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31 January, 2016

Back at the Beginning

Things are bad. Even worse than that. Paradoxically, the Ukrainian Maidan failed to improve the state and status of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine. More than that, the issue was partially removed from the daily agenda and was put on the backburner of the social subconscious. From there, it can reemerge in a totally unexpected and undesirable form.

The post-Maidan society has with a certain sigh of relief (but without careful and focused debate) agreed by default to certain invariables of the new Ukraine: it should be a political nation where different ethnic groups and cultures co-exist, the state language has its formal status, while time will put (or has put) all things where they belong… The temptation to end up in the European coordinate system overnight induced wishful thinking.

The serious argument supporting the assumption that the language issue no longer matters in Ukraine came from the frontline: soldiers defending the country from its merciless, treacherous and hypocritical foreign enemy are to a great extent Russian-speaking. There are no statistics to confirm that, but plenty of individual cases do. Earlier the same was said about the Maidan, and this was also true. A surge of genuine, unorchestrated patriotism manifested in the huge popularity embroidered shirts, the anthem and traditions, and unprecedented social activism, could make one think for a brief moment that the problem no longer exists. Experienced western pundits report with joy and sympathy the current status quo – the real-life bilingualism that does not actually provoke conflict (or so it is perceived) is a model for other European states.

In 2015, Ukraine’s President declared clearly state priorities in its language policy: all-encompassing support, positive discrimination in favor of Ukrainian and no compromises (plus, the learning of English everywhere!). However important such statements are when coming from the state’s leader, no notable changes have taken place in practice. The ratios of Ukrainian to Russian-language content on TV and radio still tilt to the latter; Russian-language print press still dominates (there is no ongoing monitoring but occasional researches present a baffling result). Books in Ukrainian are slightly better represented in stores after the chains were sold to Ukrainian owners, officially at least. Russian-language products still dominate show-business, particularly music. Compliance with language education requirements in schools and universities is not monitored (instead, the delirium rhetoric of Russian propaganda about shutdowns of Russian-language schools is repeated over and over again, while in fact schools that nominally teach in Ukrainian were and still are de facto Russian-speaking in education). The soviet algorithm with its typical “only for show” principle is being recreated 25 years after the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

Some progress is present in routine life as more and more people in what looks like totally Russian-speaking cities in Eastern, Southern and Central Ukraine use Ukrainian, and the experience proves hardly traumatic emotionally to them. Personnel in grocery stores, banks, gas stations, state institutions, etc. (i.e. “points of contact”) are more frequently addressing customers in Ukrainian. Unlike in previous years, people perceive this as something absolutely normal, even if some notorious exceptions still exist. Yet, despite all this progress, the conflict remains unsolved.

Before we continue to discuss the situation and look for solutions, it’s worth taking a few steps back and once again outline problematic issues, as well as revise arguments on each of them.  

1. How is Ukrainian better than Russian?                                      

2. Can Russian be labeled as the “language of the enemy” in Ukraine?

3. Why do Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians feel insulted and discriminated against in the current situation?

4. Why do Russian-speaking Ukrainians not acknowledge their privileged position?

5. Are there any grounds, even if subjective, for talking about “oppression” of Russian-speaking Ukrainians?

6. Why is bilingualism not a solution?

7. What exactly is bilingualism? Does this concept adequately describe Ukraine’s realm?

8. Are there more accurate and perfected models that would help understand the conflict and find a solution to it?

9. Why is it worth putting up resistance to the natural (is it natural, after all?) flow of things?

10. Should the state interfere in these processes?

11. Is it possible to apply the experience of any other country facing similar problems in Ukrainian conditions? What country would it be?

Trying to reject or avoid answers to at least one of the above questions will mean capitulation with all the consequences that are easy to foresee. In the upcoming issues of this publication, I will try to answer all of them as openly as I can (even if sometimes it will not be politically correct).  

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