Ukrainian vs. Russian language: two tongues divide former Soviet republic
Ukraine's state language is Ukrainian. But 1 in 3 citizens of the former Soviet republic is a native Russian language speaker. The result is what locals call the 'Kiev compromise.'
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When Yushchenko came into office, about 60 percent of TV programming was in Russian and 40 percent in Ukrainian, experts say. After five years of assertive “Ukrainianization,” that ratio has been roughly reversed. But a quick survey of Kiev newsstands suggests Russian-language newspapers, books, and magazines remain by far the biggest slice of reading fare.Skip to next paragraph
Russian-language activists argue that analogies with monolingual countries do not apply because, they say, they are founding citizens of the state and not immigrants. “My ancestors have lived on what is now Ukrainian territory since the 18th century, and we’ve always been Russian speakers,” says Lyudmilla Kydryavtseva, a professor of linguistics at Kiev’s Shevchenko University.
Ms. Kydryavtseva says she voted for Ukraine’s independence in a 1991 referendum – supported by more than 90 percent of the population – that established the legal basis for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union.
“When we voted for independence, no one told us we would be forced to change our age-old identity, to unlearn our native tongue and speak a different language. That wasn’t part of the original deal,” she says.
Russian-language activists want to make Russian the second state language and point to countries with more than one official tongue, including Canada, Switzerland, and India. “There is this pervasive suggestion that if you speak Russian, you’re not a loyal or true Ukrainian. This makes Russian-speakers feel like second- class citizens,” says Ruslan Bortnik, vice chairman of Russian-Speaking Ukraine, an advocacy group.
Living with compromise
On March 11, President Yanukovich said he would no longer seek to promote Russian to a state language, and two days later Ukrainian parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn warned that Russian would become the country's main language if given official status.
For now, nationalists may be appeased. But critics say Yanukovich is playing with fire.
“If Russian were an official language, the main fear is that it would be a wide-open door for Russian influence in Ukraine,” says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev.
Others say that if the politicians would not stir the pot, Ukrainians could live with the Kiev compromise.
“Young people today are easy with both languages,” says Alexander Chekmyshev, chairman of the Committee for Equal Access, a venerable grass-roots voters’ group. “They may speak Russian among themselves, but they sing the national anthem in Ukrainian at football matches. They show that they’re proud of their country in many ways,” he says.