300 , while more than a half of Kiev residents are Russian speakers. The same is true of kindergartens, not to mention higher education. In defiance of current law, higher education in Russian is managing to survive solely in eastern and southern Ukraine. Clearly, no one will be learning in Russian seven to ten years from now unless this dislodgement of Russian is stopped. But this is the ultimate aim of those who say, “Let’s leave everything as it is.” The bill is designed to halt this process, which is why it is so fiercely opposed by Ukrainian nationalists, both radical and moderate, who would like to completely eradicate Russian in Ukraine. The only difference is that the radicals say so openly, while the moderates prefer to quietly pursue the same agenda.

Second, contrary to Berezovets’s assertion, language is not dividing the country. If a referendum were held on making Russian the second official language of Ukraine, opinion polls indicate that the population would indeed be evenly divided. But the bill in question does not seek to make Russian an official language. This would require a constitutional majority in the Supreme Rada (where there will never be enough supporters of this idea) and a referendum on amending the Constitution. The bill would only give Russian regional status. As opinion polls have repeatedly shown, supporters of granting regional status to Russian, combined with supporters of making it the second official language, has never dropped below 70%. In other words, the bill offers a fair compromise; after being amended for the second reading, it caused no objections even among the numerous residents of Galicia. These amendments should reassure the defenders of Ukrainian as the sole official language: in a number of regions, Russian will be used in addition to, not instead of, Ukrainian.

There is yet another aspect that is not usually mentioned in Ukraine due to the crass ignorance of its cultural elites. Ukrainians used Russian as their literary language until the second half of the 19th century, when the language spoken by ordinary Ukrainians was elevated to literary Ukrainian under the influence of romantic nationalism. For example, Count Basil Kapnist, a prominent Ukrainian (Russian) liberal, wrote his “Ode on Slavery” in Russian. The great Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol wrote in Russian. Even the famous History of the Ruses or Little Russia, Ukraine’s most prominent political pamphlet glorifying Cossack liberty, was written in Russian. Literary Russian is not only a part of the great Russian culture. It also has roots in authentic Ukrainian tradition, representing an important source of Ukrainian cultural identity. The critics of the bill to slightly expand the use of Russian in Ukraine are in fact inveterate Russophobes, ignorant of and hostile to their own Ukrainian culture.

But why is this language bill so detestable to Russian liberals? Quite possibly, the commitment of the nationalist opposition in Ukraine (the only kind we have!) to the “European choice” makes it an ally of the Russian liberals. Whether this is folly, willful ignorance of Ukraine’s problems or firm belief that liberal intellectuals should always be opposed to the authorities as a matter of principle is anyone’s guess. Reflexive opposition to power, incidentally, seems particularly likely in a situation where the authorities are “misbehaving” – violating human rights, jailing an opposition leader, and the like. How can one support any actions of such a government? “The whole of Europe is outraged: How will we, liberals, look, if we support the government in its fierce fight over the language bill over the offended nationalists?” But Russian liberals would be wise not to allow its opposition to the government in Ukraine to cloud its judgment on an issue of human rights. 

This article was originally published in Russian in Nezavisimaya Gazeta .

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