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30 April, 2013  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Linguistic Discrimination in Modern Ukraine

While Russia accuses Ukraine of "forced Ukrainization", Ukrainian-speakers face discrimination today, just like they did in times of colonial dependence

The campaign to promote the Russian language in Ukraine is escalating. This has been possible because the domination of Russian and discrimination against Ukrainian continued after the collapse of the USSR and Ukraine gained independence. This is the product of Ukraine’s colonial past: in the Russian Empire and the USSR, switching to Russian was key to social, financial or political success for Ukrainians. Today, Russian still dominates business and the mass media. Most books and publications, other than school books, are still printed in Russian. Although the Constitution states otherwise, most middle and top civil servants speak Russian informally, only switching to Ukrainian for official occasions. Many universities, especially technical ones, lecture in Ukrainian while workshops, practical classes and consultations with students – a major portion of academic process - are often in Russian. As a result, Ukrainian-speaking students have no access to education in their native language in a number of areas.    

A homely language

Nationally, the share of those who speak Ukrainian in everyday life and at home grew from 36.8% to 42.8% over 1992-2011 compared to 29% to 38.6% for Russian, reports the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences. This change is owing to people who previously said that they spoke both languages at home – their share decreased from 32% to 17.1%. The switch to one language – Ukrainian – only prevails in Western Ukraine, while Russification has occurred elsewhere: 4% of the 5% of bilingual people in Central Ukraine switched to Russian; 9% of 10% in Southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the newly-bilingual group is mostly comprised of Ukrainian-speakers. According to SOCIS surveys from April 2002 that correlate with the findings of the national census held several months earlier, the group of people using two languages mostly comprises those who list Ukrainian as their native language. Overall, 65% of those surveyed indicated Ukrainian as their native language compared to 34% for Russian. Meanwhile, 34% said they spoke only Russian everywhere, while the group of Ukrainian-speakers split into 44% for those who spoke Ukrainian only and 21% of those who switched back and forth depending on circumstances. The share of young and middle-aged bilinguals who switched to Russian in everyday life was several times higher than that of the same-age bilinguals who gave preference to Ukrainian. According to a research by the National Institute for Strategic Studies, this is mostly because Ukrainian-speakers are reluctant to be treated like black sheep in a predominantly Russian-speaking environment. The research also points out that Ukrainian-speaking youth switch to Russian more readily when spoken to in it compared to their young Russian-speaking compatriots, especially in South-Eastern Ukraine.

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In some cities, like Odesa, local authorities conduct targeted Russification policy despite the fact that 46.3% of the city and multinational oblast population list Ukrainian as their native language. Solomia Zakharia, a Drohobych-born student who is getting her degree in history in Odesa, has sometimes experienced discrimination as a Ukrainian-speaker. “You’re considered a nationalist, a Bandarite if you speak Ukrainian,” she quotes a wide-spread opinion. “Sometimes people tell me to speak Russian to them because they don’t understand Ukrainian.” Yet, Solomia believes that everyone in Odesa understands Ukrainian, even if some pretend they don’t.

Switching from one language to another is not a sign of courtesy, says sociolinguist Larysa Masenko. “There is an established Russian-speaking environment in big cities and it exerts pressure on people,” she claims. “They think that they will not belong to it if they speak Ukrainian.” Born to the family of Teren Masenko, poet and author of the memoirs about the writers of the Shot Renaissance, Larysa was raised in a Ukrainian-speaking environment at home amidst the deeply Russified Kyiv. By her teenage years, Larysa spoke Russian more than she did Ukrainian. She made her deliberate choice in favour of Ukrainian later. Very often, people raised in Ukrainian-speaking families who switch to Russian at a young age have a much harder time switching back as adults. By that time, they are already involved in a community that starts treating them differently. “Most prefer to blend in society. They don’t have the courage to stand out, if only linguistically,” says psychologist Hanna Boichenko. Moreover, people seek comfort and tend to be lazy, while cultivating a new language habit requires constant control over the speaking process.

READ ALSO: Russification Redux?

The Russian language is mostly used by default in communication in all big cities other than those in Western Ukraine, and most smaller ones. For instance, whenever you call a mobile operator or visit a restaurant or a store, the staff will most likely speak Russian to you – few will switch to Ukrainian if asked. In many cases, such requests are ignored, often defiantly, as the staff is reluctant to speak in a “second-rate” language. “I’ve been ignoring products with no Ukrainian labels, and restaurants with no menus in Ukrainian for three years now,” says Dmytro Dyvnych, the founder of the They’ll Get It Anyway! Facebook community. Its members write requests, letters and complaints to companies asking them to use the official state language when operating in Ukraine. Online companies and software developers are also among the top violators of the rights of Ukrainain-speakers.A vast majority of business owners, as well as top and middle managers today are from the Russian-speaking environment. Ukrainian-speaking employees coming to work at such businesses are forced to switch to Russian in order to have career prospects – just as they did under the Russian Empire or the USSR. Ukrainians who have little command of Russian or refuse to speak it, often fail to get a job. Olena Voronova had this experience when she applied for a waitress position at a Kyiv coffee shop. The administrator told her that she should switch to Russian if she wanted to work there.

Sociological surveys show a huge gap between the number of those who speak Ukrainian at home and those who also use it at work and in public. For Kyiv, this is about 50% and 20% accordingly. This can only be explained by the inferiority complex that has been implanted in several generations, paradoxically making many Ukrainians the drivers of Russification today.

More importantly, many primary and secondary schools in cities and towns de facto remain Russian-speaking by inertia, even though Ukrainian de jure. Thus, Ukrainian-speaking children do not speak their native language to avoid rejection by the rest. The staff in educational institutions often speaks Russian. As a result, children grow up with the concept that Ukrainian is the language to be used within the family, especially with their grandparents. The situation in education has encouraged activists of the Don’t Be Indifferent! initiative to launch Creative Modern Words, a campaign to show school students that reading in Ukrainian and speaking it is good – and very happening.

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Mass culture and media are another source of influence on linguistic preferences, especially with young people. In Ukraine’s underdeveloped media and book market, a handful of monopolist media owners – predominantly Russians or their Russian-speaking top managers – essentially shape the demand for media and printed products produced en masse by their businesses and sold at knockdown prices. Since they are unprofitable, these businesses require subsidies from the owners, and the latter are willing to support them, using them as mouthpieces rather than commercial projects. As a result, it is not demand that shapes supply, but the supply produced under a dumping policy that essentially generates demand.

The disappearance of Ukrainian from a large part of the country today – a process that looks natural to a contemporary observer – is the product of the large-scale campaign to Russify Ukraine and discriminate its own language, which was launched in its colonial past. However, even today, according to the census, Ukrainian is considered to be the native language of over 2/3 of the population and surveys show that more than 50% speak it in everyday life. According to surveys conducted by the Institute of Social and Political Psychology, 44.7% of those polled felt that it was the Ukrainian language that was suffering from discrimination – both in Soviet times, and now – and that it needs government protection and support. 25.3% said this about Russian in Ukraine. 

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Today, there is hardly any Ukrainian-speaking show business or television in Ukraine. According to research by the Space of Freedom volunteer campaign, the top eight Ukrainian TV channels broadcasted only 22.2% of their prime time content in Ukrainian in October 2011. Only 4.6% of songs played by the top six radio stations were in Ukrainian. The share of films dubbed into Ukrainian shrank to 47.8% in 2011. The total print run of Ukrainian-language newspapers dropped to 30%. In 2012, books and brochures published in Russian in Ukraine, save for those imported from Russia, exceeded the number of those published in Ukrainian. Maksym and Ivanna, a young Kyiv-based couple, are not happy with the situation. “We subscribe to a dozen Ukrainian-language publications,” Maksym says. When newspapers and magazines started piling up in the apartment, they thought that they could share them with their neighbours who can’t afford them or don’t know they exist. Maksym started putting out magazines on the ground floor of their building. “Neighbours take them eagerly,” he comments. “We leave them in the morning and they’re gone by evening.”   

A new step to oust Ukrainian

To remove the few legislative barriers to the Russification of Ukraine, passed earlier as requirements and quotas for radio, TV, film distribution, advertising and the public sphere, the Yanukovych regime has bulldozed through a new law On the Principles of Language Policy in 2012. The official motivation was to comply with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Once enforced, however, it did not protect languages that could disappear in Ukraine. Instead, it facilitates Russification, while ousting Ukrainian and minority languages in Ukraine. The Venice Commission commented that the draft law contradicted the Constitution of Ukraine and posed a threat to the Ukrainian state language, and recommended that it not be approved. Since the President signed the law on August 8, 2012, Russian has been the only language to be made an official language in some regions.

Meanwhile, Mykhailo Chechetov, Deputy Head of the Party of Regions’ faction in parliament, disclosed the motivation of the ruling party: “46 million people understand two languages: Russian and Ukrainian. Not Bulgarian, nor Hungarian, nor Romanian, nor Hebrew… Only a handful of people understands these languages. We are talking about the two languages that the entire nation understands.” Subsequent decisions by local authorities where the Party of Regions prevails, has proven that this is not his personal opinion, but the concept of the party in power. The Ismail City Council in the Odesa Oblast passed a decision on August 15 to make Russian an official regional language, yet refused to grant equal rights to Bulgarian, the language of the ethnic minority that accounts for over 10% of the local population and thus is entitled to having its language as an official regional one under the new law. It’s enough that “Russian was and still is the language of inter-ethnic communication in Ismail, home to more than 80 nationalities,” commented Ismail Mayor Andriy Abramchenko, who is also in the PR. Another PR member, Andriy Fedoruk, Chairman of Donetsk Oblast Council, warned subordinate town councils that they should “think about funding for such an initiative” if they happen to make, say, Greek an official regional language. Since most local budgets rely on transfers from the oblast treasury, they should obviously take this as a veiled prohibition. Crimea, where the share of ethnic Russians exceeds 50%, has not yet enforced the law. This is probably because authorities are reluctant to grant a relevant status to the Crimean Tartar language which is also entitled to it, given the number of people who speak it.

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While local councils are entitled to decide on their official regional language, decisions passed by oblast councils prevail. As a result, the decisions of the latter on Russian as the official regional language automatically cover Ukrainian-speaking rural areas in South-Eastern Ukraine. These include rural parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Odesa, Zaporizhia and Mykolayiv Oblasts. This is where Ukrainian faced greater discrimination even before the law was passed. Between the 1989 and 2001 censuses, the number of Ukrainians in Donetsk Oblast grew by 6.2%, while those listing Ukrainian as their native language decreased by 6.5%. The number of Russians fell by 5.4% - mostly because they moved to Russia after the USSR collapsed, rather than due to assimilation – yet 7.2% more people listed Russian as their native language. In Luhansk Oblast, the number of Ukrainians grew by 6.1% over the same period, while that of Ukrainian-speakers fell by 4.9%. The share of Russians shrank by 5.8% while that of Russian-speakers grew by 4.9%. Other regions where the PR and Communists introduced Russian as an official regional language saw a similar trend.

Nostalgia for the empire

Russia anticipates that the status of the Russian language in Ukraine will reach the level it had during the Soviet era. The frustration of Russia or some pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine with “forced Ukrainization ” comes from the reluctance of the representatives of what was once the dominant nation of the empire to accept the status of an ethnic minority rather than from the actual violations of Russians’ rights in Ukraine. According to a 2008 survey by the Razumkov Centre, 75.2% of those polled in Crimea said that they were undergoing “forced Ukrainization” while only 17.9% of ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea list Ukrainian as their native language compared to 95% of ethnic Russians who continue to list Russian as theirs. One in every four people in Crimea speaks Ukrainian to some extent, while 43.4% do not understand it at all. The Russian leadership, striving to restore the single Eurasian space, is proactively supporting the frustration of Russian-speakers in post-Soviet states with the rights they now have.

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In 2012, Dmitri Medvedev encouraged efforts to promote Russia’s interests and influence in the world through the Russian language and people speaking it in everyday life. It looks like the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin forces will only be happy if Russian gets a legitimate dominant status similar to that in Soviet Ukraine or the USSR. This is why overcoming total Russification is a key condition for post-colonial Ukraine  to walk away from the sphere of Russian political influence. Many Russian-speakers in Ukraine are subject to an intense media campaign by the Russian government-controlled mass media. As a result, they often still identify themselves with Russia while rejecting Ukrainian identity as such. They do not distinguish between Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, many Ukrainians living in Central and Eastern Ukraine, for whom Ukrainian is their native language, speak Russian in everyday life. They would like to switch to Ukrainian, but have no opportunity to do so in this Russified environment. They do not have free access to products and services in Ukrainian. In South-Eastern Ukraine, this is the result of a consistent targeted policy of the Party of Regions that has controlled the region for years. Its members, including Donetsk City Council Secretary Mykola Levchenko, Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukianchenko or Odesa Mayor Oleksiy Kostusiev, often discriminate against Ukrainian in public, saying that “it’s only suitable for folklore”. “89% of the Odesa population prefers to speak, write and read in Russian,” said Kostusiev, to validate Russian as an official language in Odesa at a City Council session on August 13, 2012. Meanwhile, when selecting the language in which their children should be educated, 52% of Odesa parents, whose children were enrolling in first grade, requested Ukrainian. This is clear evidence that the Yanukovych regime needed the language law to prevent the natural return of Ukrainians, Russified under the Russian Empire and the USSR, to their native language. It also proves that the rights of Ukrainian citizens, previously Russified through discrimination against the Ukrainian language and with no opportunity to use it freely today, to learn it and use it in everyday life, should lie in the foundation of the state’s language policy. 

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