Ukraine’s Verbal Battle: A Push to Recognize Russian Language

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Throughout history, whenever a government wants to assimilate a conquered or minority native people, it looks to dissolve the native language. The minorities are forced into an inferior place in the social structure, and often remain the subject of abuse and discrimination.

So it’s understandable why many Ukrainians are currently revolting against their parliament and president’s legally instilling the Russian language in nearly half the regions of their country. This is particularly true since Ukraine is a former Soviet-bloc state which was forced into accepting Russian, the Soviet de facto language, until the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s. After breaking free, Ukrainians wanted to fend for themselves, including conversing in their own tongue.

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Still, this week President Vyktor Yanukovych signed a bill allowing an estimated half of Ukraine’s districts to conduct government business in Russian. The new law makes Russian an official language in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions. About one quarter of Ukraine’s 46 million people reportedly speak Russian at home.

Yanukovych evidently knew many citizens wouldn’t shout plaudits to his proposal. So, for balance, in early July he established a working group under the Cabinet of Ministers to “improve the legislation on application of languages in Ukraine and ensure all-round development and functioning of Ukrainian language in all sphere[s] of life,” according to the president’s official website.

The group was to hopefully include amendments to the legislation “to guarantee free development, usage and protection of all native languages of Ukrainian citizens.” He announced the July effort before representatives of the scientific and art intelligentsia in Crimea.

Despite his effort, during July “the language bill sparked fist fights inside Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada,” according to Voice of America. “Outside, protesters fought with riot police.” Many Ukrainians reportedly were upset that the language change could cost up to Hr 17 billion ($2.1 billion) per year.

But the legislation passed. Opponents see it as Yanukovich’s effort to secure support from Russian-speaking voters in the Oct. 28 election of a new parliament. They must also fear it as a political effort to move closer to a relationship with Russia and its engrained president Vladimir Putin. Former Soviet satellite countries know Russia would like nothing more than to restore the Soviet Union and its vast tax base and natural resources.

President Viktor Yanukovych

Ukraine is the European continent’s second largest contiguous country, after Russia. “After a brief period of independence (1917-1921) following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine became one of the founding Republics of the Soviet Union in 1922,” according to the New World Encyclopedia. “Ukraine became independent again after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.”

The encyclopedia also states, “Ukraine’s culture has unique art, architecture, cuisine, dance, literature, music, theater, and cinema, all shaped by various eras of domination by other nations, Soviet repression, and an on-going striving for national identity.”

The Ukrainian language is “an Indo-European language of the Eastern Slavic group, and uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Contemporary literary Ukrainian developed in the eighteenth century from the Poltava and Kiev dialects.”

The decades of inclusion in the Soviet bloc appears to have integrated Ukrainian and Russian: “It is sometimes difficult to determine the extent of the two languages, since many people use a Surzhyk (a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian where the vocabulary is often combined with Ukrainian grammar and pronunciation),” the encyclopedia reports. “The government seeks to increase the use of the Ukrainian language, generally at the expense of Russian, by requiring that the language is used in schools, government offices, and some media, even in areas which are largely Russian-speaking.”

That apparently will change now with the new legislation’s approval and implementation.