The problem of bilingualism is particularly sensitive in Ukraine at the moment. Ukrainian people living in Ukraine speak two different languages – Russian and Ukrainian. This becomes a source of manipulation.

It was the events of 2014 (occupation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine) that showed the urgency of the problem, when “green men” [masked soldiers of the Russian Federation in unmarked green army uniforms and carrying modern Russian military weapons and equipment who appeared during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014] invaded Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population, allegedly oppressed by “Ukrainian nationalists” and “fascists,” and started a war for their liberation. The narratives about the need to protect Russian-speaking residents in Ukraine from various oppressions, fake news about the alleged division of children into categories, discrimination against Russian-speaking people, etc. circulate in the Russian information space 24 hours, 7 days a week.

But first, let’s analyse the history of this issue, look at the language situation in Ukraine and explore the most popular Russian narratives about the “reprisals” against Russian speakers in Ukraine.

How it all began…

The problem of bilingualism in Ukraine arose as a result of a long process of cultural assimilation, as a temporary transitional stage from the Ukrainian language to the Russian language.

Books nationalThe reason was that Ukraine did not have its statehood for a long time and was divided between the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires. There were rather liberal conditions for the development of the Ukrainian language and culture in the Ukrainian territories within Austria-Hungary, whereas things were much worse in the areas that were part of Russia, (recall the Valuev Circular on the prohibition of a large portion of the publications in Ukrainian and the Ems Decree banning the use of the Ukrainian language in print). It also left its mark on the modern ethnolinguistic map of Ukraine, since Western Ukraine (which was part of Austria-Hungary) speaks exclusively or predominantly Ukrainian; Central Ukraine also speaks Ukrainian mostly or partially, while Southeastern Ukraine prefers Russian.

Further, after the defeat in the national liberation struggle of 1917-1922, Ukraine became a part of the USSR. Initially, in order to gain Ukrainian’s affection for the Soviet government, a policy of Ukrainisation was pursued, which resulted in the Executed Renaissance [generation of Ukrainian writers and artists of the 1920s and early 1930s who created highly artistic works in literature, painting, music and were executed or repressed by Stalin’s totalitarian regime]. Subsequently, the policy of Ukrainisation was quickly curtailed.

In the 1930s, reprisals against all pre-revolutionary intellectuals began, and most of the cultural stratum of the Ukrainian nation was executed. Suffice it to say that the staff of the Ministry of Education of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was almost completely killed twice. The same fate befell most teachers, writers, professors and scientists. The Ukrainian language was being ousted from all spheres of use in the country. The beginning of World War II stopped this process.

After Stalin’s death and the “thaw” (1960s), short-lived Ukrainisation came. Works by Ukrainian writers began to be published, Ukrainian schools opened in large cities, and new film directors and artists appeared. Later, reprisals against Ukrainian cultural figures began again (1970s) but not as bloodstained as under Stalin.

According to the course taken to build communism, the policy of “unity of peoples – unity of culture” was proclaimed, i.e. there was a gradual Russification of all spheres of life, denationalisation of the peoples of the USSR, and transition to a new type of consciousness of a “citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” not of an individual Ukrainian, Russian or Belarusian. It was during this time that the number of schools instructing in the Ukrainian language decreased and almost all subjects in universities, with the exception of a few universities in Western Ukraine, started to be taught in Russian.

In the 1980s, the Russian language was declared the state language in Ukraine, while the remnants of Ukraine’s cultural autonomy were subordinated to Moscow.

In 1989, the law of the Ukrainian SSR “On Languages in the Ukrainian SSR” was adopted. It was a step forward because the law supported the language in some spheres but did not overcome Russification in others. That was the situation in Ukraine as it approached the moment of the proclamation of its Independence, having experienced deep Sovietisation and Russification.

Girl patriot UkraineAfter declaration of independence and up to this day

If we look at the 1989 Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic population census data, we can observe the following picture: Ukrainians, who were the titular nation of the republic, accounted for about 72% of all inhabitants. The largest national minority was Russians accounting for 22%. According to the census data, 64.7% of the republic’s residents considered Ukrainian their mother tongue, while 32.8% said their mother tongue was Russian.

However, there were more than half of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine at the time of the proclamation of Independence, according to Volodymyr Paniotto [Director General of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology].

It was the division by language that determined the further development of Ukraine after gaining independence. After all, during the years of Independence, this issue sowed certain distrust among Ukrainians. In particular, a conditional resident of the Luhansk region could perceive with a cliché a resident of the Lviv region as a nationalist speaking incomprehensible language. Conversely, a representative of the Luhansk region was viewed as a person from another planet.

In 2012, during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, the Law of Ukraine “On Principles of State Language Policy,” also known as the “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko Law” after the bill’s authors, was adopted with many violations. The law consolidated the functioning of regional languages. In some regions, Russian became the official language next to Ukrainian, but de facto – instead of Ukrainian. The law was in force for six years.

Today, we have a war in the east of the country due to the fact that the then authorities consciously or unconsciously did not pay attention to the language issue, did not contribute to solving the problem, and did not “stitch” it into a single information space of Ukraine. After all, the language issue itself was used by the leadership of the Russian Federation to sow discord between Ukrainians, dividing them into East and West and coming to protect Russian speakers from alleged oppression.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of UkraineHowever, the language in Ukraine has not become a marker that determines the affiliation of its speaker to the pro-European or pro-Russian orientation, despite all the efforts of enemies of the statehood. After all, more than one generation of Russian-speaking citizens has grown up in Ukraine, and they have become patriots of their country regardless of the language of communication.

The results of a mass survey of the population of Ukraine, which was conducted in 2017 by researchers of the Institute of Ukrainian Language of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine jointly with the Institute of Slavonic Studies at the University of Giessen (Germany), showed a high percentage of affirmative answers to the questions about the state language. In particular, 79.7% of respondents answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you agree with the statement that the Ukrainian language is one of the attributes of Ukraine’s statehood?” In addition, 90.1% of respondents supported the obligatory study of the Ukrainian language, while 33.2% favoured the obligatory knowledge of the Russian language.

To date, the bill No. 5670-d is adopted, where the language is recognised as an element of the constitutional order, state unity and national security. Every citizen has a guaranteed right to receive information and services in the Ukrainian language. The law will protect the Ukrainian language, but it is not directed against other languages. At the same time, it should be understood that the settlement of the language issue requires not 5, 10 or 25 years; it is a matter of the generations. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure not the rapid pace of Ukrainisation, but its irreversibility.

What is the danger of bilingualism in Ukraine?

Bilingualism is a real socio-linguistic situation, the essence of which is the coexistence and interaction of two languages within one community.

For example, there are four bilingual countries in Europe: Finland, Ireland, Belarus, Belgium; three trilingual countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. It is important to understand that European multilingualism differs from African colonial multilingualism as several nations have united within one European country.

However, everything is not as simple as it may seem in these countries, because each of them has problems that have arisen on the basis of multilingualism. For example, Belgium has experienced language conflicts between Walloons, who speak French, and the Flemish, supporters of the Flemish language (another name of the Dutch language). In this context, we can also cite the example of bilingual Canada, where separatism was widespread due to the cultural and linguistic differences of its regions (Quebec).

After gaining independence, some states tried to combine two tasks: to revive national identity and to equalise the rights of all citizens, leaving a certain status for the language of the country from which they were freed. However, such a policy led to complete monolingualism – the dominance of language of former colonial power.

Thus, only 6% of citizens of Belarus regularly use Belarusian, while 74% use Russian. Kazakhstan follows the same path, with 60% of the population fluent in Kazakh and 85% fluent in Russian.

Ireland is a sad example, as the English language actually ousted the country’s own language due to insufficient efforts to preserve it. Today, only 70,000 out of 4.5 million people use Irish in everyday life because of the limited official scope of use of the Irish language. The communication with citizens in Irish in addition to English was introduced there only in 2005.

Discussions about language

The language problem is important also due to its economic component. After all, those who denied the right of the Ukrainian language to exist ultimately denied the right of Ukrainians to make their own decisions on how to live, and what to build or grow on their land. This concerns not only Ukraine but also other countries mentioned above.

The problem of bilingualism, or rather monolingualism, is based on the fundamental right to property of native speakers of a language in a given territory, the right to dispose of it, to manage financial flows, human resources. After all, it is the right to sovereignty.

The rule “one people – one language – one state; two or more peoples – two or more languages – one state” is not about our state, because we have one people and two languages (which is typical of postcolonial countries in Africa). This is what creates the false illusion about two ethnic groups – Ukrainians and Russians – living in our country.

Another problem is that pidgins is formed combining Russian and Ukrainian words, particularly widespread in the villages of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Moreover, if listening to politicians who allegedly speak Ukrainian, it becomes clear that this language is foreign to them, artificial. When microphones and TV cameras are turned off, they switch to Russian. The same applies to young people. This observation once again shows adaptability – a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. Thus, the culture of speech, both Ukrainian and Russian, is being destroyed, not to speak of the security dimension, where the example is quite evident.

Crimea and Donbas are the most recent and vivid confirmation of the importance of language in the field of security. For Russia, the Russian language is a confirmation of their “right” to the occupied territories and the protection of the Russian-speaking population, who of course did not ask for such protection.

In the Ukrainian discourse, the issue of language has been stubbornly pushed into the folklore, cultural-linguistic, almost marginal plane, not into the economic, political, territorial, and security one. The problem has been constantly reduced to discussions about spelling and areas of application.

As you can see, discussions about language become especially acute when one or another oligarchic group needs to divert attention from the economy. At such moments, most outstanding politicians and media began to stir up discussions about language, putting crucial issues of economic development, distribution or reboot of power on the back burner. When those issues were resolved, discussions about language subsided.

Therefore, Ukrainian society has to overcome the colonial past. However, this must be done carefully and gradually, taking into account that this issue will not be resolved for 5, 10 or 25 years. It is a matter of several generations. The issue is not about banning the Russian language. It is necessary to stop mixing the two languages so that everyone can hear pure, specific, uncluttered language.

Russian fakes and narratives about the language problem in Ukraine

flags of Ukraine and RussiaRussian propagandists are constantly trying to falsify Ukrainian identity and invent many “historical facts.” One of them is the fake that the Ukrainian language was created by Soviet scientists, Austrians, CIA laboratories, that the Ukrainian language is a “dialect” of Russian, which is used only by peasants. There are myths that it is impossible to write about science and art in Ukrainian, and Ukrainian is only fit for dubbing comedy films and TV series, etc.

Russian media continue to spread language fakes about the division of children into categories and discrimination against Russian speakers. The pretext was that the new Ukrainian law on general secondary education allegedly divides children into categories, ousts the Russian language from schools and discriminates against the Russian-speaking population. Of course, it should be noted that the Law of Ukraine “On Complete General Secondary Education” does not contain such provisions.

Quite widespread are terrible stories that refusal to use the Ukrainian language will be “punished” not only by fines but also by correctional labor, and “language inspectors” already harass Russian speakers across the country.

At the beginning of September, when Ukrainian schools began to follow new rules, which stipulate to teach 80% of subjects in the Ukrainian language, pro-Russian resources intensified the spread of messages about “oppression against Russian-speaking citizens.”

According to media columnist Petro Burkovsky, the topic turned out to be productive as the speed of transition to the Ukrainian language of instruction really worries residents of Donetsk, Luhansk and other regions, where many students used to choose Russian as the language of instruction.

Let’s pay attention to the recent events in Slovyansk, Donetsk region, when an activist, who asked passengers of a fixed-route taxi to put on face masks, was rebuked for speaking Ukrainian. The Russian media presented this topic as a refusal of Donbas residents to switch to the Ukrainian language and their overall protest against the policy pursued by Ukraine.

It must be understood that Russian propaganda uses these narratives to justify Russia’s actions in the eyes of its citizens and the world community. It is presented in such a way that Russian allegedly protects the Russian-speaking population from the oppression by Ukrainian nationalists who want to commit mass genocide of Russian speakers, although it is clear that the reasons lie on a completely different plane.

So, the problem of bilingualism in Ukraine is a serious issue that cannot be ignored. After all, this is not only a humanitarian and ethnographic plane but economic, political and security one as well. Thanks to language, we create our own identity, declare our rights to a given territory, resources and population.

War in DonbassFor a long time, Ukrainian authorities put the language issue into cold storage, resulting in the sad events of 2014, when Russia launched a hybrid war against Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population. It’s the favourite topic of Russian propaganda which spreads fakes and narratives about the harassment of Russian speakers, “crucified boys” and the genocide of Russian-speaking people.

The problem of language, actually being one of the strategic issues, is simply underestimated. We should approach changes very carefully and cautiously.

As the great Ukrainian writer Lina Kostenko said, “Nations do not die of a heart attack. First, they lose the power of speech. We must be aware that the language problem is urgent for us at the beginning of the 21st century, and if we do not come round, we will have very disappointing prospects.”

Centre for Counteracting Destructive Propaganda and Information Aggressions AM&PM

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