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.'

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Supporters of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, just ousted from parliament, protest at another court in Kiev. Ms. Tymoshenko was a booster of a ‘Ukrainian first’ language policy which advocates for Ukranian over the Russian language.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Backers of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich crowd in front of the Higher Administrative Court in Kiev
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

They call it the “Kiev compromise,” and it works like this:

Two people meet and one begins talking in his or her preferred language – say, Ukrainian. The other responds in Russian, and the conversation takes off, going back and forth, seemingly without missing a beat. If you didn’t listen closely, you might never guess that there are two distinctly different languages in play.

That compromise, as a stroll down any Kiev (Kyiv) avenue will confirm, is a mundane reality. It holds true across large swaths of central Ukraine. Head west, and Ukrainian gradually becomes the only language you hear. To the east or south, it’s Russian that heavily dominates. Ask any Kievan what he or she thinks about it and you’re liable to get a live-and-let-live sort of shrug, with the answer that they really don’t think about it much at all. It’s just part of getting along.

Not so for politicians, who rate language as one of Ukraine’s most divisive issues. The Constitution cites one state language, Ukrainian, but demographics show that 1 in 3 Ukrainians is a native Russian speaker, and about half say Russian is their first language. Political groups have sprung up to advocate on both sides.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko leaned toward the nationalist point of view, and Russian-speaking groups assailed him angrily for decrees that ordered Ukrainian as the sole language to be used in courts, state service, and academia. Mr. Yushchenko, a fluent speaker of Russian, famously made his point during visits to Moscow by conversing with his Kremlin counterpart only through an interpreter.

With the recent election of Viktor Yanukovich, from the heavily Russified eastern Ukraine, the debate is already assuming a contrary tone.

The fact that President Yanukovich speaks publicly in Russian is “a taste of how things are going to be,” says Vladimir Vyazivsky, a parliamentary deputy with Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine movement. “It’s terrible to imagine how [Yanukovich] is going to mistreat not just the Ukrainian language, but also Ukraine’s culture and history in future,” he says.

Ukrainian nationalists say the solution is simple: Everyone who wants to live here should speak the eponymous language. “We need to create a united, integrated nation, and that means we must have one common language. Everyone must speak the state language, Ukrainian,” says Pavlo Movchan, head of the pro-Ukrainian grass-roots group Prosvita.

Reversing Russification

Mr. Movchan argues that the prevalence of Russian in Ukraine is the result of more than three centuries of domination by Moscow, accompanied by an aggressive policy of Russification that should now be reversed.

“The Ukrainian state must use the powers of central government to promote the primacy of Ukrainian through the education system, the media, courts, culture and so on,” he says. “All states do this, and for us it’s a matter of national urgency.”

Nationalists cite a variety of examples, including the United States, where, despite a large and growing Spanish-speaking minority, English remains the sole official language.

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.

Consider Canada

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

Yanukovich has pledged to improve the status of the Russian language as part of an effort to reconcile with Ukraine’s main trading partner, Russia, after several years of frozen relations.

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.

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