Kiev or Kyiv: language an issue in Ukraine

How you pronounce the capital is becoming a flash point as some oppose heavy Russian influences.

Angry crowds rampaged through the western Ukrainian city of Lviv early this month, trashing a Russian cafe and allegedly threatening Russian-speaking citizens on the streets. The riot was a reaction to the murder of a well-known local Ukrainian folk singer.

Before the dust settled, Lviv's city council was threatening to pass an ordinance banning Russian-language songs from local cafes and radio stations, and the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow was issuing dire warnings about the "rising tide of anti-Russian discrimination" in neighboring Ukraine.

In other parts of the former Soviet Union, such as the Baltic states and Moldova, Soviet-era settlers from Russia have upset the local ethnic balance and generated resentments that are still exploding almost a decade after the USSR's collapse. But until recently, anything like this would have been unthinkable in Ukraine, where the mutually comprehensible Russian and Ukrainian tongues have coexisted for centuries and most citizens speak both languages with ease.

As this huge post-Soviet nation stumbles away from its traditional place as part of Russia, and a spiraling economic crisis threatens to undermine social stability, language is becoming the flash point.

Ukraine, with a population of 50 million and territory slightly smaller than Texas, remains deeply dependent on energy supplies from Russia and has done little to modernize its rusting Soviet-era industrial economy. Although the government claims 78 percent of the population is ethnically Ukrainian, surveys show more than half use Russian as their preferred language. And that use is growing.

"Ukrainian is a dying language in its own motherland," laments Ivan Drach, Ukraine's minister of communications. "The saturation of media from Russia leads to the domination of the Russian political mentality here, and this undermines Ukraine's independence."

Mr. Drach, a poet and founder of Rukh, Ukraine's nationalist movement, wants to enact tax breaks for Ukrainian publishing, impose content quotas for broadcasters, and compel all civil servants to speak Ukrainian. But he alleges that his attempts are being undermined by an uncooperative parliament - where many deputies make their speeches in Russian - and bureaucrats who simply ignore directives to use Ukrainian at work.

Except for its western reaches, most of Ukraine has been under Russian rule for centuries. In Soviet times, the use of Ukrainian was restricted, although the communists did allow a substantial number of showpiece media and cultural organizations to work in Ukrainian. Drach notes bitterly that even these disappeared with the USSR, while market economics brought a flood of cheap books, music, films, and TV programs from Ukraine's giant neighbor to the north. "What we seek is only fairness, to even the playing field," he says.

A stroll down the main street in the capital, Kyiv - the spelling the Ukrainian government prefers to the familiar, Russianized "Kiev" - seems to confirm his complaint. Newspaper kiosks display a range of Moscow-based and local Russian-language press. Videos and popular music cassettes are in Russian - or English. Vendor Alexander Dubovy can find only a single book in Ukrainian: a technical dictionary. "I'm Ukrainian myself, and I speak it at home," he says. "But there just aren't any good books published in Ukrainian."

But Vladimir Malinkovich offers a different view. "The social peace of Ukraine is being destroyed by radical Ukrainian nationalists who want to carry out a program of de-Russification," he says.

Mr. Malinkovich, a Soviet-era human rights activist and onetime commentator for the US-funded Radio Liberty, now works for the International Institute for Humanitarian Studies in Kyiv. He argues that nationalists, such as Drach, are turning to the language issue as a way to consolidate political power. "Ukrainians have been speaking both languages for centuries without problems," he says. "Suddenly we have these riots in Lviv, and there will be much more tension if they try to make Ukrainian the single mandatory language of communication." A major goal, he claims, is to drive a wedge between Ukrainians and Russians. "An enemy image is being created. Russian-speaking is associated with being pro-Moscow, though there is no obvious connection."

Independent analysts say there is something in both views. "Language was never an issue in Ukraine," says Anatoly Grytsenko, director of the Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv. "What most people want to see is economic improvement and a better life after years of decline."

One issue both sides can agree on, is their utter distaste for surzhyk, a blended patois popular with young Ukrainians, who have found their own solution to the language debate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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