Where, why Ukraini­ans speak Rus­sian lan­guage

And how Krem­lin uses it to stoke con­flict in Ukraine

Kyiv Post - - National - BY MARIYA KAPINOS [email protected]

Edi­tor’s Note: This is the sec­ond story in the Kyiv Post's “Hon­est His­tory” project, a se­ries of sto­ries and videos that aim to de­bunk myths about Ukrainian his­tory that are used by pro­pa­gan­dists. The se­ries is sup­ported by the Black Sea Trust, a project of the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States. Opin­ions ex­pressed do not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sent those of the Black Sea Trust, the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund or its part­ners. It was rare to hear Ukrainian spo­ken on the streets of Kyiv when his­to­rian Ivan Pa­trulyak, 41, was a child in the mid-1980s. He re­calls one in­ci­dent when he was walk­ing out­side, talk­ing to his fa­ther in Ukrainian, when they were ac­costed by a com­plete stranger.

“Why are you teach­ing your child this use­less lan­guage,” the stranger growled, in Rus­sian.

But to­day this “use­less lan­guage” is in daily use by most Ukraini­ans, and is no longer rarely heard in the cap­i­tal. Ac­cord­ing to polls by the Razumkov Cen­ter, in 2017 some 68 per­cent of Ukraini­ans said Ukrainian was their na­tive lan­guage. Only 14 per­cent con­sider Rus­sian to be their na­tive lan­guage, while 17 per­cent said they were na­tive speak­ers of both Ukrainian and Rus­sian.

Yet Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda likes to mis­rep­re­sent Ukraine as a coun­try sharply di­vided ge­o­graph­i­cally, eth­ni­cally and po­lit­i­cally along lin­guis­tic lines: there are eth­nic Rus­sians in the east and south and in Ukraine’s Crimea who speak Rus­sian, and eth­nic Ukraini­ans in the west who speak Ukrainian, the story goes. Nev­er­the­less, Ukraini­ans and Rus­sians are at the same time “one peo­ple,” the Krem­lin’s in­co­her­ent and false nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues.

It is a nar­ra­tive that is some­times picked up and lazily re­peated by West­ern me­dia.

The real sit­u­a­tion is much more com­pli­cated than the Krem­lin’s pro­pa­ganda, of course. Many peo­ple in the east speak Ukrainian as their na­tive lan­guage (mainly in ru­ral ar­eas), and many peo­ple in the west speak Rus­sian as their na­tive lan­guage (mainly in ur­ban ar­eas). Some speak a blend of the two lan­guages, called “surzhyk” com­bin­ing el­e­ments of the vo­cab­u­lary and gram­mar of the two lan­guages in a va­ri­ety of mixes, de­pend­ing on the lo­cal­ity. Surzhyk is most preva­lent in east-cen­tral Ukraine, but can be heard in all parts of the coun­try, es­pe­cially in ar­eas ad­ja­cent to big Rus­sian-speak­ing cities.

This com­plex lin­guis­tic land­scape has been shaped, mainly, by cen­turies of Rus­sian im­pe­ri­al­ism — first un­der the Rus­sian Tsar­dom and Em­pire, and later un­der the Rus­sian­dom­i­nated Soviet Union.

‘High’ and ‘low’

While Ukrainian has been the sole of­fi­cial lan­guage of Ukraine since the coun­try de­clared in­de­pen­dence in 1991, Rus­sian is still very widely used, to the ex­tent that some de­scribe Ukraine as a bilin­gual coun­try, mean­ing that most Ukraini­ans speak and un­der­stand at least two lan­guages: Rus­sian and Ukrainian.

But Pa­trulyak, now the dean of the his­tory fac­ulty at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Na­tional Univer­sity, dis­agrees with that de­scrip­tion.

“In Ukraine, we don’t have bilin­gual­ism — it’s diglos­sia,” he ex­plains.

Diglos­sia is a term that de­scribes when two or more lan­guages are used un­der dif­fer­ent con­di­tions within a com­mu­nity, of­ten by the same speak­ers. One lan­guage is termed “high,” and the sec­ond “low” — re­fer­ring to their sta­tus or pres­tige in so­ci­ety. Pa­trulyak claims that in Kyiv, “Rus­sian is still con­sid­ered to be pres­ti­gious.”

The his­tory of this phe­nom­e­non goes back to 1654, when east­ern and cen­tral Ukraine, in­clud­ing Kyiv, first came un­der Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence, and then over the next cen­tury grad­u­ally lost their au­ton­omy and were ab­sorbed by the Rus­sian Em­pire. In the em­pire, of course, the Rus­sian lan­guage was dom­i­nant: doc­u­ments and books had to be writ­ten in Rus­sian. If one wanted to get ahead, so­cially, po­lit­i­cally, or ca­reer­wise, one had to know Rus­sian.

“Rus­sian be­came the lan­guage of ed­u­cated, rich peo­ple, it was pro­claimed the ‘high’ lan­guage and other peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar peas­ants, should have as­pired to speak it,” Pa­trulyak says.

Mean­while what is now west­ern Ukraine — Gali­cia, Bukov­ina and Zakarpat­tia — from 1772 to 1795 started to come un­der the con­trol of the Hab­s­burg Monar­chy (later the Aus­trian Em­pire and Aus­troHun­gar­ian Em­pire.) In Gali­cia, the elites mainly spoke Pol­ish, in Zakarpat­tia — Hun­gar­ian, and in Bukov­ina — Ro­ma­nian.

And while Ukrainian was still in com­mon use, it was re­duced in sta­tus to a “low” lan­guage, ac­cord­ing to Pa­trulyak.

Lin­guist Ivan Zilin­sky in notes of his im­pres­sions of trav­el­ling through­out Ukraine in the sum­mer of 1911, says: “Just as in Gali­cia (west­ern Ukraine) older peo­ple are mostly used to speak­ing Pol­ish at home and switch­ing to Ukrainian in pub­lic, east­ern Ukraini­ans speak Ukrainian to each other, but when some­one new comes, they switch to the of­fi­cial (Rus­sian) lan­guage.”

In the west, the Ukrainian lan­guage did not come un­der as much lin­guis­tic pres­sure as it did in the coun­try’s east­ern part, where it was op­pressed by the Rus­sian Em­pire. For the Hab­s­burg Monar­chy that held the west­ern Ukrainian ter­ri­to­ries ban­ning Ukrainian lan­guage

would mean play­ing along with the em­pire’s en­emy: Pol­ish na­tion­al­ists.

Af­ter the Third Par­ti­tion of the First Rzecz­pospolita in 1795, which saw the Pol­ish-Lithua­nian Com­mon­wealth carved up by Rus­sia, Prus­sia and the Hab­s­burg Monar­chy, end­ing the ex­is­tence of the Pol­ish and Lithua­nian states for 123 years, for­merly Pol­ish-con­trolled ter­ri­to­ries in Ukraine went to the Hab­s­burg Monar­chy. How­ever, Pol­ish no­bles con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate Gali­cia both cul­tur­ally and po­lit­i­cally.

This was one of the rea­sons why the Hab­s­burg Monar­chy did not ban the Ukrainian lan­guage, and in 1787 al­lowed the start of two-year cour­ses in the Ukrainian lan­guage at what is now Ivan Franko Na­tional Univer­sity in Lviv, in a spe­cial in­sti­tute for ed­u­cat­ing can­di­dates for the Greek-Catholic priest­hood.

The Ukrainian lan­guage slowly re­gained pres­tige, and Ukraini­ans switched back from us­ing Pol­ish to us­ing Ukrainian.

So, while the Ukrainian lan­guage was banned in Rus­sian Em­pire, it en­coun­tered fewer ob­sta­cles un­der Aus­trian and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian im­pe­rial rule, un­der which west­ern Ukraine re­mained un­til 1918.

Killed for Ukrainian

In east and cen­tral Ukraine the sit­u­a­tion was much more com­pli­cated.

On Feb. 9, 1918 Kyiv fell to Bol­she­vik forces for the first time. Rus­sian Gen­eral Mykhail Mu­raviev im­me­di­ately or­dered the ex­e­cu­tion of Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists.

His­to­rian Mykola Po­le­tyka in his mem­oirs writes that Mu­raviev’s men shot any­one heard speak­ing Ukrainian.

“(Ukrainian au­thor Taras) Shevchenko’s por­traits were taken down from the walls and sav­aged,” he writes. “And Kyiv news­pa­pers ev­ery day printed lists of killed Ukraini­ans. Any­one could be killed on the spot for speak­ing Ukrainian.”

Mykola Skryp­nyk, a Ukrainian Bol­she­vik leader who was a pro­po­nent of the Ukrainian Repub­lic’s in­de­pen­dence, re­called how in 1918 peo­ple were shot down for car­ry­ing Ukrainian-writ­ten doc­u­ments.

“I was almost shot my­self but one of the sol­diers knew me and that saved my life,” he wrote in his notes, a col­lec­tion of which was pub­lished in 1974.

Kyiv was fi­nally taken by Bol­she­viks in 1919 re­sult­ing in Ukrainian Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic's es­tab­lish­ment. The price was high: burned down houses, dev­as­tated shops and Kyiv streets, filled with corpses of Ukrainian sol­diers and civil­ian Kyi­vans ly­ing on the ground.

In west­ern Ukraine, peo­ple weren’t ex­e­cuted on a lan­guage ba­sis, but the area went through its own tur­moil. From 1918 to 1938, most of west­ern Ukrainian ter­ri­to­ries again came un­der the con­trol of Poland, and from 1939 to 1945 west­ern Ukraine was an­nexed by the Soviet Union, in­vaded and oc­cu­pied by Nazi Ger­many, and then re-oc­cu­pied by the Soviet Union as the Nazis re­treated.

But for the first time in cen­turies, west­ern and east­ern Ukraini­ans were at least united within one coun­try — the Ukrainian Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic.

In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is­sued a de­cree trans­fer­ring the Crimean penin­sula from the Rus­sian Soviet Fed­er­a­tive So­cial­ist Repub­lic to the Ukrainian Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic. Ukraine thus as­sumed its cur­rent bor­ders.

Soviet re­pres­sion

Although Rus­sian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, and of course its most pres­ti­gious lan­guage, by the be­gin­ning of 20th cen­tury Ukraini­ans in vil­lages and in the west­ern parts of Ukraine were still mostly speak­ing Ukrainian.

“But the dif­fer­ence be­tween east­ern and west­ern Ukraine is that there are fewer big cities in west­ern Ukraine, and not many fac­to­ries there, while east­ern Ukraine, in par­tic­u­lar the Don­bas re­gion, be­came highly in­dus­tri­al­ized dur­ing the Soviet pe­riod, with lots of fac­to­ries and mines,” Pa­trulyak says.

“This meant that peo­ple from all over the Soviet Union came there for work, and all the ex­ec­u­tives, the peo­ple in charge, were of course sent from Rus­sia and spoke Rus­sian.”

Pa­trulyak says this weighed the scales in fa­vor of Rus­sian: the lan­guage be­came pres­ti­gious — the “high” form of speech, while Ukrainian was rel­e­gated to the “low” sta­tus. Rus­sian started to ad­vance, and Ukrainian to re­treat.

Apart from that, the Soviet Union was a multi-lin­gual em­pire, and Ukraini­ans and other cit­i­zens of its non-Rus­sian con­stituent repub-

lics used Rus­sian to com­mu­ni­cate among them­selves.

In west­ern Ukraine, Rus­sian was pro­moted via schools and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions: Teach­ers of Rus­sian had 30 per­cent higher wages in com­par­i­son to teach­ers of Ukrainian, and schools were forced to im­ple­ment “days of the Rus­sian lan­guage.”

Of­fi­cial doc­u­ment through­out Ukraine had to be in Rus­sian — in­clud­ing aca­demic pa­pers.

“How­ever sur­real it sounds: we were forced to write aca­demic re­search about the Ukrainian lan­guage in Rus­sian, so that peo­ple in Moscow who didn’t speak Ukrainian could eval­u­ate it,” Pa­trulyak says.

From low to high

That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emer­gence of in­de­pen­dent Ukraine. Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics com­piled by the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion and Sci­ence of Ukraine in Septem­ber 2016, 89.7 per­cent of schools in Ukraine now con­duct lessons in Ukrainian. Ukrainian lan­guage ex­am­i­na­tions are now com­pul­sory for those wish­ing to en­ter higher ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ments within the coun­try.

Rus­sian, once the “high” lan­guage of the coun­try, is be­com­ing the “low.” How­ever, the tran­si­tion is far from com­plete, with Rus­sian still widely used in Kyiv and other large cities, es­pe­cially in the east.

Ok­sana Lebe­di­vna, 23, grew up in Kyiv and went to a Ukraini­anspeak­ing school. She says that although all the classes were con­ducted in Ukrainian, most of her class­mates in their free time pre­ferred to speak Rus­sian.

“Peo­ple were sur­prised that I spoke Ukrainian not only dur­ing classes but ev­ery­where: it wasn’t com­mon, it wasn’t pop­u­lar back then,” Lebe­di­vna says. “Thank­fully, the sit­u­a­tion has changed. Now it is im­pos­si­ble to walk around in Kyiv and not hear Ukrainian.”

The change ac­cel­er­ated with the events of the 2013–2014 EuroMaidan Rev­o­lu­tion — a mass, pop­u­lar upris­ing against former Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych, widely seen as a pro-Rus­sian leader who wanted to keep Ukraine within the Krem­lin’s sphere of in­flu­ence.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Solomiia Kryvenko, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, in Ukraine lan­guage is thus now not only a cul­tural, but a po­lit­i­cal is­sue. It has been made so by Rus­sia’s war on Ukraine in the Don­bas — speak­ing Ukrainian as op­posed to Rus­sian may well re­flect a per­son’s po­lit­i­cal views.

“When the war started, many Rus­sian-speak­ing peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar politi­cians and so­cial in­flu­encers, started to speak Ukrainian in pub­lic, and on TV, even if it wasn’t their na­tive lan­guage,” Kryvenko says.

“By do­ing so, they are un­der­lin­ing which side they are on: the Ukrainian side.”

It seems that in diglos­sic Ukraine, Ukrainian is, at last, “high.”


Stu­dents prac­tice the Ukrainian lan­guage on Nov. 9, 2017, a day ded­i­cated to Ukrainian lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage on Nov. 9, 2017, in Taras Shevchenko Na­tional Univer­sity in Kyiv.

Source: A poll con­ducted in March 2017 by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Cen­ter. By Yu­liana Ro­manyshyn, Kyiv Post

More than two-thirds of Ukrainian cit­i­zens con­sider Ukrainian their na­tive lan­guage, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 poll. For some 14 per­cent, Rus­sian is the mother tongue. And some 17 per­cent say that both lan­guages are their na­tive. The Ukrainian lan­guage is...

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