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The Russian language in post-Soviet Ukraine: 30 years of discrimination against the country’s most popular tongue

If you go to Ukraine and walk through the streets of Kiev, Vinnitsa, Chernigov, or Kharkov, it may seem like you’re in Moscow or Rostov-on-Don, as the majority of the people in these cities speak Russian.

At the same time, Ukraine is a country with one of the harshest language law regimes in the world. Russian, which is spoken by the vast, vast majority of the country’s population, is almost de jure banned there. How did this happen? 

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One of the favorite phrases of Ukrainian nationalists is the sarcastic: ‘Who says you can’t speak Russian?’

Until 2019, when the law ‘On Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language’ was adopted, this sarcasm was partially justified. Officially, Ukrainians were obliged to speak Ukrainian, but, in fact, they spoke whatever was convenient for them. And no one paid much attention, at least in the first couple of decades of independence.

In 1991, in order to secure support for Ukraine’s independence, the country’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, signed an appeal to his ethnic Russian compatriots, stating: “I will do everything in my power to ensure that the government protects the legitimate political, economic, social, and spiritual interests of the Russian population. In no case will forcible Ukrainization of Russians be allowed. Any attempts to discriminate on the basis of nationality will be resolutely suppressed.”

At that time, and up until 2012, the law ‘On the Languages of the Ukrainian SSR’ was in force in Ukraine, according to which the Russian language had legal status on a par with Ukrainian, and Kiev guaranteed the free use of Russian in all spheres of life.

Nevertheless, discriminatory norms began to be introduced to the law immediately after the country declared independence. Contrary to the aforementioned law on languages, the Ukrainian state began to reduce the use of Russian at the legislative level from the first days of its independent existence by adopting various by-laws and orders.

As People’s Deputy of Ukraine Vadim Kolesnichenko pointed out in the ‘Second Periodic Public Report on the Implementation of the Provisions of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages in Ukraine’: “as of the time of writing this report, the status of regional and minority languages in Ukraine is completely undefined in Ukraine’s Constitution, as well as more than 80 procedural codes and laws, and thousands of by-laws (Decrees, Resolutions, Orders, etc.) following from it.” This is important when assessing the legal status of the Russian language and its native speakers.

In other words, the sectoral laws adopted after Ukraine’s independence did not provide for the free use of Russian, despite the requirements of the Ukrainian SSR’s law on languages, which they should have complied with. Restrictions on the use of Russian began long before the adoption of Ukraine’s Constitution in 1996, in which discrimination against Russian was enshrined at the highest legal level.

An example of this is the law ‘On National Minorities in Ukraine’ of 1992, in which the ability for national minorities to exercise most linguistic rights is limited to territories where a specific national minority makes up the majority of the population. Another is the law ‘On Television and Radio Broadcasting’ of 1993, which prohibits the use of Russian and other ‘regional languages’ in national broadcasting.

The Constitution of 1996 only consolidated the already established practice of discriminating against speakers of the Russian language: Article 10 recognizes Ukrainian as the country’s only official state language, while the second part of the article, which states that “the free development, use, and protection of the Russian language and other languages of national minorities in Ukraine are guaranteed,” only existed on paper.

Ukrainians take part at a rally in support Ukrainian language and against a bill which offers to extend the use of the Russian language in Ukrainian educational system, near the Ukrainian Parliament building in Kyiv, Ukraine. © STR / NurPhoto via Getty Images

While it’s commonly believed that the pressure on the Russian language began under former President Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution, this is not the case. For example, former President Leonid Kuchma attempted to enact ‘punitive philology’ when his government submitted a bill to the Verkhovna Rada on July 1, 1997, entitled ‘On the Development and Use of Languages in Ukraine’, which introduced fines and license revocations for media outlets that did not broadcast in the state’s official language. There were even plans to levy fines on ordinary citizens and officials for non-use of the state language.

The last nail in the coffin for the legal status of Russian was hammered in by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court in 1999, when it recognized Ukrainian as “an obligatory means of communication throughout the territory of Ukraine in the exercise of powers by local authorities, as well as in other spheres of public life.”

Thus, almost all of the odious legal norms discriminating against Russian speakers were in force even before the Maidan coup of 2014. People who couldn’t speak Ukrainian were banned from practicing law or serving as members of election commissions and as assistants for MPs. The only difference then was that there were no language patrols forcing waiters and salespeople to speak Ukrainian with customers, although, from a legal point of view, they were obliged to do so even then.

No language, no problem

The greatest move against Russian took place in the field of education. In 1992, a letter signed by Ukraine’s former first deputy minister of education, Anatoly Pogrebny, appeared, which granted schools the right to teach foreign languages other than Russian. Thus, the language that was native for many acquired the status of a foreign language.

Meanwhile, the number of Russian schools was steadily decreasing. In 1990, there were 4,633 schools in Ukraine in which Russian was the main language of instruction. By the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year, there were only 1,149 left. While about 3.5 million students were taught in regional or minority languages in 1990, just 703,609 were by the beginning of 2011. Of these, 685,806 were using Russian. This means the number of Russian schools decreased by 62%, and the number of students by seven times. More than 57% of the liquidated schools were schools in which instruction had been conducted in Russian, closed eight times more often than Ukrainian-speaking schools. Now, there are no Russian schools left in Ukraine at all, but more on that later.

This situation does not correspond at all to the linguistic preferences of the population. According to Ukraine’s last census, which (amazingly) took place in 2001, many citizens did not have the ability to study in their native language, as the share of Russian-speaking secondary educational institutions was lower than the share of the Russian-speaking population. In the Donetsk Region, there were 518 Russian schools (41.6% of the total); in Zaporozhye Region, 180 (26.9%); in Lugansk Region, 451 (55.1%), in Odessa Region, 184 (19.7%); and in Kharkov Region, 157 (16.1%). In 1998, Odessa had 46 schools (32%) in which Russian was the language of instruction, despite the fact that Russian-speaking residents made up 73% of the city’s population. In Gorlovka, in Donetsk Region, 82% of respondents called Russian their native language in 2006.

Even in the ‘Ukrainian’ regions, the situation is far from ambiguous. For example, in Rivne, where 3% of the population speaks minority languages, all Russian schools were closed in 1996. In Kiev, there were only seven Russian schools (2.04%) left by 2011, despite the fact that, even according to official statistics, 27.9% of the capital’s residents use minority languages (in fact, Russian). In general, 30% of Ukraine’s population uses minority languages, but secondary education was only available in languages other than Ukrainian in 7.57% of its schools by 2011.

Pro russian gathered in Lenin Square, in Donetsk, on March 23, 2014 and walked over administratives building to take down ukranian flasg and replace them by russiant and Donetsk insignia flags. © Romain Carre / NurPhoto / Corbis via Getty Images

In reality, the official statistics do not correspond to the languages people actually speak. In responding to a survey conducted by the American Gallup Institute, 83% of Ukrainians chose to fill in the forms in Russian, which, according to sociologists, indicates that this is their native language (Fig.2). This is confirmed by a 2015 study of languages used on the internet, which found that 59.6% of Ukrainian sites are in Russian. Even more interesting are statistics concerning web searches. Only government websites are read in Ukrainian. People prefer to read about ‘everyday’ things (travel, services, media, weather, etc.) in Russian. This situation has changed little over the years. According to Google, queries from Ukraine were submitted in Russian eight times more often than in Ukrainian in 2020. So, in all cases, around 80% of Ukrainians prefer Russian.

Italian researcher Nicola Porro has drawn attention to falsifications in official data concerning the language situation in Ukraine. According to EuroMaidan Press, in 2012, Ukrainian was the native language of 57% of the country’s residents, while Russian was native for 42%. However, by 2021, it was claimed to be 77% and 21%, respectively. “Is it possible that, in some 10 years, 20 percent of the population suddenly changed their native language? On this occasion, EuroMaidan Press was proud to announce: ‘In the period from 2012 to 2016, there were significant changes in terms of language self-identification.’ I mean, what ‘methods of persuasion’ were used? A native language is absorbed with our mother’s milk, listening to her voice. A mother speaks to her children in the language of her heart. Your native language cannot be changed,” the author said.

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In 2012, representatives of then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions tried to raise the status of the Russian language. The law ‘On the Fundamentals of State Language Policy’ was passed, which established the ability to use regional languages as official state languages if the number of native speakers in a region amounted to 10% of the population. Though some of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions took advantage of this, it did not help many of the nation’s Russian speakers. For example, the mayor of the capital, Alexander Popov, declared that “there can be no discussions in Kiev about the recognition of Russian as a regional language.” Moreover, this law reduced Russian from the status of a language used in interethnic communication to an ordinary minority language, in accordance with the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages.

The history of the European Charter with respect to Russian deserves special mention. The adoption of the document, which is one of the conditions for Ukraine’s membership of the Council of Europe, faced unprecedented resistance from neo-Nazi forces. The Verkhovna Rada first ratified the charter in 1999, but then-President Kuchma refused to sign the ratification law, and it was consequently struck down by the Constitutional Court as invalid. The charter was re-ratified on May 15, 2003, albeit only its declarative provisions. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to issue the instruments of ratification for two years. As a result, it only entered into force on January 1, 2006. According to the text of the ratified document, Russian received the same status as languages spoken by just several thousand people. At the same time, the Ukrainian far-right constantly tried to distort the meaning of the charter, insisting that it should only protect endangered languages.

But even this watered-down law could not survive the Maidan. In 2018, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court found that it did not conform to the provisions of the country’s constitution.

Wipe off the face of the Earth

All of this was just the prelude to systematically banning the use of Russian in all spheres of life and forcing citizens to communicate exclusively in the official state language.

The law currently in force in Ukraine, ‘On Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the Official State Language’, was passed in 2019 under then-President Petro Poroshenko’s government. It has a number of punitive features.

Firstly, mandatory use of the state language was incorporated into Ukraine’s constitutional system. Consequently, people can be held civilly and criminally accountable for “intentional distortion of the Ukrainian language in official documents and texts, in particular, intentionally using it in violation of the requirements of Ukrainian orthography and standards of the state language, as well as creating obstacles and restrictions in the use of the Ukrainian language.” The text of the law specifies fines for state authorities, the media, political parties, and public organizations, as well as private businesses, for spelling errors and the use of other languages.

Secondly, special governmental authorities have been created to develop standards for the state language and carry out checks on their use in practice. Any Ukrainian citizen who has been addressed in a language other than Ukrainian can file a complaint with the commissioner for the protection of the state language, who Ukrainians aptly call the ‘Sprechenfuhrer’. This ‘language cop’ can call in the police, the consumer protection agency, the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and other law enforcement agencies to forcibly ensure that communication only takes place in Ukrainian.

Thirdly, the text of the law expresses outright intent to discriminate against Russian speakers. The Venice Commission has also drawn attention to this. In its conclusions on the laws of Ukraine pertaining to education and language, the European Commission on Democracy Through Law found four ‘sorts’ of languages: indigenous languages, English, languages of national minorities that are official languages in the EU, and languages of national minorities that are not official languages in the EU.

According to the commission, inequality is already being created at the secondary school level – a hierarchy in which indigenous peoples are potentially treated more favorably than national minorities who speak an official EU language, and national minorities who speak an EU language are treated more favorably than other national minorities. Russian deserves special mention. According to the Venice Commission, Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution is a key provision in terms of protecting language rights and freedoms, which separately highlights Russian. In addition, as a signee of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which, as an international document, takes precedence over the Constitution of Ukraine, Kiev has pledged to protect the Russian language.

Other harsh Ukrainization measures have also met with criticism, such as quotas on television and radio that require at least 75% of broadcasting and all cultural and mass events to be conducted only in Ukrainian. Meanwhile, a requirement to publish and sell at least 50% of books and printed media in the state language came into force on January 16, 2022, threatening to destroy publishing business and print media.

The commissioner for the protection of the state language closely monitors compliance with the language law by everyone, including salespeople and waiters. In April 2021, his office published its first report, which clearly shows that pressure is being exerted on ordinary citizens. The document complains that “even in Ukrainian-speaking pre-schools, children are often addressed in Russian or other languages.” In schools, this ‘problem’ is even more acute. In the southeast of the country, teaching is often actually conducted in Russian, while students and teachers refuse to speak Ukrainian outside of lessons. In Kiev, 55% of teachers switch to Russian from time to time, and 4% constantly use it in lessons.

Stolitsa radio station was fined 54,000 hryvnias (around $1,800) on May 11, 2020, because only 32% of the songs it broadcast were in Ukrainian. Radio Chanson has been fined twice – 86,000 hryvnias ($2,900) in each case. Regional radio stations have also been fined. Mayak in Alexandria for 2,865 hryvnia ($95), Chernovtsy 6,242 hryvnia ($210).

The report shows how quickly and strictly Ukrainian is being imposed. According to the language ombudsman, 98% of preschool children, 99.8% of students in vocational schools and junior colleges, and 98.5% of students in universities, academies, and institutes study in Ukrainian. In 2020, the number of Ukrainian schools increased by 272, while the number of children studying in the Ukrainian language increased by 200,000, of whom 150,000 had been studying in Russian. In Kiev alone, 94 classes were switched to Ukrainian, while the number of Russian classes decreased from 11,563 to 5,421 across the country. Around 78% of theater performances are staged in Ukrainian. Nonetheless, the Odessa Regional Academic Theater, the Kharkov Pushkin Drama Theater, the Odessa Musical Comedy Theater, the ‘Academy of Movement’ Academic Theater in Krivoy Rog, and the Transcarpathian Regional Hungarian Drama Theater have been hit with violations.

According to the ‘Sprechenfuhrer’, even before the quota came into force requiring that 50% of the books for sale in Ukrainian stores be in Ukrainian, 74% of readers of printed books, 65% of e-book consumers, and 67% of audiobook listeners used Ukrainian. However, the Ukrainian government does not control the internet, and sales of books in Ukrainian are falling, while the number of films in Ukrainian has plummeted from 159 in 2019 to 34 in 2020. It is obvious that nowadays, readers and viewers go online instead. 

But the Ukrainian authorities have not stopped there and are trying to completely eradicate Russian in the country. Though a ban on Russian TV channels, radio stations, mass media, and social media networks has already been in place for a long time, as well as importing books from Russia, the campaign has now reached Russian literature in libraries. The director of the Ukrainian Institute of Books, Alexandra Koval, believes that more than 100 million books containing “anti-Ukrainian content with imperial narratives; literature propagating violence; books with pro-Russian and chauvinistic politics” should be removed from public libraries. And, in the second stage, books in Russian published in Russia after 1991 will also be destroyed. “This should include various genres, including children’s books, romance novels, and detective stories. Although I understand they may be in demand, this is an obvious requirement of the times,” Koval said.

It is clear how this quiet confrontation between the 80% of the Ukrainian population that primarily speaks Russian and the fanatic Ukrainizers will end. The 30 years of intense pressure on the Russian language has not induced Ukrainians to speak it any less. The only thing that’s unclear is what Ukraine’s language policy has to do with human rights, democracy, and European values. 

By Olga Sukharevskaya, ex-Ukrainian diplomat

© 2022, paradox. All rights reserved.

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