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Language policy in Ukraine and the experience of Finland and Israel

Demonstration against the Russification of Ukraine, Kyiv, Nov. 9, 2016
Language policy in Ukraine and the experience of Finland and Israel
Article by: Larysa Masenko
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Ivan Dziuba in a recent interview recalled how, during the “anti-Maidan” demonstrations in Donetsk, local women carried a banner with the words “Abolish the Ukrainian language as useless.” The women, obviously, were firmly convinced they were right. If most of the residents of Donetsk spoke Russian then why saddle them with the language of a minority.

Similarly, the majority of the population in Crimea did not find the Ukrainian language necessary. In Crimea, the demographic power of the Russian language has been ensured by the repressive imperial policies of Stalin, which resulted in the forceful deportation of the Crimean Tatars and other national minorities of the peninsula to be replaced by the massive transfer of Russians from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Thus, the current Russian occupation of Crimea has been prepared by the Stalin’s ethnic cleansing, carried out more than 70 years ago.

The Russification of the industrial cities of Ukraine, which began during the industrialization of the 1930s and lasted until the 1980s is one of the most damaging legacies of the imperial unification, which used the Russian language as its tool.

The idea that the resulting situation is normal can be attributed to the thesis launched in Soviet times on the “harmonious Russian-Ukrainian bilingualism” that was promoted by the ideologue of Russification, the linguist Ivan Bilodid. Yurii Shevelov described the relationship between the two languages much more accurately:”language advancing” and “language retreating.”

Putin awarding the Pushkin Medal to former Ukrainian deputy Serhiy Kivalov, co-author of the “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law,” Moscow, February 22, 2013

Strategies of language behavior in a Russified city

It is well-known that the freedom to choose one’s language in the urban communicative space in Ukraine is complete fiction. A person who wants to speak Ukrainian in public in a Russified city has only two strategies of verbal behavior: adapt to the environment and shift to Russian, or resist the dictates of the environment and remain faithful to his native language. However, resisting the environment is not easy. This is why most Ukrainian speakers, especially those who move to the big city from Ukrainian-speaking towns and villages, switch to Russian in conversations outside the home. Thus, urbanized environments continue to remain powerful centers of Russification and the denationalization of Ukrainians.

The fact that military metaphors appropriately characterize the relationship between the two languages in Ukraine provides clear evidence of the exacerbation of the current conflict over language. These themes are appearing with greater frequency in the media. The greatest outrage on social networks was caused by a recent incident in Dnipro, where a store clerk threw out the widow of an ATO soldier because she had addressed her in Ukrainian.

Similar instances of aggressive contempt for the state language that would be unthinkable in any civilized country are not uncommon.

This is the real consequence of the language policy of the current government, which believes that the bilingual principle of “one bilingual country” (Yedyna kraiina–Yedynaya strana) will ensure the “harmonious” consolidation of the country.

Such conflicts confirm the views of the specialists who warned that relations between two groups speaking different languages would worsen if the status of the Russian language were raised. After all, the so-called Russian-speaking population is not psychologically or ideologically uniform. It includes true patriots of Ukraine as well as its haters. The language law of Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko — “On principles of the state language policy,” introduced by the Party of Regions under President Yanukovych– was designed to support those who seek to “abolish the Ukrainian language for its “uselessness,” and, since language is the foundation of the state, also to abolish the state itself. (According to the law, a language is granted the status of a regional language if 10% of the population of a given oblast, city, or district speaks it, thus giving it extensive rights to usage in official documents, in education, judiciary, and mass media. — Ed.)

The successful language policies of Finland and Israel

In this respect, it is necessary to emphasize the need for Ukrainization to overcome the linguistic, cultural, and psychological dependence on Russia, without which the Ukrainian state will remain a shaky edifice without a solid foundation. This is impossible to do it quickly, in high-handed fashion; it requires painstaking, difficult work in the introduction of language planning and the monitoring of its implementation.

Any comparisons of Ukraine with countries that have addressed similar problems are not in our favor. Yes, the Finnish language was supplanted in Helsinki during the Swedish rule. However, 20 years after the reintroduction of their language, the number of Finnish speakers had equaled the Swedish speakers. Subsequently, the Finlandization of the country was achieved successfully.

The experience of Israel is noteworthy, where the restoration of Hebrew, a language that had not been used in conversation for a long time, as the national means of communications succeeded rather quickly. Society, thus, had to carry out two tasks concurrently –to introduce Hebrew and to create an everyday vernacular for conversational Hebrew.

In Ukraine, after 25 years, there has not been a significant increase in the number of Ukrainian-speaking groups in the capital or a significant weakening of the dominant position of Russian in most of the territory.

The success of the national language policy in Israel and its failure in Ukraine was caused by one very important circumstance. The establishment of Israel was directed by a strong elite that was responsible to its people and wanted them to have their own state after all the difficulties they had experienced. In Ukraine, that kind of elite has not been able to come to power. The pro-Russian imperial forces have turned out to be stronger.

Only Poroshenko’s signature is needed

Unfortunately, even the leadership that was elected after the Revolution of Dignity has not recognized the need for the de-Russification of the country. It is becoming more apparent that, despite the pressure of civil society activists, Poroshenko does not intend to abolish the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law, although all that is required is his signature under the relevant decision of the Verkhovna Rada. (In February 2014, the Verkhovna Rada abolished the law on “Principles of state language policy” but the decision was not signed by the then acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov –Ed.) The president’s support for this creation by the Russifiers from the Party of Regions is confirmed by his statement to the French newspaper Le Figaro, in June 2014, that was recently published in Young Ukraine. In the interview, the president said the decision to remove the regional language status from Russian, that had been introduced in the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law, was mistaken and that he would never approve similar moves.

It should be noted that the country whose publication interviewed Poroshenko has not approved or ratified the “European charter for regional and minority languages,” that Kivalov and Kolesnichenko used as the basis for their law — in fact, the exact opposite. In France this European document was deemed to be contrary to the French Constitution and a threat to the integrity of the country. A sharply negative assessment of the Charter was given by the political analyst Yvonne Bollmann in her work Language wars in Europe, which was published in Ukrainian translation by KIS in 2007.

In the absence of state policies supporting the Ukrainian language, this responsibility has been assumed by civic organizations and activists, as in other spheres of social life. They are establishing a network of free Ukrainian language courses and conversation clubs in the cities, conducting socio-linguistic research on the status of Ukrainian in the regions, using lawsuits to demand that products be labeled in Ukrainian, monitoring the use of the state language in services. Under pressure from the civic organizations, the Verkhovna Rada has registered three language bills. Time will tell if the patriotic deputies will be able to overcome the resistance of the leadership and pass the law “On state language,” which includes the crucial requirement to establish an institution to monitor compliance with the language legislation.

Larysa Masenko – sociolinguist, professor, head of the Ukrainian Language Department at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Kyiv).

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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