Interview: Volodymyr Kulyk on Language Politics and Identity in Ukraine

Ukraine in Focus

Volodymyr Kulyk is currently a Ukraine in European Dialogue Visiting Fellow at the IWM, and Head Research Fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine. His recent book Movna polityka v bahatomovnykh kraïnakh: Zakordonnyi dosvid ta ioho prydatnist’ dlia Ukraïny [Language Policies in Multilingual Countries: Foreign Experience and Its Relevance to Ukraine] was published in May 2021. His most recent research was featured in New York Times and The Guardian.

 MS: Talk about your current research and how it has changed since the beginning of the war? How do the war conditions affect your research?

I spent a year in Ukraine, in Kyiv, mostly under normal conditions in terms of logistics. I was able to work at my apartment. The internet was available all the time except for a couple of months in the fall and early winter when Russian attacks affected the power grid. Apart from the electricity and internet problems, everything was rather smooth except for the danger of being hit by a rocket. But you have to live with that.

What changed was more online events because of increased interest in Ukraine. In the beginning, there were many media requests and when the media got distracted, academic events continued. So, this was the most intense year in terms of online events. I managed to produce three journal manuscripts as well as a number of short pieces for different journals or online publications.

Before the war, I received a grant from the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, which I and three other researchers were supposed to use to conduct in-depth interviews in four Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv and Kherson. But when the war started, the project stopped and I used the funds instead to commission a small survey, which was conducted in December. With the help of the funds from George Washington University, I was also able to commission a series of focus groups, which were conducted in August. So, I had a solid set of data, namely the focus group discussions and the survey, on which my current project about national identity is primarily based.

MS: So, this is a continuation of what you were doing before the war, only now you have additional new data?

I try to work like that. Occasionally, I do something different. One of the articles I wrote last year was about Zelensky, about his discourse as an intersection between populism and inclusive nationalism, or populism and national identity. That was something new. But mostly, I do some long-term projects. Politics of language and politics of identities are research interests for which I accumulate data over the years, and which I compare to see long-term trends.

I study language practices and language attitudes since 2006. Starting from 2012, I have conducted four surveys including the same set of questions. And in a way, it is a unique set of data. Nobody in Ukraine has such sets of questions. There are some surveys that contain questions on language and identity, but they are very limited. For example, they can ask questions about your native language and what language you speak at home, and whether Russian should be a second official language. But that is it. Instead, I have twenty, thirty, fifty questions, much richer data. And I supplement surveys with focus group data and analysis of public discourse, legislation, and policymaking. That gives a very rich material.

MS: Since the beginning of the war and your last survey, which findings did you find the most surprising or unexpected?

The most surprising was a very sharp increase in the use of Ukrainian language, or the reported use of Ukrainian language. I knew it would be growing. I knew it would be a bit exaggerated due to social mobilization and anti-Russian sentiment, but I didn't expect it to be so high. I didn't expect it that much in the east and south, which were traditionally Russian speaking. And I know that it is exaggerated, it reflects a social desirability bias during wartime. I am very frustrated that I don't know how to really measure that bias. How much of that increase is an exaggeration, and how much of that is real?

In response to your question, what was the most surprising -- this sharp increase of the percentage of people speaking Ukrainian in all domains and all practices. So, if that is true, if that is persistent, that will change Ukraine drastically. Ukraine will cease to be an effectively bilingual country. It will become a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking country with a minority population of Russian speakers, but also several other groups. Russian speakers will still be the largest minority group, but it will by no means be equal to Ukrainian speakers. Ukraine will not be Belgium or Canada because no territory will be recognized as officially Russian speaking. Russian will be present everywhere, mostly, of course, in the east and south. But we need to keep in mind that it might be a short-term sentiment, and people will revert to business as usual because language practice is inertial, you have to invest a lot, and you have to have a strong motivation for that. And normally, it does not last.

MS: It is interesting that it took a war for people to switch to Ukrainian on such a massive scale. In your work, you emphasize the role of state institutions and policies in shaping language use. Ukraine’s language policies until 2014 were not very consistent, it seemed that everyone was pulling in different directions. And after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, there was some controversial but also positive legislation that introduced language quota for radio and TV. On the other hand, we have the example of Baltic states, such as Estonia, which imposed its official language early on after the collapse of the USSR. Do you think that Ukraine should have followed the path of Baltic states from the beginning, or would such a radical approach have backfired?

Hard to tell. I believe a more consistent policy and a more appealing discourse would help. One thing which was consistently missing is the insistence on adherence to the law. There was a law already adopted in 1989 that declared Ukrainian the only official language, which was supposed to be used in the public domain. Very few people adhered to the law, and there was no punishment. With regard to the law adopted in 2016 on Ukrainian language quotas in radio stations, it introduced the norm and sanctions for violating it. So, before that, there was law but no fines.

And the second thing that was lacking is a discourse which presents the introduction of Ukrainian not just in terms of our beautiful solov’ina mova [melodic language] but in terms of rights. From the very beginning, unfortunately, Russian propaganda and the Russian-speaking parties' propaganda in Ukraine, which was also appropriated by many Western academics, saw Ukraine as a nationalizing state with a Russian-speaking population whose rights need to be protected. But what about Ukrainian speakers' rights? Nobody talked about Ukrainian speakers' rights in political discourse, in scholarly literature. So, Ukrainian speakers' rights were neglected, routinely violated, and nobody cared.

Whether or not it would have backfired, whether we could have had a Russian invasion earlier, we do not know. But Russia was much weaker then. Russia could not really strike in 1996 or 2001. I believe we could have achieved a lot before Russia became so aggressive in expansion.

By the way, I disagree that there were no language policies in Ukraine. There were, starting with Leonid Kravchuk’s [the first President of Ukraine, 1991-1994] moderate introduction of Ukrainian, which backfired for him. He was defeated in the 1994 elections because there was an appealing discourse by [Leonid] Kuchma [the second President of Ukraine, 1994-2005] that Russian speakers' rights need to be protected and ties with Russia need to be restored. But then Kuchma followed Kravchuk by introducing Ukrainian in certain domains. Education is the most vivid example: Ukrainian was rather consistently introduced, except that it was introduced only in lessons and not in the breaks between classes.

Then Viktor Yushchenko [the third President of Ukraine, 2005-2010] tried to be more consistent, but he was opposed very strongly by the Party of Regions, by Viktor Yanukovych [the fourth President of Ukraine, 2010-2014], and he lost. And of course, these two revolutions, the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan Revolution, created preconditions for more consistent policies.

Yushchenko was a weak president, and his party was weak, and he didn't have a majority in parliament to implement the laws he adopted and pursue his policies. It was very different for Petro Poroshenko [the fifth President of Ukraine, 2014-2019] because he had a majority, which lasted his whole term in office. And during these five years, a lot of legislation was adopted, and some of new policies became normalized. The 2019 law regarding the use of the Ukrainian language in all social domains was adopted way too late because of Poroshenko's own indecision. It should have been adopted at least two years earlier. Actually, Zelenskyi could have killed the legislation because it was very new. But he wisely chose not to do that. He sabotaged it but he did not revoke it. So, by the time of this full-scale invasion, Ukrainian was already well-entrenched.

MS: People understood it already on some level, but they needed to take the next step to actually start using Ukrainian.

Yes. One feature of Ukrainian public opinion or popular behavior, which I noticed long ago, is that people want a change in favor of Ukrainian, but do not want to contribute to this change themselves. They want somebody else to do the job for them. Some said “yes” to switching to Ukrainian, only not for themselves, but their children. But then children do not switch because their parents don't help them. So my analysis shows that intergenerational change was minuscule. People wanted Ukrainian to be used in society, but they wanted complete freedom to continue using Russian themselves. Something had to be done about that. And actually, that was what the 2019 law did -- it made Ukranian mandatory. People were ready for that law and now they need to start adhering to it. That was a breakthrough to change that unbalanced attitude. Many people still prefer to use Russian in their private lives, but they know that in their public roles as public servants and even employees in private businesses, they need to use Ukrainian. And that changes the situation.

The war, of course, raises social pressure to switch to Ukrainian, but Ukrainian is already there. The new role of Ukrainian language as a language of resistance against Russian imperialism has been facilitated by the role of Ukrainian as a state language, as a mandatory language in public communication. I wrote about it in an article in Osteuropa last year called “The Language of Resistance”.

MS: In your book Language Policies in Multilingual Countries: Foreign Experience and Its Relevance to Ukraine [2021] you identify seventeen states that also have multilingual populations, and you discuss their attempts to manage this diversity. What case, if any, do you find the most applicable or desirable for Ukraine?

The answer is none. I demonstrate that social and historical conditions are different in different countries, and something that works in one context will not necessarily work in a different context. If you look, for example, what people refer to in Ukraine, it is usually Switzerland, or Belgium, or Canada. But they have no idea that Belgium was and maybe still is on the brink of breakup. One of the main points I wanted to make is that although most Ukrainians refer to Western cases, we should also look to non-Western cases. Of course, partly it is first-world prejudice or maybe even racist overtones: we don't look to Indonesia or India for the recipes of any policies including language, we look to Canada, Switzerland, and Finland. But I wanted to show that there are, in some cases, more similarities to our context in the postcolonial world.

If you look at Algeria, you see how the situation of French and Arabic was more similar to the situation of Russian and Ukrainian than in Switzerland or in Canada. And again, in addition to linguistic factors, there are social factors, such as the level of modernization, the level of education. In India, when it became independent, more than half of the population, perhaps even more, were illiterate. In Ukraine, it was not the case, and so both Ukrainian and Russian languages were indeed taught at school, while in India mostly what you knew was what you heard in the family and in the marketplace. Social factors, such as the level of modernization, made a lot of difference. So, I ended up with the conclusion that no single pattern could be transplanted onto Ukrainian soil.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is how formerly subordinated languages expand and become predominant, especially with democratization. If you look at Belgium or Finland or Quebec, the predominance of language is related to universal suffrage. As long as there was no universal suffrage, Flemish was a subordinate language because its speakers were low class and all the elites were French speakers. And so, even though numerically Flemish speakers were a majority, they could not translate this numerical majority into political power. Same in Quebec, when they introduced universal suffrage, numerical majority translated into the majority in parliament, and which in turn changed the laws. But the main point is that when subordinate languages acquire equal status, and eventually maybe practical predominance, there is a strong resistance from speakers of the formerly predominant languages, who consider current equality and predominance as discrimination. And that is what we see in Belgium. That is what we see in Quebec. That is what we see in Latvia. That is what we see in Ukraine.

My conclusion is not to worry and not let yourself be distracted by this resentment and by this argument about discrimination. That did not stop the Flemish, that did not stop the Quebecois, and that should not stop us. We should continue with overcoming the legacy of imperial discrimination and subordination. The Ukrainian language was not equal to Russian in the Russian empire and in the USSR. So, to reestablish it as an equal language, you need some political will, and it will be met with resistance, or at least with resentment on the part of the formally privileged group.

MS: How do you think this subversion of language hierarchy would look like in Ukraine after the de-occupation, particularly on territories of Crimea and Donbas, that were under the occupation and Russification for almost a decade?

I believe there should be a transition period, about 10 years, after which the same policies which apply to all Ukraine should also apply to those regions. But from day one, Ukrainian speakers should have the right to use Ukrainian everywhere. You cannot expect every employee in every office, or in every restaurant, or in every shop to be able to service everybody in Ukrainian, but at least in the public domain, every office should have at least one employee who would be able to service a visitor in Ukrainian. We should also be realistic. Maybe that would be possible in large offices, but probably not in a small post office in a village. To address that, there should be an influx of Ukrainian-speaking employees to create this environment where Ukrainian speakers would be able to get service in Ukrainian. There are people who left those regions and who would be happy to come back and implement these new policies.

It should not be anything like humiliation or intimidation of Russian speakers. Our policy should be clear. Russian speakers, if they are citizens, if they are not accused of collaboration or other crimes against the Ukrainian state, should have equal dignity regardless of their language. Same as Hungarian speakers in Zakarpattia or Bulgarian speakers in Bessarabia. But Ukrainian is the official language, and again, most importantly, Ukrainian speakers have the right to use Ukrainian everywhere in Ukraine.

MS: Crimean Tatars are recognized as indigenous peoples in Crimea, which guarantees them the right to use their own language. Do you think the state should provide public service in Crimean Tatar language as well?   

Absolutely. That is one of the recommendations I make in the final chapter of my book. In addition to Ukrainian as the main language of all social domains, there should be an emphasis placed on Crimean Tatar language. It should be made -- maybe not immediately because there would be some resistance -- an official language in Crimea, co-official with Ukrainian on the whole territory of Crimea rather than only in some parts where Crimean Tatar speakers live. There should be a longer period to enforce that because the knowledge of the Crimean Tatar is still scarce. But that would be also a promotion for Crimean Tatar as a group which was discriminated against by Russian speakers. So, having knowledge of the language, members of the group will be promoted to many positions where Crimean Tatar is necessary.

There should be a massive emphasis on education. For Crimean Tatars and for other groups in Crimea, Crimean Tatar should be a mandatory subject in schools from the first grade in all schools in Crimea. There should be more possibilities for learning Crimean Tatar outside of Crimea in other parts of Ukraine, from optional classes to courses at university.

Of course, there will be some resistance not only from Russian speakers but also from some Ukrainian speakers. Unfortunately, in Ukraine, there is a strong tendency to have unilingualism across the country with no exception. And there will be a battle for that, but I believe it should be fought.