Language as a barrier to dialogue in Ukraine

The issue of language and politics has long been a problem in Ukraine. Recent developments and unrelenting Russian propaganda have made the problem centre-stage once more.

Polina Sinovets
6 May 2014

Recent events have reinvigorated the debate about the official and unofficial use in Ukraine of the Russian language, which has long been a part of Ukrainian society. Local political parties and external actors have used Russian and Ukrainian language cards during electoral campaigns, connecting language use to identity and politics to sway public opinion. After the collapse of Victor Yanukovych’s regime, Ukraine’s new parliament repealed the controversial 2012 Language Law that gave Russian (and some other languages) official status in regions where they are dominant. The repeal was vetoed by Ukraine’s acting president and never came into force, but it nonetheless provoked unrest in the south and east, specifically in Sevastopol, Kharkiv, and Odessa. It also enabled Russia to accuse Ukraine of suppressing the political rights of ethnic Russians and gave Moscow the pretext for military intervention in Crimea.

Russian and Ukrainian language cards have been used to sway public opinion.

Russian language and culture

In Ukraine, there are two main groups of language users, which tend to be associated with the country’s political divisions. Geographically, the first group has been based in the larger part of the country, in the south and east, which was part of the Russian Empire for hundreds of years. It associates itself historically and traditionally with Russian language and culture. At present, certain Ukrainian political parties like Rodina (a pro-Russian party based in Odessa) and Russkiy blok (an alliance of parties that includes Za Rus Edinuyu and Russko-Ukrainskiy Soyuz), as well as the transnational Russkiy mir foundation, try to connect Russia’s cultural and linguistic heritage to the influence of contemporary Russia over Ukraine. 

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Historically the south and the east of Ukraine have associated itself with Russian language and culture. Photo cc via news168

The positions of such parties and movements are quite aggressive and radical. They consider Russian the legitimate ‘civilised’ language of the cities and Ukrainian just a ‘country dialect,’ spoiled by the intrusion of Polish linguistic and cultural heritage. Any expansion of Ukrainian language and culture is regarded negatively as an attempt to erase Slavic identity: to ‘cut Russia off from the southern seas, push it to the north, and launch the process of ultimately dismantling the Russian state’ (as described [in Russian] by a member of Russkiy mir).  In their opinion, this leads to the cultural degradation of the Ukrainian population and ultimately the isolation of Russian minorities into ghettos surrounded by hostile environments. 

These groups have made the term ‘Ukrainians’ synonymous with ‘enemies,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘Banderovtsy’ (a reference to the Ukrainian World War II-era nationalist leader Stepan Bandera), and a ‘fifth column’ helping the West to weaken Russia. They insist that Russians are segregated in Ukraine. They regard the 2012 language law as only a very modest step toward the protection of Russian-language rights, because it also provides equal rights for other regional languages, alongside the one with ‘undeniable superiority over all other European languages’ (words, ascribed to the poet Alexander Pushkin, written on advertising billboards all over Odessa). This extreme approach does not support dialogue or compromise, so represents a serious conflict that cannot be won.

At the same time, one of this group’s arguments is difficult to ignore: statistically, the Russian-speaking ‘minority’ in Ukraine makes up 30-40 percent of the population. This is enough for Russian to be considered a state language, similar, for example, to the evolution of English as an official language in British colonies like India, Ireland, and Malta. Surveys conducted in 2013 suggested that Ukrainian self-identification often includes use of the Russian language: 35 percent of respondents called Russian their native language and nearly half of respondents claimed Russian was an easier language for them to speak (another 13 percent said they spoke Russian and Ukrainian equally well). This is one of the reasons why the influence of Russia on the political life of Ukraine is so strong: Russia’s questionable policy of ‘protecting Russian populations’ outside its borders does not apply only to ethnic Russians but also to Russian-speakers. As we have seen in Crimea, this approach may be used as a pretext for military aggression against a sovereign state.

Russia's questionable policy of ‘protecting Russian populations’ outside its borders applies to Russian-speakers as well as ethnic Russians.

The Russian Orthodox Church also brings its influence to bear in the sphere of language politics. It does this, in particular, through the concept of ‘Russkiy mir,’ according to which Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians constitute the so-called ‘Russian World,’ a single civilisational space united by Russian language and culture. This concept tries to revive the unanimity of the three nations, harking back to the Russian Empire and Soviet times and also setting them collectively apart from Western civilisation. Appearing to justify Russia’s military intervention against Ukraine, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesperson spoke approvingly of a past statement by the Church-backed World Russian People’s Assembly that ‘the Russian people is a split nationality on its historical territory and has the right to be reunified as a single governmental body.’

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The Russian Orthodox church actively promotes the idea of 'Russkiy mir', a civilisational space united by Russian language.

Elections are always a prime time for putting forward pro-Russian arguments. That Russian should be made the second state language was one of the main pledges of President Leonid Kuchma in 1994. It was a gambit that Victor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions also used, resulting in the adoption of the 2012 language law. When the Ukrainian parliament initially reversed this law, after deposing Yanukovych, Russia used it as justification for their occupation of Crimea ‘to defend Russians’ on Ukrainian soil.

Ukrainian language and culture

On the other side of Ukraine, however, is a second group—those for whom the unlimited spread of the Russian language means a certain displacement of Ukrainian. This group has been associated with Western Ukraine, where national traditions are very strong, and also with Kyiv, where national ideology is being formed today. The group does not accept Russian as a second official language, as they believe it interferes with the construction of a Ukrainian nation and state. Members of this group consider the Ukrainian language is deprived of proper status and opportunities. In particular, they say that language is the foundation for building the nation, and the ubiquitous use of Russian kills this possibility by marginalising Ukrainian to a narrow area of domestic communication. They consider that the Ukrainian language has to be fostered by the conscious limitation of Russian, the day-to-day language for culture, information, and business in the largest Ukrainian cities. Russian linguistic soft power has played an active part in perpetuating the dominance of the Russian language.

A dangerous mistake

The attempt to repeal the language law unleashed the hardcore positions of both language groups. Just when it was necessary to unify the nation, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) made a very dangerous mistake. The right-wing nationalist Right Sector movement insisted on the necessity of de-Russifying Ukraine while Russkiy blok rose to defend the rights of Russian-speakers against armed Banderovtsy.

Russian linguistic soft power has played an active part in perpetuating the dominance of the Russian language.

However, this ideological fight is hollow in the face of reality. To begin with, the repeal never came into effect since the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchinov, rejected it. Moreover, Ukraine ratified the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages in 1996 and gave Russian the status of a regional language in many parts of the south and east of Ukraine. The sole effect of the language law was to tip the existing legal balance toward Russian. Repealing the law would only have levelled the playing field again.

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Ukraine's Right Sector has insisted on the need to de-Russify the country. Photo cc: Yuriy Kvach

Today, the possibility of actually displacing the Russian language throughout Ukraine is unimaginable and unrealistic. The current challenge to surmount is the exploitation by political parties and actors of language issues to destroy dialogue and integration.

One popular cliché is that a Russian-speaker must be closely connected politically to Russia. Surveys cast doubt on this claim. According to a June 2013 poll conducted in the city of Donetsk, the number of local respondents between 18 and 45 years old who identify as Ukrainians ranges between 60 to 75 percent, while 99 percent of all respondents preferred to take the survey in Russian. Is not a bilingual Ukraine feasible? A large ‘Russian-speaking Ukrainian Nationalists (RUN)’ group conducts discussions in Russian on the popular social network VKontakte. Its members consider Ukrainian the only official language but say that the transition to Ukrainian should be gradual and that no languages should be suppressed or humiliated on the territory of Ukraine.


As Ukraine finds its feet, it is a mistake for those on either side of the language divide to politicise linguistic matters. There is far more to nation-building than language. Only a small part of the Ukrainian population see themselves as being part of Russia—according to an April 2014 survey [in Russian] by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology conducted in the south and east of Ukraine, only 8.4 percent consider that Ukraine and Russia should be united in one state and only 15.4 percent support the unification of their region with Russia. 

The majority of educated and urban-living Russian-speakers in Ukraine demonstrated strong solidarity with their Ukrainian-language compatriots, standing together against Russian aggression and the attempts to divide Ukrainian society and territory. The situation with the population in the small towns is slightly different.  Passive, afraid and confused, today they present an easy prey for any political actors, from pro-Russia agents offering them money or communists to Russian intelligence and propaganda.

This article was originally published as PONARS Eurasia policy memo no. 318 in April 2014


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