Language Myths in Eastern and Southern Ukraine

13 September 2012, 17:07

Ukrainian presidents used to immediately switch to Russian when they crossed the invisible linguistic border. This was done on the one hand, to please local voters (even though not all of them are Russian speakers) and on the other, to justify their own ideological laziness and inactivity in these regions. National democrats preferred to go to regions in western Ukraine (Galicia and Volyn) to rally descendants of OUN and UPA members. They did not like to go east or south, and if they did, they often came across as awkward and betrayed poor knowledge of local realities. They refused to support the local fanatic patriots of Ukraine who had been tested by years of Moscow’s expansion and Kyiv’s indifference, for some reason seeing them as potential competitors in politics.

At the same time, the central government pursued a policy of national-political masochism by giving orders, ranks and titles to vicious enemies of Ukraine. (Viktor Yushchenko led the way in this category.)  At the same time, they shied away from true Ukrainian patriots, because they believed these nationalists and radicals might frighten Ukrainians in the east and south. After the victory of the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko decorated a Sevastopol official whom I know personally. This man shouted “Away with the Orange plague!” more than anyone else at rallies! Almost every well-known Crimean journalist who hates Ukraine or is “neutral” (i.e., condones Russification) has received the Merited Journalist of Ukraine title from the very nation he so loathes.

Local bosses in eastern and southern Ukraine who have yet to make up their minds on their identity and state loyalty actively produce and promote various myths about southern and eastern Ukraine to naive politicians in Kyiv (I’m not talking about Russian government employees working in Ukraine at the moment). They keep saying: You shouldn’t come here with the Ukrainian language, because the masses will be outraged and may even rebel. Ukrainian history should not be brought to these precious lands, because locals might not like it. I remember a low-ranking official in my native Sevastopol asking me in the early 1990s, while “sincerely” caring about Ukraine: Was it a mistake to put Hetman Ivan Mazepa on the 10-hryvnia bill? He was concerned that this would sow discontent among Crimeans who had been taught Russian history. There was indeed discontent, but the cause was a lack of the bills in citizen's wallets.

Myths about south-eastern Ukraine, which are so eagerly accepted by Kyiv officials, instil a Ukrainian version of Wu wei, the Taoist concept of non-action: “Things will work out somehow, because it has never been the case that they have not worked out”. The men in Kyiv were clearly in favour of succumbing to the ill-advised suggestions of their provincial subordinates who often play their own game or, rather, that of another country. A Kyiv boss would return to the capital tired but happy to report to the top officials that everything was quiet in the province. At the same time, a lot has been done locally to isolate visitors from Kyiv and prevent them from communicating with local Ukrainian activists. These same local bosses portray them as extremists, nationally-minded psychopaths and madmen that should be kept at a distance.

With official Kyiv in a lethargic dream and freely delegating leverage in many regions to people that look to Russia, Moscow is acting in our country, above all in southern and eastern Ukraine, with frenzied energy. It is not only nature that abhors vacuum – it is also true of politics, culture and ideology. The spheres that are left void by our own state are being enthusiastically filled by Russia. It is only logical – tertium non datur. Either eastern and southern Ukraine becomes Ukrainised, or it will become an object of total, merciless forced Russification – not only linguistic but also political, spiritual and informational – with clearly negative geopolitical consequences for our entire country.

(And it can be argued that this has already happened!)

The poor intellectual ability of Ukraine's rulers has prevented them from grasping in the past 20 years that language and culture are powerful, and sometimes even decisive, factors in politics, and thus the fight for them is a struggle for the nation and state. Only hopelessly naive people can believe that Ukraine may disappear but the Ukrainian state will continue to exist. It would not survive the language by much.

However, despite the huge amount of work carried out by anti-Ukrainian forces throughout the centuries, and most of all in the 20 years of our independence, eastern and southern Ukraine is not a territory in which Ukrainisation is impossible in principle. Of course, it is out of the question as long as the present destructive and anti-Ukrainian government rules this country. However, even periodic efforts taken by Kyiv have evoked positive reaction. The selfless work of enthusiasts secured 54 per cent of votes in the Crimea, 54 in Simferopol and 57 in Sevastopol – all cast in support of Ukraine’s independence at the 1991 referendum. In the early 1990s, about 400 requests from parents who wanted to see the state open a Ukrainian-language school were collected at the main base of the Ukrainian navy in Sevastopol. However, Kyiv did not help and Ukrainophobes in the local government killed the project. The story of the Ukrainian-language gymnasium in Simferopol is revealing. This elite school holds a competition among children on an annual basis to select one of five applicants. Even some notable Russophiles send their children there, because it offers excellent education and a good upbringing. What if this Ukraine stays afloat? We need to take care of our own children and their futures, they think to themselves.

If Ukraine’s rulers were wise statesmen rather than creatures with limited intellectual ability who fail to see beyond their pockets and careers, they would have built a dozen such schools in Sevastopol over the past 20 years, greatly changing the balance of attitudes and winning sympathy for Ukraine. A number of people willing to send their children to Ukrainian-language schools live in other cities and towns in Crimea. Crimean Tatar children eagerly study Ukrainian and finish in the top group in the Petro Yatsuk Ukrainian Language Competition. Also deserving mention are people who heroically defended Ukrainian-language schools in Donetsk Region from being closed. But they must face the fact that simply no work been done and no efficient programme set up for the linguistic and cultural development of eastern and southern Ukraine since independence.Meanwhile, this territory is not simply sun-scorched land – it is fertile soil for Ukrainianisation.

The present author has been bringing (and will continue to bring) Ukrainian literature to his native city of Sevastopol, and these books have always found greatful readers. One of the locals, a native of Russia, read a Russian-language biography of Stepan Bandera published in Kharkiv and said: “It turns out he was a great man!”

If the Ukrainian state had truly cared about properly informing its citizens in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odesa, the Crimea, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Luhansk and Dnipropetrovsk over the past two decades, we would have a different map of cultural and electoral preferences today. Individual enthusiasts can do a lot, but they cannot function as a replacement for government policy, and unfortunately Ukraine lacks a clear, consistent and understandable policy in the linguistic and cultural domain. Ukraine’s ideological problems in southern and eastern Ukraine are not caused by an excess of Ukrainisation but by the lack thereof. What Ukraine has failed to do in this territory has been accomplished by Russia and the result is Russification instead of Ukrainisation. It is no coincidence that the loudest opponents of “forceful” Ukrainianisation hail from regions in which there has not been even a trace of it. On the initiative of the Party of Regions and its allies, all of Sevastopol is now hung with posters saying “We have the right to the Russian language!” In fact, this is the only language you have a right to here — you have to try really hard to find Ukrainian. There are no Ukrainian-language schools in the city, and finding a Ukrainian-language newspaper is a headache. That’s Ukrainisation for you. Now if Sevastopol had 10-15 Ukrainian schools, there would be a lot less clamour about Ukrainianisation. It is easy to scare people with things that do not exist or are unknown and thus frightening.

The Ukrainian government (and I don’t mean the current one) should not be afraid of Ukrainisation in eastern and southern Ukraine but by the lack of it. This is what split the national electorate into the orange and blue-and-white camps and finally resulted in the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov draft law on language policy. There is no getting away from the need to homogenise the country and rally it on the basis of Ukrainian values. Therefore, the desire of BYuT (under Yulia Tymoshenko’s premiership) and Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR party to avoid this hot issue points to the national-political immaturity of these forces and their failure to understand the key issues in the life of the Ukrainian nation. Eastern and southern Ukraine will accept reasonable, consistent and decisive Ukrainisation – not in the form of national democrats lamenting about the fate of the beautiful Ukrainian language but on the level of systemic, specific, administrative, legal and organisational measures coupled with powerful informational support.


Volodymyr Konstantynov, Speaker of the Crimean Supreme Council, said: “The Russian-speaking population of Ukraine still finds itself in an aggressive informational environment which erodes our common historical memory and traditions on the level of mass consciousness. We must, through joint effort, establish a reliable barrier to this and bring the relations between our peoples to a higher level of trust. Russia must step up its educational and cultural presence, and not in Crimea alone. We are expecting more active support from our compatriots.”

Losiev Ihor

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