Much of the media and official comment on the turmoil in Ukraine has focused on geopolitical factors, with little attention to the historical context of the various issues or to one of the most emotional issues dividing Ukraine: the status of the Russian language. One of the first acts of the Ukrainian parliament following the forcible ouster of President Yanukovich was to vote by an overwhelming majority to deprive the Russian language of official status. This law was promptly vetoed, but to Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South, it was viewed as a deliberate act to make them second-class citizens.
Lev Golinkin, an American writer who was born in Kharkiv and came to the United States as a child has written a perceptive essay explaining the importance of the language issue to many in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. He has agreed that I can share it here.
The Lessons of Donetsk’s Referendum
By Lev Golinkin
While the 5/11/14 referendum conducted by eastern Ukrainian separatists cannot in any way be considered legitimate as far as fairly-monitored elections go, it does shed light on two crucial points about the situation on the ground. First, contrary to the narrative coming out of eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk Basin is not just a land of masked, Moscow-backed militants. It is also home to factory workers, miners, families, and scarf-wrapped babushki. The Kremlin didn’t smuggle several million blue-collar saboteurs and geriatric commandos into Donetsk and Luhansk; these people are locals. Second, they are angry – polling shows that while most in eastern Ukraine are not sold on secession, there is a high level of distrust with Maidan and its Western backers. And that means the U.S. should be paying attention, because the future of eastern Ukraine lies not just with Putin’s thugs, but with eastern Ukrainians themselves.
In order to understand this resentment toward Kiev and the West, it helps to examine one of the key issues: language. At the core of this is a 2012 law which allowed regional governments in areas where at least 10 percent of a language’s speakers exceeded the total percent of the population to elevate that language to regional status, in addition to the ubiquitous Ukrainian. On 2/23/14, just two days after the interim government in Kiev came to power, it moved to repeal the 2012 regional language legislation. The motion to repeal was passed by the Ukrainian parliament, then subsequently vetoed by acting president Oleksandr Turchynov on 2/28/14.
It must be stressed that the 2012 language law did not supplant or downgrade Ukrainian as the official language; it permitted regions to provide their linguistic minorities with the option to use tongues they’re most comfortable speaking in office work and official documents. (This is similar to how residents of New Jersey, for example, have the ability to take their driver’s license examinations in English or Spanish or 8 other languages.) Additionally, the legislation applied not just to Russian but to 18 separate tongues – numerous municipalities used it to elevate Romanian, Moldovan, and Hungarian to the status of regional languages. It is difficult to perceive the motion to repeal this law as move to defend Ukrainian, which was and continues to be Ukraine’s only official language; rather, it was an attack on Romanian, Hungarian, Moldovan, and especially Russian languages and a challenge to their speakers.
Why did the interim Maidan government attempt to repeal the language law, knowing it would antagonize a significant percentage of its own population? It was a long overdue case of the chickens coming home to roost…and with good reasons. For 70 years western Ukraine was Soviet Russia’s whipping boy. Today’s western Ukrainian nationalists are the survivors of a brutal, decades-long campaign aimed at eradicating Ukrainian language, culture, and – in the case of holodomor (“death-through-starvation”), a man-made famine which led to the deaths of millions – Ukrainian people. Even after 1991, Russian influence over theoretically-independent Ukraine was palpable. When Putin’s crony Viktor Yunukovych abdicated and fled the country, it gave western Ukrainian nationalists the chance to cast off the Russian yoke and fire a salvo across Moscow’s bow.
But the problem with using language as ammunition is that it didn’t hit Russia; it hit Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, Kharkiv, and Crimea. Look at it from the perspective of eastern Ukrainians. The vast majority of these native-born Ukrainians have spoken Russian their entire lives; they rely on that language to work, get pension benefits, and obtain driver’s licenses. The interim Maidan government comes to power, and instead of focusing on restructuring the economy or restoring peace, its first order of business is to vote to take away protection of the language used by a third of the country. To eastern Ukrainians, this wasn’t extending an olive branch or promoting Ukrainian unity: it was a message – “my way or the highway.” Crimea chose the highway.
America’s response to this has been largely anemic. In his 4/24/14 speech, Secretary of State John Kerry devoted one sentence to Maidan’s move to repeal the regional language law, saying that Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had pledged to support “a special status to the Russian language.” The State Department echoed this position without addressing the fact that both Yatsenyuk and Turchynov are only interim leaders and were acting against the majority of the Ukrainian parliament, which had voted to repeal the law in the first place. An even more counterproductive sentiment came from Slate, which ran an article stating that switching from Russian to Ukrainian is “no big deal…the difference is largely equivalent to that between Spanish and Portuguese.” Several million eastern Ukrainians are currently debating whether to stay with Ukraine or turn their backs on the West, and we’re telling them not to worry about losing their native language, or, better yet, stop complaining and learn Ukrainian already? If Washington wants to alienate the people of eastern Ukraine, drive them into Putin’s arms, and have Crimea all over again, then we’re moving in the right direction.
Instead of writing off the concerns of the people of the ground, Washington should be working with Kiev to cement protection of regional languages and show eastern Ukrainians they are valued and welcomed in Ukraine. (Kiev’s recent decision to hold a session of round-table talks in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is a step in the right direction.) This would also take away a major weapon in Moscow’s propaganda offensive intended to radicalize the locals against the West. Kiev and the U.S. must decide on what’s more important: enforcing Ukrainian language and western Ukrainian culture as Ukraine’s sole language and culture, or keeping eastern Ukraine. They cannot have both.
Lev Golinkin is originally from Kharkiv (at the time called Kharkov) in eastern Ukraine, and came to the United States as a child refugee from the Soviet Union. He is the author of the forthcoming A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, to be published by Random House (Doubleday) this
fall, and is a graduate of Boston College. He resides in New Jersey.