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Should Ukraine take over the Russian language? Scrutinizing Prof. Snyder’s arguments

Prof. Timothy Snyder delivers his lecture “Ukraine and the Future of Europe” in Kyiv on 20 June 2019. Photo:
Should Ukraine take over the Russian language? Scrutinizing Prof. Snyder’s arguments
On 20 June in Kyiv, Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, read a public lecture “Ukraine and the Future of Europe.” The event was organized by the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation. Among the key messages Snyder delivered were the following: Ukraine can create a dictionary of its variety of the Russian language to not just standardize it but to present its own culture to the world. “Create cultural, journalistic platforms and resources for the West and Russians,” implored Prof. Snyder, as per

Later on 7 July, Hromadske published an interview with Mr. Snyder in which he explained in detail his idea on the Russian language in Ukraine, stating that Ukraine should embrace and regulate the Russian language and use it as an “offensive weapon” against Russian propaganda. His idea is to found a Russian language Institute in Ukraine to standardize the Ukrainian variety of the Russian language to distinguish it from the Russian language spoken in Russia or elsewhere.

Snyder’s proposition caused an uproar in Ukrainian media. Some people supported the idea, but most blasted it. For example, Ukrainian historian Vakhtanh Kipiani even called it “yet another example of a great white man giving advises to aboriginals from the height of his cultural superiority.”

Let’s examine Mr. Snyder’s arguments on the Russian language in Ukraine to see their pros and cons.

The Russian language issue

Of course, the Ukrainian variety of Russian is different from the varieties existing in Russia. It is much closer to the South-Russian dialect spread in such Russia’s regions as Rostov, Voronezh, and Belgorod than to the northern or central dialects. In fact, the Ukrainian variety of Russian exists in a dialect continuum with the southern dialects of the Russian language. The further you get away from Ukraine, the less Ukrainian phonetical, grammatical features and vocabulary you can find in a Russian subdialect.

The most recent nation-wide opinion survey conducted by Rating Group on behalf of IRI shows that the status of the Russian language in Ukraine is one of the least important issues for Ukrainians:

At the 2001 census, 77,8% of the population considered themselves Ukrainians and 17,3% as Russians. At the same time, 67,5% considered the Ukrainian language as mother tongue and 29,6% as Russian back then. Thus, at least 10% of the Ukrainian population were Russified Ukrainians. In fact, the number is probably much higher since the question “what is your mother tongue?” does not imply that the pollee uses this language as primary in his/her everyday life.

The large share of the Russified Ukrainians explains why the fate of the Russian language in Ukraine is not that important for the nation. The vast majority of Ukrainians, no matter whether their mother tongue is Russian or Ukrainian, understand both languages. The Russian language issue is purely political and it has been raised almost exceptionally at the electoral campaigns by local Russophile parties.

Meanwhile, Russia keeps trying to retain the post-Soviet “Russo-sphere” by constantly exaggerating Russian language issues in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and trying, in fact, to convince the Russian speakers that they should not learn the state language of the country they live in. Both Russian and domestic campaigning “against the oppression of the Russian language in Ukraine” is nothing else but defending the privilege to not know the state language.

The Kremlin has weaponized not only the Russian language itself but also Russian culture and history, using them as hybrid war tools all over the world. Protecting the Russian speakers was the formal cause of the annexation of Crimea, Russian cultural institutions abroad function as influence centers, and the fact that the USSR was among the powers who defeated Nazi Germany more than 70 years ago is used to corroborate the narratives that modern Russia is fighting fascism despite the fact that Russia cooperates with multiple far-right parties in the EU.

The Ukrainian language survived several centuries of real oppression when the Russian Empire forbade not just publishing the books in it, but also using Ukrainian as at schools and in public life. Plus, Russian remained a language of prestige in both the Russian Empire and USSR. That’s why many Ukrainians have been russified in several generations.

What Snyder proposes

In the interview with Hromadske, Timothy Snyder has revealed more details and arguments on his idea of how to use the Russian language in Ukraine. Here are Snyder’s arguments and opinions opposing his statements.

If you have a language, you write your dictionaries

“I’m in favor of Ukrainization. I think Ukraine should have a language of high culture in politics and that language should be Ukrainian… If it were up to me there would be more Ukrainian in Ukrainian public life,” says Prof. Snyder, “[But] It’s not normal to have an important second language in your country and have another country to tell you what to do with it. So the international norm is: if you have a language – you write your own dictionaries, you write your own textbooks, you choose spelling rules that are your own, you choose grammar that’s your own.”

Andriy Kravchuk argues,

“So is there a US institute to standardize Spanish? Is there and official standard Irish English? As a state, Ukraine doesn’t need Russian. The individuals for whom it is a mother tongue or who prefer it – like me – need it, but the state is generally not interested in supporting it. Rather, on the contrary, the state is interested in reducing its usage for the sake of separation from the former metropolitan country. The Russian language has no special irreplaceable features, and English is way more important for immersing oneself in the world culture.”

If the metropolitan country of the former Russian Empire was a “normal liberal democratic country,” the situation could be different like in former British colonies which don’t see the aggressive intentions of Britain anymore, says Mr. Kravchuk.

Ukrainians can’t tell between Russian from Ukraine and Russia

“Ukraine is giving Russia a completely unnatural advantage by not standardizing the Russian language. What it means is that Ukrainians can’t tell whether Russian is coming from Russia or if it is coming from Ukraine,” says Snyder.

False. Ukrainians can often tell whether a Russian-speaker is originally from Russia or Ukraine. The Russian pronunciation is different, especially in the Moscow variety of the Russian language. As a rule, even if local Russian speakers in Ukraine are trying to speak standard Russian, they don’t use the language’s Moscow variety, leaning to Saint-Petersburg’s.

There are some grammar differences, such as using the preposition на ‘on’ instead of в ‘in’ to convey “in Ukraine” – for Ukrainians such a word usage often bears a derogatory shade of meaning, implying that Ukraine is considered as a territory rather than an independent country. In English, the Soviet-times way of using Ukraine’s name with the definite article connotes just the same.

The vocabulary often differs. For example, in the video showing the group of armed people led by a Russian national, former FSB operative Igor Girkin, as they were storming a police station in Kramatorsk in April 2014, a masked man orders the locals and journalists to step back behind the street curb. However, he uses the word “porebrik,” a Saint-Petersburg vernacularism, instead of “bordyur” used in standard Russian and in its Ukrainian variety. One word disclosed the real origin of the “local self-defense militia.”

An argument against the Russian language oppression narrative

Prof. Snyder says that standardizing the Rusian language inside Ukraine can be a powerful argument against the Russian propaganda narrative that Ukraine oppresses Russian, as well as it would create “the possibility of offensive political work against Russia,”

“You could say: no, actually, we are supporting the Russian language and you can make the following point, which is true: In Russia, there’s no freedom of speech which means someone else has to take care of the Russian language. So we have freedom of speech, therefore, we are going to take care of the Russian language.

Which would not only be true but it would be an excellent point to make to Westerners who don’t quite know exactly how to understand the situation in Ukraine, so if there would be such an institute for me it would have three parts: the first part would be you standardize the language, you print dictionaries, you create schoolbooks. The second part would be, you give refuge to writers who come from Russian-speaking parts of the world whether it’s Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan or Russia itself. And the third is you have reporting about Russia, I see this also as a way for Ukraine to turn the tables.”

Timothy Snyder also told to BBC News Ukraine,

“Will Putin be glad if the Ukrainian state institute of the Russian language and culture will emerge? No, he won’t. Because he always states that he cares about the ‘Russian World’ and that only he personally and the Russian state can protect it. And what if other countries will also care about the language?”

In fact, Russian propaganda has been pushing a great number of various anti-Ukrainian narratives and Ukraine reacting even in such a radical way to one of them would not change anything – Russia will keep repeating the same using all platforms available, from the social media and the press up to the international meetings of its top officials. A good example is a fact that Russia ignores the extensive evidence that its military shot down the Malaysian Airline’s MH17 and continues to accuse Ukraine of doing this.

Creating a Russian Language Institute in Ukraine will not stop spreading the cluster of propaganda narratives claiming that Ukraine is a “fascist state,” one of which is the “Russian language oppression.” As for the rest, some Russian dissidents already reside in Ukraine, and multiple popular Ukrainian media have Russian-language versions and report on Russia.

A Facebook user nicknamed Oleksa Chornyi believes,

“While the Russian language is a political tool of the Rusian fifth column and the occupation instrument, any ‘standardization’ should be out of the question. For now, the Russian language in Ukraine is not an ethnic or philological-linguistical factor, it’s purely political. All anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces ‘don’t know’ and don’t want to know Ukrainian as a matter of principle, top politicians use exceptionally Russian in their speeches… It is not about Russian in general, which is functioning freely in half Ukraine including the government agencies, it is exceptionally about politics.”

State support for the Russian language will only strengthen the position of Russian in Ukraine against the Ukrainian language.

Not competing with Ukrainian?

The interviewer mentioned that Ukrainian is still endangered in Ukraine since most of Ukrainians still use Russian in their everyday lives. Timothy Snyder replied,

“And I’m very sympathetic to people that say our language is threatened by globalization or our language is threatened by a powerful nation, I’m sympathetic to people that speak French in Canada who are surrounded not only by Canada but also the United States of America and I’m glad that French has survived in Canada and I’m glad that French is doing well.

But, I don’t see this at all as a competition between Ukrainian and Russian, on the contrary, I think if there’s going to be so much use of Russian it makes sense to make it your own Russian. Because you’re going to be speaking it for the next several decades… But there’s no competition. I think of it in my own mind as ‘Ukrainian State Institute of Russian Language and Culture.'”

The basic error in this approach is viewing the Russian speakers in Ukraine as ethnic Russians. It is the same mistake Putin did betting on the “Novorossiya” project in 2014. Most of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians identify themselves as Russified Ukrainians rather than Russians and members of the Russian culture. However, many Russified Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian but they don’t because they see Russian as the language of prestige as it used to be in the Russian Empire and in the USSR, while Ukrainian remains for them a language of uneducated persons, mostly villagers – this is how it may seem in the east of Ukraine, where the big cities are all Russified while most of the population speaks Ukrainian or Surzhik – a mix of Ukrainian and Russian.

Natalia Brandafi says that talking about the language issue, Snyder gives examples of how the English language was standardized in different countries, but such examples don’t correlate with the context of relations between Ukraine and the Russian empire.

“The US had no other official language than English when they won independence. Thus his comparison to Ukraine is a mistake, a lack of historical knowledge of the Ukrainian language,” concludes Ms. Brandafi.

In fact, the last 300 years of Ukrainian history is the history of survival of Ukrainian language under Russian oppression. Multiple prohibitions on Ukrainian and functioning of metropolitan Russian as a language of prestige and power during the centuries led to Russification of the most of Ukrainians.

Almost all Ukrainians in Ukraine are bilingual and even if they can’t speak Russian properly, they fully understand it. Establishing a local institute of the Russian language would just once again strengthen the positions of Russian in Ukraine and will contribute to endangering the Ukrainian language.

“I just do think there’s something very strange about tens of millions of people using the language which their state does not standardize. I’m not just saying that: that is a very unusual situation. You will not find that in Switzerland or anywhere else,” believes Prof. Snyder.

Again, the residents of Geneva don’t consider themselves as Francized Germans and the population of Bern or Zurich as Germanized Italians. The more correct parallel to the Russian-speaking Ukrainians would be German-speaking Czechs who didn’t feel themselves Germans and didn’t care about standardizing the German language in then Czechoslovakia.

Prof. Snyder later notices, “Pretty much every East European nation was created by people who spoke a bunch of languages, not by people who spoke one language” mentioning that the parental languages of the first Ukrainian president (1918) Mykhaylo Hrushevskyi were Russian and Polish, the Slovak nation was created by Hungarian and German speakers, and the people who had created the Czech nation spoke German. That’s true, but all those people didn’t codify the local variety of Russian, German or Hungarian, but focused on their nation.

Michael Moser, a professor of Slavic linguistics at several European Universities, argued that Ukraine, first of all, needs one language which unites the entire nation including all national minorities, and this language is Ukrainian as it has been established since late Soviet Ukraine’s language law of 1989. Prof. Moser believes,

“The work should be continued right over its spreading because Ukrainians were never given enough time for that and its consequences are seen everywhere.”

Further, he reminds of Czechoslovakian history, which as many Ukrainians believe was a successful case of saving the national language from extinction:

“Did they worry there in inter-war Czechoslovakia about the fact that they didn’t take care of the standardization of the German language in the territory of the country, that ‘the German language was given’ to the Germans, Austrians, etc? They didn’t because they knew that other tasks have higher priorities,” says Prof. Moser. “Unfortunately, inter-war Czechoslovakia cared for national minorities equally as bad as countries in the inter-war period. The rights of the Russian language as the minority’s language should be cherished according to the Constitution.”

In his op-ed in Lviv online newspaper Forpost, Radko Mokryk points out that Prof. Snyder,

“…looks at our problem from the point of view of a developed society, where all these problems have been resolved long ago. Should we explain to Snyder that it’s a pity that Ukraine in this question is actually at the level of the 19th century? That the entire following century passed under the pressure of Russification? Under the pressure of Kremlin ideology – be it communism or ‘Russky Mir’ [‘The Rusian World’ ]? And that only now we can resolve (and we are doing it) the issues which the civilized world resolved for itself a long time ago?”

As a Russian linguist by education, I personally believed that Ukraine had to codify its variety of the Russian language to get rid of the populism of the pro-Russian political forces who inflated the non-existent language issue and promised to resolve it before every election but were totally forgetting about it as they received their seats and used to put it aside until the next voting. However, it was relevant before Russia unleashed the war. Since Russia had ultimately weaponized the Russian language question, establishing the standardization institution in Ukraine can’t resolve the problem.

For now, a Ukrainian state institute of the Russian language will provide the Russian language with a de-facto special status in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a special status for Russian is what the Kremlin wants in the former Soviet republics to keep them in its orbit of influence.

Here is the full interview of prof. Timothy Snyder:

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