July 11, 2022

Language Matters

REUTERS / Scanpix
REUTERS / Scanpix
First graders attend a ceremony to mark the start of the school year in Kyiv, Ukraine.
First graders attend a ceremony to mark the start of the school year in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The collaborating school administrators in the occupied city of Mariupol banned students from speaking Ukrainian to each other, even outside the now Russian-language-only classrooms, under the threat of disciplinary action, Petro Andriushenko, an advisor to the city’s Ukrainian mayor, says.

Amid the heavy bombardment of news in over 100 days of war, some stories may have a stronger triggering potential than others. A ban on the Ukrainian language in Mariupol certainly fits into this category. And it reverberates in all nations whose languages Russia has consistently tried, to varying degrees of success, to erase and who, as independent states, struggled to implement policies to right the tenacious wrongs of history. When governments struggle, however, people usually rise up.

Steering Clear of False Equivalency

The “language question” has been a heated topic of debate in Ukraine for decades, perceived and exploited quite successfully, yet very differently, both in and outside the country. The oldest historical artefact of such exploitation in independent Ukraine’s cultural depository dates back to the first parliamentary election in 1990. Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, built his winning 1994 campaign on granting the Russian language special status. With the help of Moscow spin doctors during and after the pro-Western Orange Revolution, the issue evolved into electoral mythology with a life of its own, occasionally stretching to such extremes as rumours that Russian speakers were forced into ghettos. And finally, during the annexation of Crimea and the War in Donbas in 2014, Ukrainians were accused of drinking Russian-speaking babies’ blood and crucifying a Russian-speaking boy.

Indeed, Ukraine has quite a complex language history and terrain. However, there has been a misleading tendency to view the Russian post-colonial legacy imprint on the linguistic composition throughout the culturally and historically diverse nations, once subjugated by the former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, through the same lens.

This logic fails to consider the convoluted history of nation-building and the parallel Russian language conquest from Central Europe through the Caucasus to Central Asia. More mendaciously, however, it prescribes a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing the present of the Russian language and the Russian-speaking communities in Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

Reports on the newly introduced ban in Mariupol or replacement of the Ukrainian street signs in the occupied regions often lack insight into the language issue. They risk occasionally slipping into the dangerous ‘what-about-ism’ zone and compare those instances to Ukraine’s elected authorities renaming streets. The language ban is a criminal act by the occupant forces—part of a barefaced strategy to erase any traces of the indigenous culture on the conquered lands. And a free nation voting on the new street names is bottom-up identity-solidifying and decolonising campaign.

When evaluating the Russian language’s operational environment in the post-Soviet space, the aggressive Russian agenda and the well-meaning agenda—yet, unfortunately, ill-informed—in international organisations in Europe might pursue distinctly different goals. The Russian agenda aims to assert Russia as a sovereign on foreign soil—all Russian speakers abroad are considered “compatriots” by the Russian government. The international organisations genuinely believe to be fighting for equality and minority rights. Nevertheless, the two ultimately end up in the same place—that is, criticism of the national language policies and constant allegations of widespread discrimination. Having consistently pushed the victimhood allegations, Russia’s greatest soft-power achievement has been persuading the West that the Russian language and Russian speakers should be entitled to special treatment in foreign states it once occupied. And it is Russia to be consulted and have the final say on how well these countries have performed—not their citizens themselves.

Accusations of discrimination are all too familiar to the Baltic states, who have faced a heavy barrage of accusations from the Russian and EU authorities for allegedly imposing their national languages on their Russian-speaking populations. Although France, for instance, has never found itself on the sharp end of criticism for not allowing its Arab speakers to ignore the French language.

Many controversy-stirring and propaganda-driven misconceptions—claims that Russian speakers in Ukraine are denied the right to education and forcibly excluded from public life—often derail academic, political, and public debates. Tasked with analysing Ukraine’s language law in 2017, the Venice Commission concluded that “careful consideration and a very cautious approach was needed with regard to the protection of the Russian language, in view of the very sensitive nature of this issue”. But protection from whom or what was not identified. The Kremlin is allowed great leeway to argue its case, and it never tires of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see which of its ridiculous claims—from a ban on speaking Russian in public to a linguistic genocide in Ukraine—sticks. And stick it usually does.

How much Ukrainian language in Ukraine would suffice not to “humiliate”, to use a more modern term, the Russian language and the Russian World’s appetite, is yet to be determined. In 2011, the same Venice Commission found that the notorious Yanukovych-era draft on language policy, the so-called Kolisnichenko-Kivalov law, was “disproportionately strengthening the position of the Russian language, without taking appropriate measures to confirm the role of Ukrainian”—a rather harsh assessment from an otherwise cautious institution. Russia later exploited the fact that Ukraine’s parliament had repealed the controversial law, as one of its first post-Revolution of Dignity votes, to legitimise its first invasion in 2014. Yet, this misleading justification continues to circulate—now as a part of a broader narrative of “provoking” Russia into waging a war of pro-active defence.

A crucial small detail that vividly contrasts the 2022 episode from previous seasons of language drama is that the stimulant to usher the Ukrainian language renaissance is now on the people’s level. And it must not be overlooked.

The Minority Trap

The post-independence Ukrainians—the millennial generation and younger—have been striving to debunk the language myths and explain the peculiarities of living in a unique, almost 100% bilingual society. With very limited success, unfortunately. Yet, trying to authoritatively assert that “no one will be harassed for speaking Russian in public” would be a complete waste of time and effort.

One fundamental concept to explicate, however, is that a Russian speaker in Ukraine does not, by default, belong to a minority category in any sense of the word. First, every Ukrainian national knows the Ukrainian language, regardless of whether and to what degree they use it in their everyday lives, unless they are elderly and most likely were relocated to Ukraine from elsewhere in the Soviet Union and had reached middle age by the time the USSR collapsed, which does not reach the bar to be defined as a “minority group”. Second, the Russian language is neither a community-forming factor nor an ideological marker—at least not as powerful a one as it might be in the Baltic countries. Being a Russian speaker, especially a young one, in Ukraine does not automatically translate into consuming the Russia-produced cultural, media or informational content.

To better understand such a complex phenomenon, some real-life examples are warranted. A dialogue at a grocery store where a retail worker speaks exclusively in Ukrainian while the customer does not switch from Russian is not necessarily rude on either of their parts. Similarly, students in the so-called Russian-speaking regions have no trouble sitting in a class conducted in Ukrainian and chatting in Russian among themselves during the break while listening to Ukrainian singers on their playlists. Neither is it uncommon for the Ukrainian national TV talk-show hosts and guests to hop from Russian to Ukrainian and back in the course of the conversation. The best analogy might be a bilingual family where the language of the hour is seldom a conscious choice but rather what suits the given moment.

No matter how any law on state language policy or education regulated the use of either Russian or Ukrainian, the reality on the ground inevitably defaulted to bilingualism. Despite a fluent command of Ukrainian, many, nonetheless, stayed within the comfort zone of the Russian language in everyday communication with friends and family. Alleging theirs is a weaker allegiance to the Ukrainian state would simply be false, and ignorant at best.

However, some resisted calls to use the Ukrainian language more in their daily lives. They would explain their linguistic preferences by saying that the Russian language does not belong exclusively to Russia—which, of course, it does not, in the same manner as the English language does not belong to Britain or suggest one’s allegiance to the Crown. Some would further argue that many famous artists—writers or actors—of Ukrainian origin were Russian speakers, so abandoning the language would make Russia the sole proprietor of their legacy, as might be the case in the city of Odesa, in particular. For some, there was a very real emotional connection to the Russian language, coupled with the American-styled contempt for anything “government-mandated”.

The use of the past tense here is not accidental. It is the case no more. By no means is anything Russian, the language included, in a comfort zone. Emotions triggered by it today are very different than in the past. More and more people have been making a conscious decision to speak Ukrainian from now on.

Numbers Do Not Lie

24 February changed the linguistic preferences, just as a severe illness could encourage one to review their diet for some healthier options. There now is sufficient polling data to prove it.

A survey conducted by the Rating Sociological Group in March 2022 is valuable because it compares the latest results against the year 2012. The ten-year-long snapshot indicates that there has been a sustainable trend in shaping the linguistic identity rather than a backlash to one traumatic event.

First comes the “native language” question, which has probably undergone the most significant evidence-based shift in polling. In 2012, 42% of respondents considered Russian to be their first language, with only half of those (20%) saying it in 2022. As to the Ukrainian language, slightly over half of the country (57%) marked it as their native language in 2012, while 76% did so in 2022, with 61% in the country’s south, on which Russia presses its false cultural claims. When it comes to the 18–35-year-olds nationwide, the number skyrockets even higher to 81% who call Ukrainian their first language against 16% who call Russian theirs.

It has been a linear progression in both directions, with the only dipping and tipping points occurring in 2014. The largest drop of 5%, therefore, was recorded between 2013 and 2014—at the time the Yanukovych government was forcefully reversing the country’s course away from Europe and towards Russia—rather than when Ukraine faced its Eastern neighbour’s military aggression for the first time this century. Ever since 2014, it has been a slow-and-steady track at a pace of 1–2% per annum.

A “native language” is very much a matter of perception devoid of a fixed definition. It can both testify to the actual use of a given language as the “first” one or transfer the meaning to signal a national identity—“I am Ukrainian, and Ukrainian is my native language.” Hence, for the purpose of this article, the poll’s next question—“Which language do you speak at home?—may serve as a control question.

In this instance, 48% replied that they speak Ukrainian, 33% speak both, and only 18% said they speak Russian at home. These numbers did not vary depending on the age bracket. Interestingly enough, the numbers barely moved over the span of ten years: 45% in 2014 versus 48% in 2012 for the Ukrainian language. However, what has seen the gap widening is the percentage of Russian speakers and bilingual speakers. The first group has halved from 39% to 18%, whereas the second group has doubled from 15% to 32%. Furthermore, 60% of bilingual Ukrainians plan to switch to Ukrainian exclusively in their daily communications. This may well be the only response to indicate the impact of the war—a personal protest against Russia’s violent attempts to deny Ukrainians their right to a national language, culture, identity, and existence.

Moving from private matters to state policy, the same presumption can be inferred when reviewing the respondents’ suggestions on how the two languages should “co-exist” in one country. The approval of the Ukrainian language as the only state language—as is the state of affairs today—has spiked from 65% as recently as September 2021 to a whopping 83% in March 2022. In comparison, from April to July 2014, only 3% (47% to 50%) changed their mind in favour of Ukrainian enjoying the privileged status as the only official language. Chronology-wise, after growing by 8% in 2016, it has remained stable until today.

In 2022, 8% prefer granting the Russian language the “official” status in some regions, while 7% would extend it state-wide. At the time of the first Russian invasion in 2014, the percentage stood at 23% and 27%, respectively.

By age, there is no visible difference between the 18 to 35 age bracket (86%) and those 36 to 50 years old (87%) when it comes to whether Ukrainian should be the sole official language. The issue has, therefore, been settled for decades. It is worth noting that the survey does not cover the less tolerant generations to come later—the children now hiding in bomb shelters because the Russian World, championing the great Russian culture, has destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones. Only 2%—the margin of error—in all categories found it hard to answer the question, suggesting there is virtually no room for either politicians or malign propaganda to manoeuvre.

Finally, when asked if the “language issue” even exists in Ukraine, 67% said there is no tension between Russian and Ukrainian speakers whatsoever. Only 19% said there is “a problem”—albeit an “unimportant” one. And only 12% deemed it a critical issue threatening peace and security. Again, only 2% found it hard to answer. Contrary to the narrative pushed by Kremlin propaganda, which insists that the Russian murderers and looters in uniform invaded to protect the Russian speakers from extermination, it is, in fact, the Ukrainian speakers (18%) and those residing in the west of the country (23%) who were the most inclined to view the language matter as a national security threat.

Cancel Culture à la Ukraine

Numbers continue to talk. There are dozens and dozens of publications about people of different walks of life crossing the linguistic Rubicon, with one, ironically, appearing in one of the most prominent millennial media outlets on 23 February 2022.

Business and market opportunities have followed. Prompted by the surge in demand, Facebook added a Ukrainian-language interface to its product, Mykhailo Federov, Minister of Digital Transformation, recently announced.

If one is insecure and feels that their knowledge of the language is insufficient, there are many grassroots pop-up options to facilitate the transition. For instance, one online initiative—United (Єдині)—has attracted over 11,000 participants, 232 volunteers and 32 professional language teachers for their first course alone. Duolingo, one of the most successful language-learning apps, reports that the number of users taking up Ukrainian has increased 577% globally, with a couple of local alternative mobile tools hitting thousands of downloads in Ukraine itself.

Ukraine may now, again, be facing condemnation from some human rights advocates for outlawing Russia-produced (not Russian-language) songs in the media and public spaces, such as entertainment venues and public transportation, until the end of the war. However, Taras Kremin, the State Language Protection Commissioner, noted in June that “in response to the Russian aggression”, radio stations recorded that not only Russian performers but also Russian-language songs had disappeared from the air. Of the music content, 62% was in Ukrainian, with the rest in the “EU languages”, and only one out of four thousand was in Russian, the commissioner added. To compare, in 2016, the Space for Freedom (Простір свободи) volunteer movement conducted its own survey and concluded that a mere 30% of radio broadcasting was in the Ukrainian language. Hardly any top-down government-mandated quota policy—which Ukraine did try introducing in 2017—could have delivered similar results.

According to the same Duolingo data, 2677% more Poles were interested in learning Ukrainian. The linguistic brotherhood of the Slavic nations also has different connotations. For people in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, it means that we can understand each other speaking in our own languages, at least to some degree. For the majority of Russians, though, it means that everyone does (or should, depending on which part of the post-colonial spectre one is) understand and speak Russian—presumably, the language of interstate communication. The Russians themselves are exempt from learning other national languages in this—again presumably—common space.

A vivid example of this Russian attitude is labelling the phenomenon when Ukrainian journalists and personalities now prefer to write on their social media in Ukrainian as “harmful” behaviour. Maxim Katz, a Russian opposition politician residing in Israel, took it as a personal offence, arguing that the only thing this deeply personal decision so many Ukrainians have been making lately achieves is to force him, and other Russians, to unfollow those accounts. Ukrainians should “get past the impulse”, he advised, and do the right thing—speak Russian in order to communicate better with the Russian people, because “we all live in the common Russian language space”.

As a matter of fact, speaking Ukrainian is hardly an “impulse” to control, but rather a tectonic shift. Regardless of the reasons why Ukrainians have been crossing the linguistic border from Russian to Ukrainian, it is safe to say that maintaining the line of communication with the Russians certainly does not factor in making the decision. Any attempts to talk this kind of patronising sense into the Ukrainian people are bound to produce the same resentful outcome. “And suddenly you discover that the very sound of your voice is disgusting,” as Soviet writer Sergei Davlatov masterfully put it.

Public sentiment has been moving in a very clear direction and the numbers have already been written on the wall. Ukrainians do not speak Ukrainian, or start speaking Ukrainian, out of spite against Russia, the Russian culture, or the Russian people. They do it for themselves and their own culture. There is no doubt that after having won the war against the Russian aggressor, free and democratic, bilingual and multicultural Ukraine will continue to respect other languages, including Russian. But its share in the public sphere will shrink permanently.

Provided Ukrainian people’s choice to speak Russian continues to be so vigorously defended on the international level, there is no reason why the same Ukrainian people, as the polling shows, should be denied respect and agency to choose and speak Ukrainian if they now wish to.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).