To solidify its break from a Russia-dominated space, Ukraine should shift from the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian language to a script based on the Latin alphabet used by European countries, according to Oleksandr Doniy, the head of the Last Barricade social organization and a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada.
He has been pushing this idea on his Facebook page, arguing that the Latin script developed for Ukrainian by a Czech linguist in the 19th century not only is more adequate to the sound values of Ukrainian but also represents more accurately Ukraine’s position in the world.
Such a shift would be difficult and expensive and would certainly outrage Moscow which has opposed all shifts away from Cyrillic in other post-Soviet states, most recently in Kazakhstan. But it is not as marginal and exotic an idea as many in the West may think.
Not only were Ukrainian texts of the 16th and 17th centuries written in the Latin script, but several scholars in the 19th century – Iosif Lozinskyi of Lviv and Joseph Irecek of Prague – worked out a modernized Latin script for Ukrainian. And in the 19th and early 20th century, Ukrainians living in Austro-Hungary used a Latin script.
Doniy says that he is encouraged by Kazakhstan’s decision and that of other post-Soviet Turkic republics to shift away from the Russian script Moscow imposed on them in the 1920s and 1930s and by the fact that many Slavic peoples, including the Poles, the Slovenes, the Slovaks, and the Czechs use the Latin script.
The benefits to Ukraine of such a shift are obvious: it would mark a final break with the Moscow-centered state to the east and put Ukraine on a trajectory more like Poland and the Czech Republic.
But there are real costs beyond those imposed on the state by such a shift – and they will have to be considered before any such step is made.
- On the one hand, it is virtually certain that ethnic Russians in Ukraine would insist on retaining the Cyrillic script of their nation, something that would exacerbate the tensions between the two peoples by underscoring the civilizational divide between them and possibly create conditions for even more Moscow-orchestrated Russian separatism in Ukraine.
- And on the other, every time a country changes alphabets, it not only tends to cut off its population from the past when a different script was used but leads to a decline in reading of the media and literature because many people familiar with the older script find it uncomfortable to say no more to use the new one.
Over time, these difficulties can be overcome; but in the short term, they may be prohibitively large. At the very least, however, talking about shifting away from a Russian alphabet that the Russian empire in its various guises imposed throughout Ukraine is a useful next step in Ukraine’s turn away from Eurasia toward Europe.