Ukraine's Language Issue: Voices From the Ground

Global Voices Online
April 13, 2013

Ukraine's politicians rarely perform well outside the seemingly endless and rather populist pre-election stretches of the political racing circuit. Language politics is just one of the areas where their initiatives are often detached from reality and cause controversy, and where failures outnumber successes.

In 2007, shortly before the parliamentary election, the Party of Regions was pushing for a referendum on granting Russian the status of a national language, alongside Ukrainian. The referendum never took place, but five years later, in 2012, just in time for the next parliamentary vote, the Party of Regions' MPs Vadym Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov authored the language law that would give Russian and other minority languages the status of regional languages in areas where 10 percent of the population or more spoke those languages.

A violent scuffle erupted in Ukraine's parliament over a bill that would allow the use of the Russian language in courts, hospitals and other institutions in the Russian-speaking regions of the country. Photo by Sergei Svetlitsky, copyright © Demotix (24/05/12).
A violent scuffle erupted in Ukraine's parliament over a bill that would allow the use of the Russian language in courts, hospitals and other institutions in the Russian-speaking regions of the country. Photo by Sergei Svetlitsky, copyright © Demotix (24/05/12).

The adoption of the law was preceded by a spectacular fight in the Parliament [video] in May 2012 - and was followed by street protests and hunger strikes in July. In early August, the language law entered into force, and very soon afterwards the Donetsk Regional Council declared Russian a regional language in the region, with a number of others doing the same later.

Ukrainian politicians' views on the language issue are well-known. There is also some scholarly research and expert opinion available out there (e.g., Tadeusz Olszański's May 2012 research paper [.pdf], published by the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW); a 2010 comparison of the situation in Ukraine and Québec, Canada, by Dominique Arel, of the University of Ottawa's Chair of Ukrainian Studies; an article by David Marples, of the University of Alberta, shared by Current Politics in Ukraine blog, in which the author argued that, more than anything else, the language law was "a ploy to distract voters").

But what do ordinary Ukrainian citizens think of the language situation in their country? And what is the impact of the language issue on the lives of those who reside in the predominantly Russian-speaking areas like Donetsk region - those who are the target audience of the politicians who, in 2012, voted in favor of the language law?

At the protest rally against the language law in Kyiv, one of the protesters held a banner that read: "I ♥ [Ukrainian] language. Don't break my ♥." Photo by Tomasz Grzyb, copyright © Demotix (04/07/12).
At the protest rally against the language law in Kyiv, one of the protesters held a banner that read: "I ♥ [Ukrainian] language. Don't break my ♥." Photo by Tomasz Grzyb, copyright © Demotix (04/07/12).

On April 11, Pavel Kolesnik, a Donetsk-based blogger known as LJ user pauluskp, asked his readers [ru] whether the Ukrainian language was causing them any problems. He addressed this question primarily to Donbas region residents, on behalf of Piotr Pogorzelski, a Polish journalist who is writing a book about contemporary Ukraine. People from other Ukrainian regions have responded as well, and the discussion in the post's comments section has generated over 350 comments.

Below is a very small selection of these "voices from the ground."

Zaporizhzhya-based LJ user raddan wrote [ru]:

[...] Once, a woman at the post office got angry at me for a form that I had filled in in Ukrainian, because she didn't understand it (even though the form itself was in Ukrainian), and since the [computer] program into which she had to enter the data from my form was in Russian, she had to translate everything. [...]

An anonymous user from Donetsk region wrote [ru]:

[...] I have no problems with the Ukrainian language - I'd say it's my second mother tongue, because I learned it at school and read lots of works of fiction in Ukrainian. Moreover, my parents and close relatives, who had moved here from Russia and did not know Ukrainian at all, understand everything perfectly now thanks to television, even though they wouldn't speak the language - they feel self-conscious because of their funny pronunciation (similar to [PM Mykola Azarov's]). In general, I think this issue [is being exploited] by politicians. I think there has to be some basic mutual politeness between people - everyone should speak the language they are more comfortable speaking and should not act aggressively if their interlocutors speak the other language. And everyone understands both Ukrainian and Russian perfectly well. [...] When at work we were ordered to do our paperwork in Ukrainian, someone brought a dictionary, and those who needed it, consulted it. [...] If someone is having problems with Ukrainian, it means that they are just unwilling to make an effort and switch their brains on, although the elderly people shouldn't be blamed for that.

Kharkiv-based LJ user opium86, who grew up in the city of Severodonetsk in Luhansk region, wrote [ru]:

[...] From what I've observed (and I, of course, may be wrong), people aged 25 and less have no difficulties with Ukrainian. This is a problem of the older generation [...] - but it all depends on whether [one is willing to learn or not]. [...]

Moscow-based LJ user barber_34, who lived in Donetsk until 2001, wrote [ru]:

[...] My brother lives in Kharkiv - and ever since movie theaters stopped showing films in Russian, he stopped going there. And I know he's not the only one. [...]

A Donetsk-based school teacher, LJ user bold_, wrote [ru]:

As I teacher born in the USSR, I do have problems [with Ukrainian] )))

The language itself cannot really cause problems. What does are the idiotic ways in which it is being imposed.

I've spent 14 years working at school. Six of them - at a [school with Ukrainian, not Russian, as the language of instruction]. When the school received its [Ukrainian-language] status, we were all ordered a) to teach lessons in Ukrainian, b) to do paperwork in Ukrainian. Imagine all those who studied Ukrainian at school and haven't used it in years, and how they suddenly start speaking and writing in it [...]. Its similarity with Russian does not mean we can speak it better than [PM Mykola Azarov] [...] So I teach lessons in Russian, in order not to traumatize children [...]. [...]

LJ user vvvik79 wrote [ru]:

I have problems with the Japanese language, while Ukrainian is the easiest of all the languages that I happened to study. [...] Ukrainian language in Ukraine cannot cause problems, by definition )))

Kyiv-based LJ user dbmann wrote [ru]:

I have no problems with Ukrainian. Sometimes, on the internet, I have problems with those who have problems [with Ukrainian]. [...]

Donetsk-based LJ user squirrel_sv wrote [ru]:

I have no problems with Ukrainian. When I watch movies dubbed in Ukrainian, I do not notice it at all - later, I cannot recall what language the movie was in.

[Slight panic] occurs when suddenly I have to fill in some forms or read something serious - because all that I learned at school has been forgotten, and there is no way to practice the language. And no matter how many movies you watch in Ukrainian, they don't add to your knowledge of terminology. This [slight panic] is unpleasant, but I think of it as a warmup for my brains, not as something horrible.

Kyiv-based LJ user i_am_crying wrote [ru]:

In everyday life I communicate exclusively in Ukrainian. My job is in Russian [...]. On the web - it's Russian because I have many "friends" from the Russian Federation.

IMHO: I think that the language problem simply does not exist in Ukraine (in everyday life). There are people who speak Russian, and those who speak Ukrainian, but at the same time, 99 percent easily understand both languages, and no less than 70 percent can speak both languages fluently (this is not survey data but my own observations - I've traveled all around Ukraine). [...]

Kyiv-based LJ user slotava wrote [ru]:

I have problems with Draconian laws and taxes, corrupt bureaucrats, broken roads, [corrupt] traffic cops, "expired" food at the stores, overpriced counterfeit medicinal drugs at the pharmacies... but the Ukrainian language doesn't cause me any problems. [...]

Ivano-Frankivsk-based LJ user auregleen wrote [uk]:

[...] I've been to Kyiv, Donetsk, Mariupol, Crimea. [...] I speak Ukrainian everywhere. People reply in Russian to me. We NEVER discussed which language each of us was talking in. We were just discussing our business, each in his/her own language. [...] I have relatives in Russia. I speak Russian fluently with them. I don't have any problems with it.


[...] We should just ignore this issue, because it is being forcefully imposed on us - in order to brainwash us, and not because it is important. Eventually, when there is no reaction, the [language] issue will disappear by itself.

Because I, too, am more worried about [the absence of the asphalt on the roads], and not about the language of the bastard [...] who stole the money meant for this asphalt. [...]

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