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21 May, 2014  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

The Myth of Russian-Speaking Regions

If Russian becomes the second state language or even acquires official status in part of Ukraine’s territory, this will aggravate the discrimination of the Ukrainian-speaking majority and will ease the Kremlin’s expansion

On 11 April, in the course of his visit to Donetsk, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk declared that a referendum could be held about the status of Russian. Negotiations are continuing between members of the parliamentary majority and Party of Regions MPs about granting Russian official status in a number of oblasts. On 23 April, Donetsk Oblast Governor Serhiy Taruta again called for a referendum on this issue at a regional meeting.

The most recent opinion polls show that 59.5% of voters would support Ukrainian as the only state language. However, it will all depend on how the question will be phrased. And if the referendum is held, it will almost certainly reveal a divide between regions. The Rating sociological group survey carried out from September 26 to October 6, 2013, showed that supporters of bilingualism accounted for 85% in the Donbas, 69% in Southern Ukraine (including Crimea) and 57% in Eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia and Kharkiv oblasts). Understandably, differences of opinion in various regions would be perceived today as another reason to step up separatist activities.

At the same time, granting official status to Russian outside Donetsk Oblast is an unacceptable step that would lead to the discrimination of the Ukrainian-speaking population living in a bigger part of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts.

Why Ukraine will never be Belgium, Switzerland or Canada

Proponents of having two state languages or granting Russian official status in a number of oblasts usually point to Belgium, Canada and Switzerland as some of the countries whose experience Ukraine would need to emulate. By doing so, they gloss over, either ignorantly or deliberately, things that make the experience of these countries totally unacceptable to Ukraine. And these are not limited to the fact that Belgium and Canada have been teetering on the verge of a breakup for a long time now. The primary reason is that the concept of a “Russian-speaking region” in Ukraine is a myth, a fiction, a figment of imperial imagination.

A good place to start is Sloboda Ukraine (Slobozhanshchyna), especially its parts in such southeastern oblasts as Kharkiv and Luhansk.

In Kharkiv Oblast, Russian-speaking citizens predominate in just 9% of its territory – a relatively continuous area that includes Kharkiv, Chuhuiv, Chuhuiv County and a larger part of urban region around Kharkiv. However, the population of this compact territory (less than 3,000 sq km) is 1.71mn (62.5% of the oblast’s total population), which is why the entire oblast is generally counted among Russian-speaking regions. This is despite the fact that the rest of Kharkiv Oblast (28,500 sq km, or 90%) with the population of over one million (which is similar to the number of people living in the majority of central and western oblasts) speaks predominantly Ukrainian as the native language – over 80% (69-95% in individual counties).

A similar situation is in northern parts of Luhansk Oblast. Nine of its counties, which account for more than half of its territory (13,440 sq km, more than the area of Zakarpattia or Chernivtsi oblasts), also mostly speak Ukrainian – 80% overall and from 74 to 94% in individual counties. However, this large area does not have any significant effect on the entire oblast in terms of the population as it has 307,000 residents, or a mere 13% of the total.

The same is true of the southern oblasts, which Vladimir Putin has taken the habit of calling nothing else but “Novorossiya where our population lives” to suggest that these people found themselves in Ukraine by accident. For example, people living in nearly three-quarters of Zaporizhia Oblast speak mostly Ukrainian – over 80%, with individual counties ranging from 67 to 94%, according to the 2001 census data. However, the population of this area (537,000 as of 1 March 2014) is just 30% of the oblast’s total, while nearly two-thirds (1.1mn) live in almost completely Russian-speaking cities (Zaporizhia, Melitopol, Berdiansk and Enerhodar) that account for 1.4% of the oblast’s territory. This creates an illusion that the oblast is Russian-speaking. A quarter of its territory is taken up by Russian-speaking counties near the Sea of Azov, but a significant proportion of their residents are also Ukrainian-speaking.

This kind of linguistic landscape is also found in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast: the proportion of Ukrainian speakers exceeds 80%, sometimes reaching 90-95%, in each of its counties, while the Russian-speaking population is concentrated (and predominates) in a handful of large and medium-size cities. They are home to a majority of the oblast’s population but account for a mere 3% of its territory and are scattered like dots across the map of the region.


In Odesa Oblast, more than half of its residents (1.23mn out of 2.4mn) live in Odesa and four portside cities (Yuzhne, Illichivsk, Izmail and Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky) where the Russian-speaking population is in the absolute majority. But, again, these cities together occupy just 2% of the total area. The linguistic situation elsewhere in the oblast is different: Ukrainian prevails in northern and central counties; Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian and Moldovan coexist in settlements along the Danube.

In Mykolaiv Oblast, the central city is, again, most populous (42.5% of the region’s population) and mostly Russian-speaking, which leads some people to put the entire oblast in the category of “Russian-speaking”. However, the proportion of Ukrainian speakers in all the counties outside Mykolaiv is 80-97%. In Kherson Oblast, predominantly Russian-speaking Kherson, Nova Kakhovka and Henichesk County occupy a mere 12% of the oblast’s area but account for 42% of its population. This fosters a perception that the entire oblast is Russian-speaking, even though 80-95% of the residents in 88% of its territory speak Ukrainian.

Thus, there is no reason to label territories outside of Donetsk Oblast and parts of Luhansk and Zaporizhia oblasts as Russian-speaking. The rest of southern and eastern oblasts only have a dozen or so medium and large Russian-speaking cities. Those who have travelled to these regions know that it is not a matter of declaration: Ukrainian (with some Russian inclusions in speech) indeed predominates there outside large cities and urban zones. Most of this territory is populated by Ukrainian-speaking people who, if the functions of Russian are preserved or, even worse, expanded, will be doomed to discrimination and essentially forced Russification.

The paradox is that, according to a recent KMIS survey, the majority of those who believe that the rights of Russian-speaking citizens are violated in Ukraine live precisely in those oblasts where the Ukrainian-speaking population has been discriminated and Russification has continued throughout the independence period: 40% in Donetsk Oblast, 30% in Luhansk Oblast, 25% in Kharkiv Oblast and 20% in Odesa Oblast. This is not just a result of many years of Russian propaganda – these people want not so much more room for Russian as no room for Ukrainian in all spheres of life, at least in their regions. This is in line with what Mykola Levchenko, the current leader of the Party of Regions in Donetsk Oblast, once said: Russian should be the only state language and Ukrainian only the language of folklore. They are demanding the status of a state language (in their understanding, the only state language) for Russian precisely to achieve this goal.


What the “defenders of Russian” are actually defending

The domination of Russian in large cities of what is nearly exclusively a Ukrainian-speaking state is an obvious consequence of the colonial policy pursued by the Russian Empire and the USSR. In different proportions it can be observed across the territory that was under the Russians and Soviets for an extended period of time. (This is why cities in Galicia are an exception here.)

As a matter of historical background, cities were small in the 18th century, when active Russification was launched. In 1742, Kyiv had the population of 20,000, including 129 Russian merchants (0.7%), and it was not exceedingly difficult to increase their numbers by 5,000-10,000. Given their privileged status and targeted state support, they were able to gradually Russify the city. Cities in Left-Bank Ukraine, eastern regions and especially southern Ukraine had even smaller cities or none at all, which made the mission even easier.

In late 19th century, the already Russified cities were facing an influx of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian-speaking peasants who had just been released from serfdom, so the Russian Empire had to step up its assimilation efforts and stimulate settlers from ethnic Russian gubernias to colonize Ukraine. Ukrainian was completely banned from public use and education by the Valuev Circular of 1863 and the Ems Ukase of 1876. At the same time, unskilled Russian workers came in thousands to the newly created coalmines and plants in the industrial area along the Dnieper and in the Donbas.

In the totalitarian Soviet era, this process was drastically scaled up. Moreover, the 1920s saw the emergence of the infamous theory of the “fight between two cultures” in the Ukrainian SSR: “progressive proletarian” Russian culture and “reactionary petit bourgeois” Ukrainian culture. The totalitarian empire tried every possible way to break the neck of the latter. In 1926, there were a mere 3.2mn Russians in Soviet Ukraine (without western oblasts which were annexed later) and the Russians-to-Ukrainians ratio was 1:8.7, while in 1989, close to the breakup of the USSR, the proportion was 1:3.3. In 1959-65, some three million people (almost exclusively Russians) migrated to Ukraine from other parts of the Soviet Union. These were mostly young people who had children when they were already in Ukraine and some were married to ethnic Ukrainians, so the multiplication effect and mixed marriages played a crucial part in the process.

In a situation when most schools in oblast centres and other large cities, even in Central Ukraine, were forced to switch to Russian as the language of instruction and when it totally dominated in the public sphere and mass culture, all these people of mixed Ukrainian-Russian origin became Russian-speaking. And then urbanization and sub-urbanization forced Ukrainian-speaking people to adopt Russian as the language of communication in a seemingly “natural” way. Their rapidly increasing numbers in cities did not Ukrainianize the latter, because as soon as they stepped outside of their homes, Ukrainian speakers would immediately switch to Russian, which was already predominant there. For example, opinion surveys among the residents of the capital and most other large cities continue to show, even now, the huge gap between the numbers of those who speak Ukrainian at home and those who use it at work and in public.

In public communication, Russian is still being used by default. Here is a situation familiar to most Ukrainians: when they first call a mobile network operator, enter a store or an eatery in Kyiv or any oblast centre in Southern, Eastern or even Central Ukraine, they usually hear something like “Such and such company is happy to welcome you…” – in Russian. Only if the client insists – and even then not always – the operator or the staff will make a concession and switch to Ukrainian, which is, in fact, the only official language. This is, of course, if a native speaker of Ukrainian does not switch to Russian for reasons of tolerance or some other motives, as is often the case.

As a result, a public linguistic environment is formed in which the Russian is overrepresented as compared to how many people use it in the family circle. The Institute of Social and Political Psychology carried out a survey in August 2006, just before Viktor Yanukovych took over the government and Dmytro Tabachnyk the education sector, and found that 45% of Ukrainians believed that Ukrainian required state protection and 25% thought the same about Russian.

Sociological surveys clearly show that Ukrainian is much less frequently used in public than in the family, which is a direct result and compelling evidence of its continued discrimination in the public sphere. It shows especially when different regions and types of settlements are contrasted. For example, according to a survey conducted by the NANU Institute of Sociology and SOCIS in April 2007, 57% of citizens speak Ukrainian at home and 54% in public. The corresponding figures are 78 and 74% in the central regions and 41 and 34% in the southern and eastern oblasts (except Crimea and the Donbas). In Kyiv, 44% of the people speak Ukrainian (or surzhyk, a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian) at home and a mere 35% in public; in other cities with the population over 250,000, the figures are 38% and 33%, respectively. This includes county capitals in Western Ukraine without which the gap would be much bigger. Tellingly, in Crimea and the Donbas, where Ukrainian speakers experience the worst discrimination, there was a drop-off, relative to other regions, in the proportion of those who “speak primarily Russian but sometimes also Ukrainian” in public (see Consequences of centuries of discrimination).

The Institute of Social and Political Psychology has studied why students avoid actively using Ukrainian and found the following: 1) unwillingness to stand out from the crowd and a lack of prestige associated with Ukrainian; 2) psychological and ideological stubbornness, i.e., ideological preferences and resistance to pressure; 3) a lack of a Ukrainian-speaking environment and the need to speak Ukrainian (“everyone understands Russian anyway”). This hierarchy of factors was especially prominent in central regions. Remarkably, Russian-speaking students, especially in southern and eastern regions, proved to be more stubborn in their unwillingness to switch when addressed in Ukrainian than Ukrainian-speaking youths, of whom 90% would switch to Russian if it was first used by their interlocutor.

In the course of generation shift, a large part of those who spoke Ukrainian with their parents and Russian in college or at work gradually abandon Ukrainian altogether when they grow up. Launched in this way, the process of Russification may appear to be objective to an outside observer. This mechanism, when it gains full momentum, erodes Ukrainians as a nation, at least in a large part of the state’s territory. This is what “fighters against forced Ukrainization” are, in fact, fighting for. Consciously or unconsciously, all supporters of the “rights of the Russian language” in the post-colonial Ukraine are lobbying for the Russian World which is based on idea that the Kremlin has a legitimate claim to lands where Russian is used or dominates.

Myth about Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine

The linguistic landscape of southern and eastern regions reveals that they are not as Russian-speaking as they are sometimes painted. Outside of Donetsk Oblast and southern Luhansk Oblast, as well as the Counties near the Sea of Azov in Zaporizhia Oblast, Russian speakers dominate only in large cities and some medium-sized cities

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