The conflict between Kyiv and Moscow unfolds also on the cultural field. Since 2014, several laws aimed at restricting the influence of “language of the aggressor” were adopted in Ukraine at the same time. Just as the president-elect who was chosen on April 21, the part of large Russian speaking population of the country is now supporting Ukrainian language out of patriotism.
“We are liberated from the cultural occupation, which is no less dangerous than territorial one,” President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko (a candidate for re-election at that time) said on March 9 on the 205th anniversary of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Besides, was it not during his presidency that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church got rid of the 300-year-old domination of the Moscow Patriarchate?
“Army, language, faith.” The election slogan Poroshenko chose for his campaign could not make the voters forget about the results of his work at the presidential post. Corruption reforms trampled on one spot, and the armed conflict with pro-Russian separatists from the Donbas (13 thousand of dead since 2014) only protracted. On April 21, Volodymyr Zelensky crushed the chocolate magnate in the election, having received 73% of the votes.
This humorist and TV producer was a complete newcomer in politics, and a few months before the vote, no one could have imagined that he would pass to the second round. Now he promises to rid the Rada, police and the courts from the influence of the oligarchs. At the same time, he himself has to deal with the intrusive questions of journalists about his alleged connections with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the owner of the 1+1 TV channel, on which his program runs.
A new president, a native of the Russian-speaking region, is also expected to make statements on the linguistic issue. Will he tone down the accelerated Ukrainization launched by his predecessor?
After the Orange Revolution of 2004, which brought to power the pro-European Viktor Yushchenko and his ally Yulia Tymoshenko, a wave of Lenin monuments dismantling and streets renaming took place across the country. Since 2014, the change of toponyms has gained momentum again.
The city of Dnipropetrovsk has lost reference to the Bolshevik Grigory Petrovsky and is now simply called Dnipro, as the river on which it stands. In Kyiv, Moscow Avenue was renamed in honor of the national hero Stepan Bandera, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Another street in the capital is now named after Lennon, not Lenin.
The abolition of the communist symbols also affected politics: in 2015, the election commission refused to register Petro Symonenko’s candidacy because of the law on de-communization (his party had kept a hammer and sickle on the emblem).
Since the outbreak of hostilities in Donbas (now this region is officially considered an occupied territory), the fight against the Russian language is equivalent to an act of resistance to the aggressor state. Three new laws symbolize this direction.
The first one was adopted in May 2017 and obliges television channels and radio stations to release 75% of programs in Ukrainian (for the national media this index can soon be raised to 90%). This measure has already radically changed the television: in 2018, the share of broadcasts in Ukrainian in the first half of the evening increased from 39% to 64%.
To meet the new requirements, some channels rely on bilingual broadcasting. A popular program “Inspector” on New TV Channel, the presenters Anna Zhyzha (speaks Ukrainian) and Mykola Tyshchenko (speaks Russian) take turns with unexpected checks of hotels, restaurants and shops on low-quality products and dirty rooms.
The fight against the dominance of Russian language
In September 2017, a law on education was adopted. It provides for the introduction of Ukrainian by 2020 in all institutions of secondary education, including in hundreds of schools where teachers teach in Russian (or minority languages).
Exceptions are provisioned only for the official languages of the European Union (Polish, Hungarian, Romanian) and indigenous languages (Crimean Tatars, Gagauz and Roma people). Russian does not receive any indulgence, except for lessons of language and literature.
It even disappeared from the list of living foreign languages that can be chosen at the final exams at school. The Council of Europe Venice Commission, which oversees the rights of minorities, expressed doubts about this, in its opinion, discriminatory law, especially with regard to the Russian-speaking population.
Its experts recommend the adoption of “less restrictive measures” and the promotion of the social integration of minorities, at which the initiative allegedly aims.
Finally, the law on the state language, currently being discussed in the Rada, equates designation of a similar status to Russian language (and any other minority language) to “encroachment on the constitutional order.”
It also provides for a new crime: derogation of Ukrainian language. A group of 27 inspectors will be able to fine civil servants who will speak a different language while performing their duties.
Bilingualism in family, press and school
Volodymyr Zelensky himself perfectly reflects the nuances of the language issue: he willingly begins the interview in Ukrainian, but then suddenly jumps over to his native Russian. In Ukraine, there are no clearly demarcated Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking communities, although regional peculiarities do exist.
In Lviv, located on the Polish border, 95% of the population speak Ukrainian in the family circle. At the same time, in Kharkiv, located in the east, 81% prefer Russian. In general, the majority of people switches from one language to another, depending on the circumstances.
Although 70% of citizens call their native language Ukrainian (14% - Russian), only 40% use it at work. More than 17% of respondents consider themselves bilingual since childhood. Finally, as follows from a study of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted in 2003, 12% of respondents speak surzhyk, that is, a mixture of two languages.
This bilingualism is explained by two centuries of Russification, which first was conducted by the Tsarist regime, and then by the Soviet Union. The central Soviet government did not officially prohibit the Ukrainian, and even at one time supported it in the 1920s (positive discrimination against the non-Russian population).
No matter, in the twentieth century the language of Pushkin still became the lingua franca and the language of culture in all the Soviet republics.
In the late 1980s, when national tendencies leading to independence in 1991 began to form, two positions clashed. The patriotic and pro-European forces, actively supported in the west of the country, intended to revive the national language, which for a long time provoked a scornful attitude, was considered a rural dialect and was practically not used by the elite.
The defenders of the Russian language, on the other hand, sought recognition of the bilingualism of the new Ukrainian state.
By giving Russian the status of a second official language in the regions where the Russian-speaking population is at least 10%, President Viktor Yanukovych tried to find a balance: the law passed in 2012 confirmed the superiority of the Ukrainian language (the only state language, as specified in the 1996 Constitution), but provided special status to Russian. This compromise collapsed in 2014, when Maidan demonstrators overthrew Yanukovych.
After his escape, Rada deprived the Russian language of an official status. This decision led to an outbreak of discontent in the east of the country, which was supported by Moscow and suppressed by the army. A few weeks later, Russia annexed the Crimea.
Since the beginning of the war, the authorities have been fighting the dominance of the Russian language in public sphere. Changes are not moving quickly. Despite recent laws, almost 60% of press publications are published in Russian (this ratio has not changed in two years).
Russian TV shows, music, and programs are still popular, especially among young people in the eastern and south-eastern regions. Seven out of ten TV shows most often searched on Google in Ukraine are released in Russia. Topping the list are "Major," "Policeman from Rublyovka" and "House arrest."
Works in the language of Tolstoy are still sold three times better than in Ukrainian, despite the ban on a number of Russian works introduced in 2015 due to their “anti-Ukrainian” content. At the moment, there are 150 books in the "black list," including fairy tales for children of Soviet times and a manual on personal development with examples of work situations in the Russian special services.
Russian also dominates in the network, despite the ban on the Yandex search engine and the VK social network. At the peak of interest in the Eurovision-2019, the number of Google requests in Russian was twice as high as in Ukrainian.
“Ukrainian is the state language, but we should not create pressure on Russian and other languages of Ukraine,” Zelensky said during a March interview with several major Western newspapers. Most likely, the new president will seek to alleviate the diplomatic crisis caused by the new law on education.
After its adoption, 37 European parliamentarians (Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians) wrote an open letter to Petro Poroshenko in September 2017. Subsequently, Budapest imposed a veto on holding a summit between Ukraine and NATO three times, since it considers the new law to be discriminatory towards the Hungarian minorities.
Such a sharp reaction (especially given the small number of affected schools) has stunned Ukrainian officials, especially since Moscow chose to remain silent. Once under international pressure, Poroshenko postponed the entry into force of the law until 2023, and this term can be extended.
In general, the new president shares the goal of the predecessor, like the overwhelming majority of the lawmakers of the Rada: the Russian language should gradually go into the shadows, letting Ukrainian stand ahead. The public opinion argues about the pace at which these changes should take place, but not about their necessity.
“Today, our educational system works in such a way that future generations will speak Ukrainian,” Zelensky said in an already mentioned interview. He was also glad that his children raised in the Ukrainian language would now have to make an effort to speak Russian with their father.
The loss of Crimea and part of Donbas contributed to the narrowing of opinions on the language issue. The Party of Regions of Yanukovych enjoyed the greatest support in this particular area. Residents of Crimea, 76% of whom called Russian their first language in the 2001 census, now received Russian passports.
The population of the separatist “DNR” and “LNR” no longer participates in the elections held by Kyiv. The new law on language will make it a crime to attempt to return multilingualism. At the moment, only the Opposition Bloc, the successor to the Party of Regions, opposes this. This movement holds 38 deputy chairs (out of 450) compared to 78 (out of 478) in the parliament of the previous convocation.
In conditions of war, the defense of Shevchenko’s language becomes something similar to raising a national flag, including among the Russian-speaking population. So, the young blogger Oleksandr Todorchuk impressed Ukrainian users of social networks with the transition to Ukrainian three years ago. Other famous people followed him.
The famous host of the “Morning in the Big City” program on ICTV channel Pavlo Kazarin made such a sensational statement in April 2017: “I was born in Crimea, and Russian is my native language, but I was always annoyed by those who considered it their right not to learn Ukrainian. (...) Therefore, I announce Kazarin challenge: learn Ukrainian in three months.”
A part of the Russian-speaking population chose the pro-European path and now uses Ukrainian more actively too. And this trend, apparently, will only continue, taking into account the deep division created by the war.