Language and Nation Building. Dilemmas of Language Politics in Contemporary Ukraine

Tr@nsit Online

The “language issue” was crucial in the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations and in the long-term process of forming the preconditions for Ukrainian nation-building. Since the mid 18th century Ukraine’s quest for national self-identification under the rule of the Russian Empire, the Habsburgs, interwar Poland and, more recently the Soviet power, was represented mainly in terms of saving, preserving and developing the Ukrainian language. Although it experienced the cultural and linguistic influences of other languages (mainly Polish and German) historical, social, geopolitical and linguistic factors made its relations with Russian the most problematic.

One would have expected this situation to change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Ukrainian state in 1991. But after 10 years of independence the problem of the real functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of society and of the uneven status of the Russian language has become even more urgent and fraught with dangerous political conflicts. These ten years were in fact wasted on inconsistent and contradictory attempts to introduce market reforms and institutions of liberal democracy whilst the unlimited power of the new Ukrainian oligarchs and the growing state bureaucracy were left untouched. The only achievement of these years – relative political stability – could not hide the sustained crisis in Ukrainian society, which became explicit with the arising of the “Gongadze issue” and “Kuchmagate” at the end of last year. Although at first glance this political scandal postponed the urgency of the issue of russification / ukrainization, it made visible the weakness of democratic opposition in Ukrainian society, the widening gap between political and intellectual elites and the masses, the growing dependence of Ukrainian leaders and their political orientations from the interests and influences of the powerful international players, first of all the US, then of the European Union and Russia. In fact, this political crisis demonstrated the weakness of the very concept of an “independent Ukraine” and the lack of a political basis for national consolidation. The Ukrainian language, proposed by the intellectual elite as a main ground for national identity formation, turned out to be exclusive for many regions and social and ethnic groups. Although one can find both Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers among the ruling elite and among the leaders of the opposition, the “language issue” implicitly articulates the current political crisis as a symbolic division between the post-communist former nomenklatura or pro-Russian oligarchy and the nationally conscious democratic pro-Western opposition.

The potential of politicizing this symbolic division becomes even stronger if one takes into account the international dimension of this crisis. Despite all the declarations of the Russian leaders concerning the intention to develop non-imperialist and equal relations with the neighboring countries and the official recognition of Ukrainian independent states and borders, Ukraine, according to the statements of those same leaders belongs to the sphere of special Russian interests. The promotion of Russian language in the ‘Near Abroad’ (i.e. the new states that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union)is therefore a part of its foreign policy. The federal program of 1996 on “Russian Language” states that “at state level it is necessary to ensure the support for the Russian language as a powerful social factor for the consolidation of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as a stimulant … for the realization of the geopolitical interests of Russia.” The growing interest of Russian business in the Ukrainian market can be considered another additional important factor in favor of supporting the status of Russian language in Ukraine.

At the same time the clear message from the US and the European Union is that Ukraine should more willingly distance itself from Russia in economic, political and military spheres to convince the West of its “European choice”. In the area of cultural policy it assumes the promotion of Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian and this attitude is widely reflected by international foundations and donor organizations in the Ukraine. The Ukrainian Diaspora, which is largely involved in these activities, enthusiastically lobbies the policy of ukrainization. But the same “Western factor” can work in the opposite way: the growing importance of Ukraine’s Human Rights record as a criteria for further cooperation and possible integration with the European Union gives the Russian speaking community a new chance to defend its interests by appealing to the European Council and international public opinion. In this situation the case of the “Russian speaking community in the Ukraine” becomes a part of international dynamics or, one could say, globalization with all its negative and positive consequences. Another aspect of globalization is a certain relativization of the Russian-Ukrainian language dilemma: whatever you choose, it is English which becomes more and more important for your professional career.

This paper deals with the “language debate” in contemporary Ukraine, after ten years of state independence. It mainly considers the status and relations between the Russian and Ukrainian languages (and the relations and rights of related linguistic groups) since the real status of the Russian language is completely different from the status of other minority languages and because the relations between Russian and Ukrainian are much more politicized. Starting with a brief historical review of the relations between Ukrainian and Russian languages in the context of the nation building process, I will then present the current debate on the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, the so-called krainization campaign and the opposition to it. The main arguments on both sides of the debate are summarized in order to analyze how the image of the “Other” and their own identities are being constructed through this argumentation. In the last part I consider the theoretical debates surrounding the concepts of multiculturalism, minority rights and cultural differences in contemporary political theory and their implications for the situation in the Ukraine.

Language and Nation: Ukraine before the Independence

Compared to Russian, the Ukrainian language is very young. Leaving apart the debates about its historical origins, the process of shaping the modern literary Ukrainian language started at the end of last century and was complicated by the lack of an independent state and of territorial unity and also by the economic backwardness of the country. At the turn of the 19th century the territories with Ukrainian population were divided between three countries: Russia, Austria and Hungary, and they were therefore ruled by three different laws regulating the rights of Ukrainian language. Under Austrian rule 13% of the Ukrainian population (mainly East Galychyna and Bukovina) enjoyed relatively good conditions for the Ukrainian language due to the rather liberal Austrian constitution of 1867, which allowed regional administration to use local languages in public life and schooling. However, Ukrainians were the minority (mainly belonging to the low classes) on the territories where they lived. Therefore in Galychyna for example they suffered from the restrictions imposed by the Polish administration. Nevertheless Ukrainian primary schools were widely spread, the Ukrainian press was well developed and Ukrainian-speaking intelligentsia willingly used language as a banner for national consolidation and liberation. Under Hungarian rule in Transcarpatia, the most backward of all Ukrainian territories, the Ukrainian language existed as a mixture of local rural dialects and had very little chance of developing under the conditions of total magyarization. In the Russian Empire, where 85% of the Ukrainians lived, Ukrainian language rights were also strictly limited. Publication of books, journals and newspapers was restricted; theatre performances were subject to complicated regulations, and schooling in Ukrainian was prohibited; the language of the juridical system and the local administration was Russian. Being concerned about the territorial integrity of the Russian empire, its top officials considered Ukrainian nationalism and separatism as most dangerous given the size of population and territory and its strategic political and economic importance: a possible secession of the Ukraine would threaten the very existence of the Empire. Under these conditions the Ukrainian language was virtually eliminated from all spheres of public life and was given the official status of a Russian dialect, not suitable for political and academic life. Even among the Ukrainian intelligentsia there were many who considered it as a mainly rural, poetic and folkloric language and supported the idea of bilinguism. A limited vocabulary (particularly concerning scientific and technical terminology) based on rural origins, regional differences and strong influence of local dialects, underdeveloped and shaky grammar rules are traits that characterized Ukrainian in the beginning of 20 century. To some extent the language reflected the state of the Ukrainian society as a mainly agricultural one: Ukrainian was the language of the peasants and of those very narrow strata of intelligentsia which came from the peasants and served their interests: priests, teachers, sometimes doctors. “Capitalism in Ukraine spoke Russian”: the bourgeoisie and the new technical intelligentsia were mainly alienated from Ukrainian and this caused the lack of not only state but also economic support for national cultural development. Because of political obstacles for inter-regional communication and cultural differences the development of the Ukrainian language in eastern and western territories was divided into two isolated processes. This situation continued until almost the end of the Second World War when western territories were attached to the Soviet Ukraine.

The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, the creation of the first Ukrainian government, Tsentralna Rada (Central Council) and then the proclamation of an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic gave Ukrainian language its first historical chance. The years of 1917-1921 were a period of high political instability, the political regime changed several times, and most of the territory was beyond the control of the central authorities. The official status of the Russian-Ukrainian interstate relations remained uncertain till 1922, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created. Civil war and external military intervention did not allow Ukrainian leaders to pay much attention to the language issue, but in general this political and cultural shift was of course in favor of the Ukrainian language. But with the establishment of Soviet power over most of the Ukrainian territory (only the western regions remained under Poland) and the emergence of the Soviet Union it became clear that the idea of an independent Ukrainian state would not be realized and the official policy turned again to some version of Russian-Ukrainian bilinguism. The position of the Communist party concerning the “question of nationalities” in the former Russian Empire was based on the idea of the “nation’s right to self-determination” but internal and external threats to the new regime required strengthening centralization and control over the leadership in Soviet republics. In fact, Lenin was very much concerned about political compromises with local leaderships and national movements, stressing common interests and often accusing Party’s emissaries in the Ukraine of “Russian chauvinism”. Communist party leaders in Ukraine were mainly Russians, the working class spoke Russian, and the memory of the recent war with the nationalist government fuelled hostility toward the Ukrainian language, despite the official “internationalism”. The Party’s Realpolitik was “not to impede peasants from speaking Ukrainian” but the start of industrialization in fact strengthened the position of the Russian language in the cities.

This rather unclear policy, mainly determined by pragmatism, mysteriously changed some years later. A new wave of krainization – the most serious in Soviet history – was initiated in 1923 by the Communist party’s leadership in Moscow and put into effect from 1925 to 1932. The reason for it can be found in the changing international environment and the new focus on supporting anti-imperialist struggle in the colonial world. Soviet republics were supposed to demonstrate the successful solution to the nationalities question. As the Ukrainian historian Yuriy Shevelyov stressed, “ukrainization was not a popular movement of Ukrainians against Moscow rule, but rather the next turn of Kremlin politics”. Forceful measures were implemented to ensure the official status of the Ukrainian language: special courses for administrative officials were opened, the school and higher education system changed to Ukrainian, linguists and philologists started the serious work of modernizing terminology and ordering grammar. The end of the 20’s was also marked by the rise of the modern Ukrainian arts and literature. The whole atmosphere of the 20’s was favorable for various projects of modernizing (and westernizing) Ukrainian culture. It was the first attempt to conquer the urban cultural space – usually the fortress of Russian speakers.

In the early 30s with the total change of political climate and the beginning of Stalinist terror the ukrainization campaign was stopped by the order from Moscow. Party leaders responsible for it were dismissed or arrested (the leader of the Communist Party of the Ukraine, Mykola Skrypnyk, committed suicide in 1933), thousands of the representatives of Ukrainian intelligentsia were accused of “bourgeois nationalism” and repressed. The social basis of a further Ukrainization was eventually eliminated by a deliberately organized famine among rural the population: because of the expropriation of wheat by the authorities millions of peasants died of starvation. Ukrainian linguists were accused of “nationalist sabotage” and some changes in grammar and lexicon were initiated to shift Ukrainian language closer to Russian.

In 1939 and 1940 the Western regions (Galychyna, West Volyn and Bukovina) were attached to the Soviet Ukraine. This caused a new political shift and some concessions to the Ukrainian language, but soon the war with Nazi Germany cut this tendency. The situation favored the revival of Russian patriotism, traditions of pre-revolutionary statism and Russian military glory, which culminated in Stalin’s famous speech in 1945, celebrating “the great Russian people”. The war served as an excuse for repressions against ethnic minorities which were “not loyal enough” to Soviet power. Western Ukrainians had a particularly bad record because of collaborating with the Nazis against the Soviet army. Some military groups continued to resist to Soviet authorities till the end of the 50s, and this struggle cost many lives on both sides. Millions of Ukrainians were forcibly moved to Siberia. Many who did not accept the Soviet rule and tried to avoid political repressions emigrated to the West. Since these years the fear of Ukrainian nationalism has never left the Moscow leadership and later it was this that caused the particularly extensive repressions against Ukrainian dissidents.

The changes in the political climate caused by Stalin’s death and then the general democratization of public life led in the end of the 50’s to the remarkable national cultural renaissance. Young poets, writers, artists (so-called shestidesiatniki – generation of the 60’s) – initiated a broad interest for the Ukrainian language and literature among the population. Poetry readings, public lectures and celebrations of cultural events attracted students and intelligentsia both in Eastern and Western Ukraine. The names of some Ukrainian writers and artists, repressed by Stalin’s regime were reincorporated into Ukrainian culture due to these first democratic acts of re-remembering. The relatively “liberal” and pro-Ukrainian party leadership (N. Khrushchev and later P. Shelest) tried to keep these activities under control in order not to scare Moscow, but at the same time provided some kind of protection for them. On the other hand some political and administrative decisions were made at the same period, which in fact were in favor of further russification. As far as “the construction of communism” was announced as the primary task, the priorities of nationalities politics needed reconsideration. In 1961 the Congress of CPSU announced a policy to eliminate ethnic differences and develop a new community – the Soviet people. According to the law of 1958, Ukrainian language lost its compulsory status at schooling: parents could choose the language of teaching for their children and usually favored more prestigious Russian. Public opinion, awakened by the young intelligentsia, perceived these politics as anti-Ukrainian. However, the wave of national cultural renaissance had one particular feature: the national policy of the Communist Party was usually criticized from the point of view of Marxism and Leninism, without breaking with communist ideology. A new generation of intelligentsia, committed to Ukrainian language and culture grew up in Soviet society and believed in its values: internationalism, democracy and humanism. What they wanted was to clear up these values from distortions and bureaucratization. As the historian of dissidents movement Lyudmila Alekseeva points out, “the aim of shestidesiatniki was the democratization of the Soviet system and the suspension of russification and they believed in the possibility of achieving that under the conditions of Soviet system. The book of Ivan Dzyuba “Internationalism or Russification (1965) was written from these positions as an addition to his letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. He argued that Lenin’s principles of nationalities politics in USSR were distorted by Stalin and later Khrushchev: the idea of “fusion of nations” into homogeneous “Soviet people” and the treatment of “national cultures” (cultures of nationalities) as secondary cultures contradicts the very idea of communism. But such initiatives of independent re-interpretation of the official Soviet ideology of course were not acceptable for the party’s leadership. The first arrests among Ukrainian intelligentsia started in 1965, and in the beginning they only fuelled public solidarity for the national cause. But after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in1968 and the worsening political atmosphere any open manifestations of national feeling became almost impossible.

“Russification” was of course not an openly declared policy in 70-80’s, and to be just, Soviet authorities were not against the Ukrainian language itself. They encouraged translations from the languages of other nationalities of USSR and foreign languages (of course, only selected “ideologically correct” texts). Publications of books, journals and newspapers in Ukrainian were subsidized by the state (and this fact partly explains the paradox of the decline of the Ukrainian media and publishing industry after the collapse of the USSR). What the Soviet authorities were concerned about was the danger of turning the language into a banner of the national consolidation of Ukrainians against the existing political regime. And this threat to the Communist system was very real, particularly in Western Ukraine and was becoming more and more real in other regions. The official ideology of internationalism in the USSR encouraged inter-republic migration and cross-ethnic marriages. The Soviet leadership encouraged ethnic Russians to relocate on Ukrainian land and supported Ukrainians moving to the eastern and northern territories of Russia. These factors plus the continuing reduction of teaching in Ukrainian led to the change of balance not in favor of Ukrainian-speakers but rather of a hidden russification. By 1991 ethnic Russians composed 22,1% of the total population compared to 8,2% in 1926. 60% of them in 1991 were immigrants. By 1987, 72% of the schools in Ukraine taught in Russian, 16% in Ukrainian and 12% used a mixed curriculum.

The growing dissident movement in Ukraine, being concerned about human rights and having a lot in common with Russian dissident groups, was mainly focused on the facts of ethnocide of Ukrainians, discrimination of the Ukrainian language and oppression of cultural life. As L. Alekseeva pointed out, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group while keeping good relations with the Moscow Group was concerned only about the Ukrainian national problems and narrowed its activity to the issue of the “equality of nationalities”. They did not respond to the issues of religious repressions, the rights of Jews, or social and economic rights. It is the “russificated” Eastern Ukraine where human rights protection movement in its “pure” form as well as the attention paid to social and economic rights were more visible. The cruel repressions against Ukrainian dissidents and the general political stagnation resulted in the radicalization of the nationalist movement and the revival of the idea of a secession from the USSR. Shared only by marginal extremist political positions in the 80’s, this idea in fact served as an important ideological resource of mass mobilization for Ukraine’s independence at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The “Language issue” after 1991

The Ukrainian language received the status of single state language in 1989 according to the law “On languages in the Ukrainian SSR”. The new Ukrainian constitution confirmed this status in 1996 and conferred responsibility on the state to ensure “universal development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life on all territories of Ukraine” (Article 10). According to the Ukrainian constitution, the people of the Ukraine are divided into three categories: the titular nation (Ukrainians), the core nations and the national minorities. The Russian language, which is still very influential in Ukraine, automatically gained secondary status, and a campaign to introduce the Ukrainian language into the educational system and state structures began. However, up till now ukrainization has been rather “soft”. This is not due to a conscious political strategy but mainly because of the administrative capacities of the new Ukrainian state which were not sufficient for radical reform; in addition to that, the unstable political leadership could not formulate a clear language policy. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine (both historically Russian-speaking) ukrainization faced hidden resistance, hence was not very successful and rather superficial. The state tried to promote the Ukrainian language mainly through bureaucratic measures, which were efficient only to some extent. The percentage of Ukrainian language schools reached 75,5%, that of higher learning in Ukrainian 66% by the end of the 1998/99 academic year. At the same time the percentage of newspapers printed in Ukrainian has fallen from 68% (1990) to 39,6% (1998), and the percentage of Ukrainian language magazines dropped from 90,4% to 11,5% during the same period.

President Leonid Kuchma came to power in 1994 due to support from Eastern Ukraine. He had promised that the Russian language would be granted a special status and that relations with Russia would become closer, but he later shifted to a more “pro-Ukrainian” position presenting himself as a promoter of the “national idea”. However, in Western Ukraine he never gained strong political support because of his image of a “pro-Moscow” politician. This policy (or absence of a clear policy) became a subject of criticism from Ukrainian nationalists on the one side and the Russian-speaking intelligentsia on the other. By the end of 1999 new appointments in the Ukrainian government were made: Ivan Drach took the position of the Head of State Committee on Information, TV and Broadcasting and Mykola Zhulynsky became Vice Prime Minister in charge of the nation’s cultural program – both being active promoters of ukrainization. The new government’s project on the expansion of the Ukrainian language fuelled the fears of the Russian-speakers. At the same time, the Constitutional Court made a decision regarding the usage of state language in Ukrainian society. This decision, rather political than juridical, was in fact an attempt to expand the compulsory usage of state language to institutions like local self-administration bodies and municipal higher education. The danger of this decision was stressed in the special opinion of one of the constitutional judges, Mironenko, who argued that according to the constitution Ukrainian is the official and working language of the state but not necessarily of society or private persons. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to this decision of the Constitutional Court with an official note to the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow expressing concerns about administrative measures against the Russian language and culture in Ukraine. Another issue in the recent language debate became the ratification of the European Charter of Minority Languages by the Ukrainian Parliament in December 1999. According to the Charter, the Russian language can be considered as having in fact equal status to the Ukrainian language in the regions (administrative units) where the Russian-speaking community exceeds 20% of the population. Moreover, a new situation has emerged, since now Russian-speakers can use democratic and human rights rhetoric (and consequently the authority of Western liberal ideology) against Ukrainian nationalism. But the Charter had no chance of being implemented because after 6 months the ratification was abandoned by the Constitutional Court (on the ground that mistakes were made during the procedure of ratification, but the true reason was political). Finally, the political polarization around the language issue became dramatic in May 2000, when the popular Ukrainian composer and singer Igor Bilozir was attacked in a café in Lviv and later died from the consequences. The cause of the fight was the “language issue” – Bilozir was singing a Ukrainian song when a group of drunk people who wanted to hear Russian pop music records attacked him. This rather banal crime was interpreted by extremist nationalists as a crime against the Ukrainian culture and nation and led to an escalation of anti-Russian hatred. As a result Igor Bilozir became a national hero – as his predecessor, another Ukrainian composer, Volodymyr Ivasuk, who was killed in 1979 supposedly on the order of the KGB. All these events of the last two years initiated a new wave of politization of the language issue.

Currently the population of Ukraine, which is about 50 million people, speaks mainly two languages: Ukrainian and Russian. According to one recent sociological survey (January 2000):

People consider as their native language:

  • Ukrainian – 63,8 %
  • Russian – 35,1 %
  • Other languages- 1,2 %
  • But the language of communication in the family may be different from their native language:
  • Ukrainian – 39,1%
  • Russian – 36,0 %
  • Russian\Ukrainian (depending on situation) – 24,8 %
  • Other languages – 0,2 %

(Source: E.I. Golovaha, N.V. Panina, Bilinguism in Ukraine: Real Situation and Perspectives. A Sociological survey, in: Russian-Ukrainian Bulletin, Nr. 6/7, 2000, Moscow / Kyiv, pp.142-147.)

In fact Ukraine is a bilingual country. Despite all the historical transformations, the changes of the political system and of state borders, despite a significant progress made by Ukrainian language and despite the efforts of ten years of independence, the contemporary situation in a way reproduces the old pattern of the beginning of 20 century. The language split has actually two dimensions: a regional division between Western and Eastern Ukraine and a social division between the urban and rural population. What makes Ukraine different from other former USSR republics, such as the Baltic states, is that the Russian language is widely spread and still dominant in culture, science, business and other spheres (except, possibly, politics). The ruling political and administrative elite remains to a large extent Russian-speaking, and Ukrainian is used mainly for political rituals. And again, as a century before, capitalism speaks Russian, reflected in the well-known term “new Russians” – (“new Ukrainians” simply do not exist). Loyal to the state and not opposing its ukrainization policy the new middle class is ready to pay for their children’s education in Russian – still more prestigious and presumably of better quality (not speaking of the business elite committed to English). In the case of the Ukraine, Russian can hardly be considered as a national minority language.

There are some points, which are crucial for the situation with language politics in Ukraine. First, these are mainly language differences (not so much ethnic, religious, nor even cultural) that constitute the grounds for political tensions in Ukrainian society. Up to now religious differences played only a marginal role, and some confessional tensions between members of the Ukrainian Orthodox and of the Greek-Catholic churches had only regional importance. Although cultural differences do exist between the Eastern and Western regions of Ukraine, they are traditionally articulated first of all as language differences. In this context the issue of language has become crucial. As it was shown above, for the Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia language was the main focus of struggle against the Austrian authorities, the Russia Empire, and then against Soviet rule. It is no wonder that the very idea of the Ukrainian nation has been constructed by constant attempts to defend the Ukrainian language and to save it from vanishing – first of all in opposition to Russian.

The second thesis may seem contrary to the first one: it is not language differences that create tensions and conflicts but quite the opposite – various political forces (and the state itself) articulate these differences and formulate positions of the language groups – unfortunately very often in terms of mutual hostility and exclusion, of incompatibility of their simultaneous and free development. Language problems become politicized not so much because of the urgency of these problems, but because transitional processes in post-Soviet countries have their own logic. One of the core elements of this logic is the growing gap between elites and masses, alienation of the masses from political life. According to sociological surveys, the majority of the population supports the idea of “special relations with Russia”, and the idea of Russian-Ukrainian bilinguism in its various forms is still supported by a significant part of it. But for the political elite shaping Ukraine’s pro-Western image created through symbolic distancing from Russia becomes more and more important (which does not exclude growing economic dependency). Accusing the masses of “political backwardness” and of a lack of “national consciousness” (almost Bolshevik terms!) the ruling elite is interested in instrumentalizing, mobilizing history and the social and political sciences for the purposes of nation building on the ground of language and ethnic identity. In some sense, language can be considered as a signifier of other interests, first of all of the economic interests of the Ukrainian regional elites, their geo-economic and geopolitical orientations.

Third, the issue of closeness or differences of Russian and Ukrainian, which is the subject of political discussions, can hardly be solved in a neutral and objective way. In contrast to the Canadian case (English/French), which is discussed below, these languages are definitely closer to each other, ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians can in principle understand each other. But what political implications can this have? Does it favor the mutual understanding and communication, perspectives of bilinguism, and make the life of Russian speakers easier than, say, in Estonia? Or does this “closeness deepen” the inferiority complex of the propagators of Ukrainian language and provoke new campaigns of linguistic cleansing and distancing from Russian? Under the conditions of the russification in the Romanov empire Ukrainian peasants developed so called “Surzhyk” – a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. (Surzhyk is a term, which initially came from the mill industry: a mixture of wheat and rye, rye and barley, barley and oats and so on). In the same way millions of Ukrainians, who moved to the cities because of industrialization, adapted to the dominant Russian language. This distorted language (different in every region) serves as an inter-linguistic mediator and also poses additional difficulties for a full-fledged functioning of Ukrainian. The “closeness” or “difference” between Russian and Ukrainian was (and still is) an issue of political struggle and negotiation.

Constructing identities in the rhetoric of “language politics”

In the discussion on language politics it is very difficult to avoid an identification with the position of one or another group which is usually inseparable from the claims of objectivity and “historical justice”. This paper focuses on analyzing the arguments of both sides on the level of political discourse where the process of constructing the “Other” as an important source of one’s own identity is taking place.

Let us consider from this point of view the arguments of the “Ukrainian-speakers”:

1. The argument of Russian-speakers as a people with no identity. Russian speaking people do not constitute a homogeneous group with common interests. They are not Russian speakers but a russified population deprived of their ethnic roots and their “natural” Ukrainian identity. They have lost their origins as ethnic Ukrainians but cannot be considered as Russians either. They refer to the “Great” Russian culture as a source of identity but actually have nothing in common with it. They are not Russian-speaking, but “Soviet-speaking” – people, who have lost their identity. Another side of this argument – Russian-speakers are not represented in civil society and are rather passive politically. There are no NGOs or political parties of the Russian-speaking population, only some marginal groups, who pretend to do so but in fact represent the private interests of their leaders.

This argument marginalizes Russian-speakers in both discourses: in the contemporary Western discourse of democratic values and human rights, and the more traditional for Ukrainian society discourse of Russian “universal” culture. Being culturally marginal they are deprived of cultural heritage – both Russian and Ukrainian, and that is why they have no group identity and consequently no right to refer to democratic norms and human rights. Obviously, it is the Ukrainian nation-oriented intelligentsia who monopolized human rights rhetoric during the decades of Soviet rule. The access to this human rights rhetoric becomes a new side of the struggle between Russian speaking and Ukrainian speaking elites.

2. The argument of the imperialist status of the Russian language. Russian speakers cannot be considered a national minority, since they pretend to keep their imperialist status. If the Russian language obtains the status of a second state language (or equal status with Ukrainian), the dominance of the Russian language and culture would be inevitable. Therefore Ukrainian needs some kind of affirmative action policy (tax privileges for media and publishing, state support for education in Ukrainian, and probably some advantages for Ukrainian speaking specialists). In this context nationalists assume, that “even the market could be discriminatory” – thus the Ukrainian language could not survive without state support. The current situation is considered a tragic consequence of Russian imperialist cultural intervention, and a result of the violation of nation-building processes by external factors. Therefore the development of the Ukrainian language is possible only at the expense of Russian. This is a typical postcolonial syndrome, and clearly Russian speakers are treated as the main obstacle to the restoration of national identity and national culture. They are considered not only as a potential force which could be used by Russia for political pressure on Ukraine in a potential future conflict, but as a shameful reminder of the colonial past. To externalize former colonial and communist experience, Russian speakers have been represented as the “Others”, excluded from the nation as its potential enemies. At the same time they are the “Others” which are included in Ukrainian identity in a negative way: as nationally non-conscious, spiritually “enslaved” Ukrainians.

It is very interesting to compare these arguments with those of the “Russian speakers”:

1. Arguments based on similarity and common origins of the Russian and Ukrainian language: The Russian language and Russian culture are not foreign to the Ukraine, they became “Ukrainianized” (in a positive sense), that is, they became part of Ukrainian culture in a larger sense. (That is why it sounds so striking that Russian literature will be taught at school as a foreign literature). Ukrainianized Russian can be considered an independent cultural phenomenon, part of Ukrainian culture, moreover – as a mediator in the communication between Russians and Ukrainians who can easily understand each other. We cannot neglect the existence of a “Russian speaking Ukrainian culture” and the shared cultural and language due to the history of both cultures. The Ukrainian people are bilingual and both languages have their common historical roots in Kiev Rus’- Old Slavonic language. Russian speakers prefer to emphasize mutual influence of both cultures, sometimes rejecting the very notion of ‘russification’. From their point of view, Soviet policy cannot be considered anti-Ukrainian since the Ukrainian communist nomenklatura took an active part in these politics; it was mainly anti-democratic. ‘Russification’ is nothing more than an ideological stereotype, so why should it be treated as something different from other cultural influences?

This kind of argumentation, which comes from the ideology of “Slavic brotherhood” proposes a different model of constructing the “Other”. It suggests sharing the universal values of “Ukrainianized Russian culture” as a ground for cultural communication, constructing the “Others” as similar to “us”, but inevitably eliminating cultural and language differences. A shared past presupposes a shared future, and these paternalistic (or one could call them neo-imperialistic) relations are doomed to be reproduced again and again.

2. The argument of “progress” and “rationalist approach”: Russian speakers insist that they represent the interests of the highly developed Eastern part of Ukraine, where the main industrial and scientific centers are located. Limitation of the sphere of operation of the Russian language would lead to scientific, industrial and social backwardness. The Russian language has a developed scientific terminology, 80 % of library materials are still in Russian, and the market of publications is dominated by Russian books. Russian is still the language of international communication in the former USSR, one of the most spoken languages in the world. Therefore limiting Russian cannot be considered a rational policy for the future of the Ukrainian nation. Another modification of this kind of argument represents the current language situation in terms of urban-rural relations. The politics of ukrainization can be seen as revenge by the first generation of urban people, who had been forced to abandon their native Ukrainian language in order to adapt to urban life. Now these people constitute the main force interested in the politics of ukrainization.

The progress argument is rather typical for the classical Western-centered discourse of rationality. We should admit that as long as world dynamics are still being determined by the logic of modernization and market globalization, this argument is quite powerful. But this mode of constructing the “Others”, as culturally backward people who need leadership of the superior rationalized culture reminds one of a well-known Western-centered imperialist attitude. At the same time this mode of constructing the “Other” reproduces an old urban-rural social split inherited from the Soviet model of catch-up modernization.

From this analysis of arguments we can make some preliminary conclusions:

First, contemporary language politics in Ukraine can be analyzed as a field of political battle for the right to use a new political language – the language of democracy values and human rights. Language politics can be seen as a fight for symbolic power, a competition of different interpretations of the key values of democracy. The enormous symbolic power of such kinds of notions and norms was demonstrated during the Kosovo war. But even in peaceful times, being treated as an “oppressed minority” can offer considerable advantages.

Second, the “language debate” is not only about the “form”, but also about “content”: it requires a radical reinterpretation of the Soviet past and Soviet history (and not only Soviet). In the framework of the nationalist project, the Soviet past is inevitably considered as a kind of “shameful spot” in Ukrainian history, as an artificial external interruption to the processes of nation-building. In this debate Ukrainian-speakers use the term “Soviet” as a label for Russian speakers as anti-national, anti-Ukrainian, and Russian-speakers are doomed to use “old-fashioned” versions of Soviet history in order to construct their identity.

Third, what the nationalist project did not take into account is now evident: national culture is not coherent and homogeneous, in fact in independent Ukraine a hierarchy of cultures (and languages) has emerged and Ukrainian has turned out not to be dominant. Here inevitably arises the question of state interference in cultural processes. References to the Ukrainian state are very important in the “language debate”, the state is constantly accused by both sides of being bureaucratic, antidemocratic and even totalitarian for not taking into account the interests of “oppressed groups”. And both sides blame the state for representing the interests of nomenklatura capitalism and not paying attention to the issue of language. These appeals to state authorities may also be considered a sign of weakness of civil society in Ukraine.

Due to the obvious fact that the rhetoric of the language debate in Ukraine is now determined to a significant extent by liberal and democratic discourse, it might be interesting to consider the theoretical debates surrounding concepts of multiculturalism, minority rights and cultural differences in contemporary political theory. How can the situation in the field of language politics in the Ukraine be interpreted from this point of view?

Contemporary liberal / communitarian debate and “language politics” in the Ukraine

During the last two decades the theory of liberal democracy has been faced with global challenges of the post-colonial world: mass migration to developed countries, market globalization, and claims for recognition from various ethnic groups and national minorities. The Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka is one of those who try to incorporate the problems of cultural (ethnic, language) difference into the liberal paradigm. It is well-known that in mainstream liberal theory one of the main mechanisms for accommodating cultural differences is protecting individual civic and political rights. The proponents of this “benign neglect” approach insist on “separation of ethnicity from the state” (as the state has already been separated from religion). Kymlicka argues that this traditional liberal approach based on universal individual rights should be reconsidered in order to accommodate group-specific “community rights”. He focuses on three groups of such rights: (1) self-government rights which is a form of devolving political power to a political unit controlled by the members of a minority, (2) polyethnic rights – which are intended to help minorities to express their cultural differences; (3) special representation rights – as a response to the systemic disadvantages of some groups in the political process (often connected with the politics of “affirmative action”). Only the third group of rights can be considered as temporary, not the first and second ones – “because the cultural differences they protect are not something we seek to eliminate”.

In opposition to proponents of the “benign neglect” approach Kymlicka agues that the state cannot stay ethnically neutral and avoid deciding which culture will be supported (by deciding, for example, the language of public schooling). State interference into these issues is not only unavoidable, but there are even important arguments for it. Kymlicka identifies three main arguments in defense of group specific rights as a means of accommodating cultural differences: the equality argument, the role of historical agreements, and the value of cultural diversity. The first argument comes from the obvious fact that “some groups are unfairly disadvantaged in the cultural market-place (Kymlicka, 1997: 370), and are vulnerable to majority decisions. The principles of laissez-faire in the area of culture are not sufficient from the point of view of ethnic groups and national minorities. The minority should be given the same opportunity to protect its language and societal culture as the majority has. It does not mean, as Kymlicka stresses, the rejection of the very idea of a cultural market-place. “Once the societal cultures of national groups are protected, through language rights and territorial autonomy, then the cultural market-place does have an important role to play in determining the character of the culture” (Kymlicka, 1997: 373). The second argument comes from the fact of historical agreements – some nations such as Canada were created by such agreements between two or more communities. By determining the terms under which people decided to create common state these agreements often give rise to certain group-differentiated rights. For example, Quebecois leaders agreed to join Canada only on condition that jurisdiction over language and education is guaranteed to the provinces. The third argument comes from recognition of the value of cultural diversity. From this point of view not only the national minority, but the whole society benefits from introduction of group-differentiated rights by expanding cultural resources, experience and quality of life. This argument appeals not to the obligation but also to the interests of the majority. Nonetheless, Kymlicka warns that this argument is more applicable to intracultural than to intercultural diversity, especially if the cultures are totally different. In this case the development of a minority culture does not create more options for members of the majority group and can even have an opposite effect.

Thus, Kymlicka argues that despite some problems liberal theory “can and should accept a wide range of group-differentiated rights for national minorities and ethnic groups, without sacrificing their core commitments to individual freedom and social equality”. One of the main reasons why so few liberals support these rights is that they assume a country contains only one nation. They come from the idea of a nation-state with “shared” cultural language, but in fact most states are multinational or polyethnic.

It would be helpful to compare Kymlicka’s liberal approach with the ideas of another contemporary Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor who can be identified as a communitarianist. Taylor appeals to the value of reciprocal recognition as a main condition for the formation of individual and group identity in modern society. The clash of claims for equality and claims for distinctness determines the contemporary situation because both individuals and social (ethnic) groups struggle for equal recognition of everyone’s authenticity. Therefore “difference-blind” liberalism can hardly offer a neutral ground on which people of all cultures can coexist. The key question for Taylor is the question of “survival” – it is exactly this aim which ethnic groups and national minorities are mostly concerned with. Here Taylor’s critique of Kymlicka refers to the following argument: Kymlicka is “firmly within the theory of liberal neutrality” when he admits additional resources or rights for disadvantaged groups on the ground that integral and undamaged cultural language is one of the basic human needs. “Kymlicka’s reasoning is valid (perhaps) for existing people who find themselves trapped within a culture under pressure and can flourish within it or not at all. But it doesn’t justify measures designed to ensure survival through indefinite future generations. For the population concerned, however that is what is at stake”. For instance, for the sake of survival of the French-speaking cultural community in Quebec some restrictions were imposed on what is considered to be individual rights: francophones or immigrants cannot send their children to English-language schools, a business with more than fifty employees is required to be run in French. The violation of individual rights in the name of collective goals of survival contradicts the very idea of procedural liberal society (Dworkin) which has no particular substantive view about the ends of life. Taylor insists that it is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might chose it (it can be ensured by federal bilingualism policy). “Policies aimed at survival actually seek to create members of the community, for instance, for their assuring that future generations continue to identify (…) as French-speakers. As Taylor argues, procedural liberalism, insisting on the uniform application of the rules without exception and being suspicious of collective goals, cannot accommodate the realities of multicultural society which include more than one cultural community that wants to survive.

Let us try to apply this discussion between liberal and communitarianists to the contemporary situation in Ukraine. The main peculiarity of this situation is that there are three major linguistic groups based on two languages: Russian-speaking Russians, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Ukrainian nationalists usually interpret it in terms of disadvantages of nation-building. For example, Mykola Ryabchuk writes: “The weakest and vaguest sense of national identity is that of the Russophone Ukrainians who are rather “Ukrainian” in political terms, and rather “Russian” in terms of culture. Both Ukrainians and Russians compete for the support of this group, and both claim it to be their own. On many levels, this competition looks like a civil “cold war”, with hardly predictable results. Apparently, this scenario of “cold war” is based? on the presumption shared by both liberals (implicitly) and nationalists (explicitly): “since 1991, the Ukrainian nation exists as a Nation-State”. The second assumption also suits both liberal modernization theory and nationalism: the Ukrainian nation and national identity is still pre-modern; or, more precisely, the modern Ukrainian nation formed in Western Ukraine coexists with the pre-modern “malorussian” ethnos in Eastern Ukraine, which has not a national, but a “local” (medieval) identity. (But how can one explain in this case that it is precisely “post-modern” nations which now face problems of flourishing of local identities, multiculturalism and polyethnicity?)

Are these assumptions not based on the implicit idea that Kymlicka mentioned: one state contains one nation? And the second idea: one nation based on one “shared” (homogenized) culture? The mainstream “difference-blind” liberalism criticized by both Kymlicka and Taylor seems to support the position of Ukrainians who recently became a “state-forming” nation. But paradoxically the marriage of Ukrainian nationalism with liberalism does not look happy. It is rather the Russian-speaking community which tends now to defend liberal principles of the cultural market-place and keep the existing status quo – and it is Ukrainian speakers who insist on an affirmative action policy supporting “state language” and speak about discrimination of the cultural free market. It is even more paradoxical if we recall that it is Russian speakers who are usually accused of having a post-Soviet, post-communist identity. In this situation Russian speakers turn out to be “liberals despite themselves” – by the very logic of Nation-State formation. Ukrainian-speakers concerned with the creation of the Ukrainian nation are doomed by the same logic to reject the laissez-faire principle and turn to other ideas: from affirmative action and “positive discrimination” to the communitarian idea of a common goal of “national survival”.

But does it mean that the Russian language still maintains its imperial (or, at least, dominant) status, as Ukrainian nationalists insist? This question hardly can be answered in essentialist terms. What is obvious now is that it is still uncertain who is a national majority and who is a national minority in Ukraine. As Ryabchuk says, the Ukraine can be compared with Canada, but it is still questionable where its Quebec will be: in Eastern or in Western Ukraine. Indeed, the role and position of Russian speaking Ukrainians will be decisive. However, the “cold war” metaphor as the only possible scenario and exit from the current situation should not be accepted. The Russian-speaking community has a decisive role, but not because they should take a pro-Ukrainian or a pro-Russian position. Their role is decisive in the sense that the very destiny of the Ukrainian national project depends on them: will it be civic or ethnic nationalism? Hospitable to cultural differences or not? Friendly, tolerant or hostile to the majority of Ukrainian citizens?

The factor of similarity between Russian and Ukrainian, as well as the presence of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as one of the main linguistic groups can be seen from both perspectives: it can complicate the process of self-determination of Ukrainian as a state language and formation of the Ukrainian nation according to the Eastern European model, but from another perspective it can create opportunities for more inclusive citizenship. Providing that Russian speaking Ukrainians do not identify themselves with Russia but with the Ukrainian state, the best strategy would be not to impose on them a Ukrainian cultural identity, but strengthen their Ukrainian political identity (also by improving the image of the Ukrainian state through real reforms).

But one should admit, that this promising potential (and historical chance) is very difficult to realize, because Russia (imagined or real) still remains a very important factor of Ukrainian national identity formation. Imagined Russia as an imperial power, which still threatens the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, language and culture is constructed as the “Other” in opposition to which a “true Ukrainian identity is being formed”. Following this logic, the semi-Ukrainian, “pre-modern” identity of Russian-speakers contains dangerous hostile elements. Or more precisely, it turns out to be even more dangerous exactly because of its “half-heartedness” (ethnic Russians do not seem so threatening, because they can be easily treated as a “minority”). For Ukraine, Russia is an external, geopolitical, but also internal problem because of a significant part of the population is russified – that is how Ryabchuk formulates one of the main fears of Ukrainian nationalism. That is why the “Creolic nationalism” of Russian-speaking Ukrainians can be even more problematic for nation-building processes (as Ukrainian nationalists understand it) than the open pro-Russian orientation.


Ukraine is following the model of nation-building, which was typical for Eastern-European countries and particularly countries which emerged after the break-up of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, though with a significant delay. By using the historical chance of the collapse of the USSR ruling elite tries to establish an ethnocentric state based upon one titular nation (Nation-State), which has been already criticized in contemporary political theory. Although successful nation building is a necessary precondition of Ukraine’s integration into European community, forceful imposition of narrow-based Ukrainian identity can contradict the contemporary European practice in the sphere of ethnic and language politics. In this case Ukrainian nationalists risk finding themselves in opposition to democracy and human rights ideology, which had served so well to legitimize the project of the national state. Apparently the attempts of Ukrainian political elites to create the image of a European nation will force them to adopt some elements of multiculturalism. But because the process of nation-building is far from completed, it is difficult to say which group will benefit most from this affirmative action policy. Will this policy serve the interests of national minorities or will it help to establish the cultural (and political) dominance of the “state-forming” nation?

Indeed, Ukraine’s policy to ethnic minorities (Crimean Tatars, Turkish Bulgars (Gagauzy), Poles, and Bulgarians) is considered rather effective and democratic in the region and contributes to the “European” image of the state. It shows, that the issue of Russian language and the rights of Russian speakers is not an issue of ethnic and linguistic minority rights in the Ukraine, but of the very concept of “Ukraineness”. Should Ukrainian identity be redefined to include the historical experience, cultural and linguistic differences of Russian speakers as an integral part of Ukrainian nation? Or for the sake of “historical justice” one should return to the “original” pure Ukrainian identity, and then how far back in history can this starting point be found?

Due to historical experience, for the majority of the Ukrainian population (except Western regions) language is not the main issue of national identity, and this situation can be considered favorable for “civic” Ukrainian identity and citizenship. The continuing alienation from Ukrainian language caused not least by the inability of the ruling elite to cope with social and economic crisis, corruption and political scandals and by a general shift to the formation of a police-bureaucratic state. Until now one positive point was the wide public consensus on the language issue as an internal affair of Ukrainian society. It was largely shared by the Russian speaking community, except for a few marginal radical pro-Russian organizations. In fact, the failure of some attempts of political mass mobilization around particular linguistic interests of Russian-speakers prevented dangerous political cleavages in a disintegrated society. In the new round of politicizing the “language issue” Russian speakers can appeal not only to Russia, but also to the European institutions. This can help to balance the international factors of “language issue” in the Ukraine, but a lot of work should be done by the Ukrainian society itself. And hopefully the national identity formation can be influenced more by the fact of a common future instead of a divided historical past.

In addition

At the end of April 2001 the “language issue” appeared again in the Ukrainian and Russian media. Despite the recent judgment of the Frunze district court deputies of Kharkiv, the City Council refused to abandon their previous decision made in 1996 concerning the official status of Russian language. They confirmed their position based on the interpretation of the Constitution and the 1989 Law “On Languages in Ukrainian SSR”, that local self administration bodies and also municipal enterprises and organizations can use Russian along with state (Ukrainian) language in office work, preparing documents, advertising and so on. Since 1996 this decision was a subject of 22 (!) court sessions on different levels. The public prosecutor of the Kharkiv region insisted on the dismissal of the City Council in his letter to the Mayor of Kharkiv. Now according to the legal procedure the major of the city can apply to the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament), which should then make the final decision concerning the dismissal of the City Council. Being under double pressure from the Kyiv central authorities and the public opinion in the city it is an open question if the Parliament will take this decision or not.

© Transit 2001


I am thankful to Alexei Miller and Janos M. Kovacs for their comments and suggestions regarding the first version of this paper. The German version will be published in: Transit – Europäische Revue, nr. 21, 2001.

Cited from: Factors of the Russification of Ukraine: Changes and Influences since 1991 (The Romyr Report), Winter 2000.

See: Yuri Shevelov, Ukrainian Language in the first Part of 20th Century (1900-1941), Suchsnist, 1987 (in Ukrainian).

Numbers from: Yuri Shevelov, op. cit., p.11.

Ibid, p.137.

Ludmila Alekseeva, The history of dissident movement in USSR, Vilnius / Moscow (Vest) 1992, p.15 (in Russian).

Ivan Dzyuba, Internationalism or Russification? Kyiv (KM-Academia) 1998 (first publication as a separate volume in Ukraine; in In Ukrainian).

The Romyr Report, Winter 2000 (see endnote 2).

Ludmila Alekseeva, p.37.

The Romyr Report, Winter 2000 (see endnote 2).

Russian-Ukrainian Bulletin, Nr. 5., February 2000, Mosco / Kyiv 2000 (In Russian).

Yuri Shevelov, op. cit., p. 18

See, for example the Working Papers of the conference “The European Charter of Regional Languages or Minority Languages (1992) as a Legislative Base for Guaranteeing Human Rights in the Cultural and Language Spheres of the Ukrainian society”, February 26, 2000, Kharkiv 2000 (In Russian); Russian-Ukrainian Bulletin, Nr. 6/7, April 2000, Moscow / Kyiv 2000 (In Russian).

Will Kymlicka. “Justice and Minority Rights”, in: Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, London 1997.

Ibid, p. 369.

Ibid, p. 370.

In my opinion, besides the equality argument, which is central to the language debate in Ukraine, the argument of cultural diversity is also extremely important. The reason is that the Russian and Ukrainian cultures benefited from each other and created a common cultural heritage, which cannot be neglected.

Will Kymlicka, op. cit., p. 380.

Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton University Press 1992.

Ibid., p.41.

Ibid., p. 58-59.

This idea of three major groups was proposed by Andrew Wilson in: Andrew Wilson, Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1990s: A Minority Faith, Cambridge University Press 1997.

Mykola Ryabchuk, From Malorussia (Little Russia?) to Ukraine: Paradoxes of Late Nation-Building, Kyiv (Krytyka) 2000, p. 293 (In Ukrainian).

Ibid., p. 293.

Ibid., p. 7.

Kharkiv is the one of the biggest cities in Eastern Ukraine, an industrial and academic center, with a traditionally Russian speaking population of more than one million.

Copyright © 2002 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit. Tr@nsit online, Nr. 21/2002