The Wednesday Morning Fights (at the Rada, not the Garden)
This cartoon is from two years ago… “the more things change, the more they stay the same”… pass the jug…
Last week, fists flew in the Ukrainian parliament over the latest attempt to grant the Russian language a measure of official status in the country. Fat politicians brawled with other fat politicians, whilst outside, an angry crowd protested. From her jail cell, former Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko denounced the bill as a “crime”. Earlier, she had characterised it as an apparently sacrilegious assault on “an issue that’s holy for many of us”. Timoshenko, who could not speak Ukrainian until she was 36, is a demagogue. Nevertheless, the word “holy” reveals the extremes of passion felt on this subject. Politically and culturally, language is a hot kartofel (or should I say kartoplia?) in the Ukraine and the “Russian Question” provokes defensive outrage from Ukrainian nationalists.
I witnessed Ukrainian language policies in action in 2005, when I visited Kiev. I confess that I thought it rather strange that many people were speaking Russian, but all of the signage was in Ukrainian. The apotheosis of absurdity came when I watched a Russian action movie, where the credits were in Ukrainian, but the language of the film was Russian. Pretentiously, there were English language signs on some government buildings, but nothing in Russian. I also recall a story about a town in the Western Ukraine, where some micro-fascists had banned Russian pop from the airwaves. The struggle to impose the Ukrainian language by force on the country’s large Russian-speaking population, about 30% of the total, has a long pedigree. In his fascinating book, The Affirmative Action Empire, Terry Martin details a barking-mad attempt in the early revolutionary period to compel everybody working in government administration to switch from Russian to Ukrainian in two years… a move that Moscow endorsed in order to defeat “Great Russian Nationalism”. It failed because it was a stupid idea, and ground to a complete halt when Stalin, a Russifying Georgian, came to power.
Of course, it’s natural that many Ukrainians feel anxious about their language. Russia is a powerful neighbour located right next door. The Ukraine has only been independent for 20 years, and nationalists fear that the use of Russian will divide the nation, and threaten its very identity. However, the country already has sharp divisions, and what, in fact, is that identity? It’s not as if all those Russian speakers in the Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea arrived last week to destabilise a hitherto homogenous Ukrainian culture. Most Russians living in the Ukraine were born there. The only reason the Russian-speaking Crimea is part of the country because Nikita Khrushchyov “gifted” it in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Ukraine’s union with Russia. The Russian Empire captured New Russia in the south-eastern Ukraine in the 18th century, and both Russians and Ukrainians settled there. For centuries, there was no border, and Kiev is the “mother city” of Russians and Ukrainians alike. Russian is also the lingua franca of most of the other long-established ethnic minorities in the Ukraine.
The millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine are hardly interlopers, then. Some are as “indigenous” as the ethnic Ukrainians themselves. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that many object to the policy of forced Ukrainisation, active since the 1990s, which has seen education in the Russian language largely eradicated and eastern and southern government offices conducting business in a tongue predominantly spoken in the western half of the country. Embarrassingly, the independent and democratic Ukraine is more oppressive in this regard than was Brezhnev’s USSR was in 1970. At that time, in the autonomous region of Tatarstan, 70 percent of schooling was conducted in Tatar, not Russian. By 1990, schooling in Tatar had dropped to 24 percent. By 2001, however, the figure was at 49.3 percent and rising. Thus, Russia… the Grand Villain of Ukrainian nationalism… grants its linguistic minorities more rights than the independent democratic Ukraine.
Perhaps, I’m more relaxed about language because although I’m Scottish, I speak Standard English, not Gaelic, and don’t feel any less Scottish for it. I freely admit that the Scots and the English are very similar, just as Ukrainians and Russians are very similar. Life is too short to dwell on the narcissism of small differences. Meanwhile, in Texas, I see Spanish language signs all the time, most often in big stores, because the politics of immigration aside, it’s good for business if your clientele can read the signs. Second-generation immigrants assimilate and become bilingual, because if you don’t learn English you’re doomed to a life of low-paying menial jobs.
Perhaps, if Ukrainian politicians could concentrate less on punching each other in the face and focus more on giving Ukraine a prosperous future, the language issue would become less contentious. Anybody with ambition who wanted to play in the big leagues would be motivated to learn the language of the unitary centre, which is Ukrainian and will remain so. Russian speakers might look over the border at their cousins and feel pity. They might even read a volume of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry by choice instead of as a legal obligation in school. Well, OK, that last one’s probably going a bit far. However, you get my drift.
1 June 2012