Debate on the status of Russian in Ukraine

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In the Ukrainian Vekhovna Rada (parliament) Thursday evening, there was a full and frank exchange of views on language policy:

Andrew Roth and J. David Goodman, "Push Comes to Shove, and Punch, in Ukraine Parliament", NYT 5/25/2012:

What began as a legislative debate over Ukraine’s official language policy escalated into a fist-swinging, clothes-ripping brawl between screaming, sweaty lawmakers that reverberated around the Internet on Friday, embellishing the country’s standing in the pantheon of parliamentary punchfests that are captured on camera. […]

The 450-deputy Verkhovna Rada, as Parliament is called in Ukraine, was debating a measure that would elevate the status of Russian to a second language, equal to Ukrainian, in about half the regions of the country, including Kiev. The proposal’s passionate advocates and foes reflect the deep political divisions in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic where some regions harbor deep-seated resentment of Russians.

“You’re a corpse, you have two days left to live, we will crucify you on a birch tree,” the author of the legislation, Vadim Kolesnichenko, said his lawmaker adversaries told him.

"Row over status of Russian language threatens to split Ukraine", The Guardian (Reuters) 5/25/2012:

Ukraine's ruling party has triggered violent protests with a move to upgrade the official role of the Russian language, a sensitive issue in the former Soviet republic and one that opponents say will effectively split the country.

A draft law by President Viktor Yanukovich's Regions party rekindled an emotional debate in Ukraine. Russian is the mother tongue of most people in the east and south of the country, while Ukrainian – the state language – predominates in parts of the centre and in the west.

This is everyone's favorite line from the debate:


  1. Anomaly UK said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    Now that's what I call a very differentiated discussion

  2. Alexis said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 1:41 am

    I just wish our politicians in the U.S. were so dedicated to their positions they would literally fist fight over them.

  3. Theo Vosse said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 2:08 am

    When I look at similar situations in Belgium and Spain, a choice for more than one official language only adds to the tension, most likely because of perceived imbalance. It seems that people very much prefer politicians that speak the same language, literally in this case. This is, as other issues, easily abused. What is it about language that makes it such a potent power tool?

  4. harry said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 2:42 am

    You probably wouldn't want there to exist such tensions and violence.
    Theo Vosse:
    I think it possibly comes down to the fact that in order to get one's views across and to be understood, one must use language (apart from expressing simple ideas in pictures), and that is the main idea of politics.
    There's also the fact that language is passed on in families and communities, so one's language can become a sign of where you come from, your family ties and the history and culture of your community/society, etc.

  5. maidhc said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 3:36 am

    Alexis said,
    I just wish our politicians in the U.S. were so dedicated to their positions they would literally fist fight over them.

    In 1856 South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks savagely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner into unconsciousness with a metal-tipped cane on the Senate floor. Sumner had previously made a speech opposing slavery in Kansas.

    This was one of many acts of violence leading into the American Civil War.

    Brooks died relatively soon thereafter, but Sumner, after a very long period of recovery, was able to resume his seat in the Senate and serve for another 18 years.

    The fact that such incidents are rare in American politics is, to my mind, a positive feature.

  6. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:39 am

    It would perhaps be better if all politicians handled all disagreements with fisticuffs–better than sending a nation's boys to war to fight the same disagreement on the battlefield.

  7. The Ridger said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:42 am

    Interestingly (perhaps), this clip is captioned in Russian, and most of the comments were also in Russian. (Several were in English, but they were sarcastic, addressing the humor in the fighting and not the substance.) One comment in Russian was probably made by a Ukrainian: русский язык в Украине – это зараза, которую нужно лечить, а не смириться и жить с ней! Спасибо СССР, за всё хорошее. "The Russian language in Ukraine is an infection that we must treat, not put up and live with! Thank you, USSR, for everything good"

  8. LDavidH said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:55 am

    It does make you wish that Esperanto had succeeded…

  9. Andy Averill said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:02 am

    I'm more struck by the Times's use of "embellishing". How do you embellish your standing?

  10. The Ridger said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    Esperanto wouldn't help. Ukrainian don't hate Russian (those that do) or love Russian (those that do): they hate or love RUSSIA. They fear for their independence and chance to be European, or they fear losing their national identity and becoming European. The language is a good peg to hang that on, but if Ukrainian were in fact a dialect of Russian the Left Bank Ukrainians would still be pro-Moscow and the Right Bankers pro-independence. Relations between these two countries have been fraught for centuries.

    Language is a lightning rod, but the lightning is usually something old and huge that has been fermenting for a long time (to mix a metaphor).

  11. The Ridger said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:25 am

    Also, I missed this before, but the choice of a birch in the threat is significant: the birch is the Russian symbol; Ukraine's tree is a willow (or a guelder rose if you count that as a tree instead of a bush/shrub).

  12. John said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:31 am


    It won't come to that in the US because politicians on both sides are all the same anyway.

  13. The Ridger said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 7:07 am

    @John – I don't know. I can see them coming to blows in the House over some social issue.

  14. BlueLoom said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 7:59 am

    Within recent memory (but pre-YouTube) the congressman who represents the district I live in and who is an ex-boxer took a swing at another congressman on the floor of the House. It does happen in the US, though perhaps not with the flair demonstrated in Ukraine. For that kind of "bench-clearing brawl" we have to look to baseball, hockey, basketball. . .

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    I wonder to what extent Ukrainian and Russian are mutually intelligible. Is this anything like the Danish – Swedish – Norwegian situation where you can think of the three languages as being dialects of one another? (Caution: Do not bring this idea up in a Norwegian bar.)

  16. TSTS said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Disappointing that the entire article in the NYT does not give us any information about the actual issue under discussion. One would think that mentioning how many people speak Ukrainian versus Russian at home would be useful. According to the 2001 census, about 30% of people in Ukraine report Russian as their main language, and in the eastern part of the country (the only part where the new law would apply) they make up at least half of the populations. Or maybe they could mention that current status of the two languages in schools and other institutions (something I know nothing about). Maybe fodder for a future languagelog post?

    But I guess we don't need actual facts. It's one side versus another side, and we are supposed to pick sides based on whether we feel vaguely pro-western or pro-Russian, whatever that means. Replace "Russian" in the article with "Portuguese", and it would still work.

  17. MD said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    Well, the issue of how many people speak the language etc. is relevant. But the whole tangle in fact is a bit like the "affirmative action" issue. What do you do if you have a group (in this instance, native Ukrainian speakers) that have been discriminated against, which resulted in various imbalances, like, indeed, an overwhelming percentage of Russian speakers in the Eastern Ukraine? The answer isn't necessarily as simple as "let the things go as they have been, and just let majority continue to go on as they used to.

    Full disclosure: I am a native Ukrainian speaker originally from the Western Ukraine. I only experienced the tail end of the problems, before the Soviet Union fell apart; but I, for example, had a relative who was threatened by police for speaking in Ukrainian. I now have friends who feel discriminated against because they cannot write certain forms in Russian, and their parents never taught them Ukrainian, living in a system with many incentives to focus on Russian only. I wish I could say that I am entirely sympathetic, but I am often not. Part of it, I have grown up being constantly told about the dangers of "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism", how it was linked with fascism, and so forth; all kinds of national and cultural identity issues were bundled under that heading. So in this instance the language issues are very much tangled with the historical issues, identity, culture and so forth, and not just language that appears on the surface.

  18. Lazar said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

    @TSTS: The question of native language identification, to which you refer, underplays the significance of Russian. In Ukraine (and to an even greater extent in Belarus) the number of people who identify Russian as their language of everyday communication is consistently greater than the number who identify it as their native language.

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

    I'm a bit surprised at this discussion, and it probably reflects some ignorance on my part, but I've long been under the impression that the single most important component of ethnicity is native language. Any linguists cum cultural anthropologists care to comment on that?

    But if that's the case, then it's hard to imagine anything more politically explosive than this sort of debate. And, really, there are and have been similarly violent debates around the world. Almost all long-standing intra-national ethnic conflicts I can think of involve a language divide. Maybe that's begging the question, as some ineffable cultural notion of ethnicity comes first and then, naturally, language is one of its components. But it really seems to me that while not its totality, language must surely form the biggest and most important component of ethnicity.

    Which also, to some degree, sheds some light on the anti-immigrant debate in the US. A childhood friend of mine, a conservative, a few years ago complained to me about how immigrant Hispanics were dangerously non-American, as evidenced by their display of the Mexican flag and whatnot. I pointed out to him that in my grandmother's household my entire life there were Norwegian flags and other such things. He asserted that it wasn't comparable. I just assumed, perhaps unfairly, that there was some kind of racism behind this apparently false distinction. However, on reflection now, I think it's relevant that while a few Norwegian words appeared in my family's usage here and there, no one was otherwise even fluent in the language or used it in any significant respect. Whereas, in contrast, the ubiquitous use of Spanish by many Hispanics in the US may be very alien-seeming to a certain personality.

    The irony is that my friend and I both live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where there are quite a few Hispanic families who have lived here since long before this was the US and who speak Spanish natively. I'm from this part of the state and this has always seemed to me to be normal and, really, pretty nifty, as Central/Northern New Mexico is in many respects more like Quebec than any other part of the mainland US. However, my friend grew up in the eastern part of the state, which is culturally Texan, and was settled by Texans with no indigenous population (pre-20th) extant at all, Native American or Hispanic. Also, Albuquerque itself is very anglo and relatively conservative.

    Anyway, I think it's a fact of human psychology that people are alienated by the use of "foreign" languages. More than any other factor, it triggers our tribalistic xenophobia. It strongly sorts people into "us" and "them".

    Also perhaps of interest relative to this post is Ukraine's English education initiative — they're attempting to ensure that every schoolchild receives English language instruction and one of the ways in which they're doing this is to offer ESL teaching positions to native anglophones with minimal qualifications and relatively generous pay and working conditions. I considered doing this, actually, and so I'm moderately familiar with the program and the experiences of those who've worked for it.

    Because of this, coincidentally and related to some other news involving my interest in Russian literature, just this morning I was idly wondering about the Urkainian mood with regard to Russian, both the language and the literature. I'm well aware of the regional and geopolitics. But I'd guessed that the long association, as well as the USSR, would make the larger cultural issue much more ambiguous. Has the rise of Ukrainian nationalism created a hostility to previously esteemed Russian literature and culture? My guess was that this varies from region to region and person to person. I wondered how I would fair in that environment — I've become moderately hostile to contemporary Russian politics, but hugely admire and love its literature, history, and culture. But I'd love to know much more about Urkaine and its history, literature, and culture. I wonder how difficult it is for an American anglophone like myself to navigate such environments.

    Also, what are good models for the Russia/Ukraine relationship? I felt like I should have several obvious examples immediately available to me, yet none I could think of seemed quite right.

  20. A.M. said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 1:41 am

    Dan Lufkin – this is a complicated question. The true Ukrainain is indeed an independent language; if I, a native Russian speaker, try to read a book in Ukrainian, I can follow the general outline of the story, but not more, same with Ukrainian TV. However, to my ears, the language that is spoken by most East-bankers etc., is more like Russian made to sound Urkainian. When two people from Kiev speak Ukrainian to each other, I undrestand about 90% of the conversation, with two people from Lviv I often can't make anything out of it.

    And second to what MD said, the whole question is far from monochromous. Even on the political side, in every frormer USSR republic there's a sizeable group of people who feel nostalgic about the days of the Empire, when (according to that group) people were more secure socially, less corrupted by money, and could associate themselves with one of the top powers in the world. The fact that the formet Soviet states are still economically interdependent adds to the imortance of the "Russian question", and explains why many politicans are willing to play the card.

    Keith M. Willis – the model would be something like the EU – common economics, allied military, different administration, but the public in both countries dosnt't seem to be ready for that. The models that "sell" are either isolation or total domination a-la USSR, alas.

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    And, wow, I'm embarrassed. I confused Georgia with Urkaine and that's just inexcusable. Hopefully I look a little less stupid for 'fessing up while (I'm sure) others just politely looked away and didn't comment.

    Having said that, so is it the case that there's more friendliness between Russia and Ukraine than is the case elsewhere in much of the former USSR? Has Russia not been as typically dominant/imperialist with Ukraine as it has been elsewhere? Or is there not as solidly an ethnicity in Ukraine as elsewhere and it, and its relationship to Russian as an ethnicity, is more ambiguous?

  22. A.M. said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 5:41 am

    Yes, Ukraine and Belarus are different. The other Soviet respublics were laways more or less colonies, and their perception generally follows the regular "metropoly-colony" clichees. Ukraine and Belarus are actually more of a "ein Volk, eine Sprache, [ein Fuhrer]" case as long as most Russians are concerned. These territories are where the Russian (East Slavic) civilization originated; in fact, when you start learning Russian history at school, you start with the founding of Kiev. Then these territories were lost to Tartars, Lithuania and Poland, and the Russian state had to retreat to the previously colonized regions to the North (the region now known as "The Goilden Ring"), and the current Ukraine and Belarus were regained centuries later. The process of taking these lands back, understandably, is one man's occupation, another man's Reconquista.

    To keep the discussion within linguistics, Ukraine's case is so special, that, until recently, the Russian language used a different preposition to say that something happened "in Ukrane" – instead of the regular "в", as in "в Польше" (in Poland), "в США" (in the USA) you said "На Украине" (literally "on Ukraine"), similar to "на Востоке" (in the East), "на краю" ("on the edge/end" – btw, the literal meaning of "Украина" is something like "the land on the end/border/frontier). It was only after Ukraine's protests that this usage was discriminatory and politically incorrect, that the rules were changed and the prescribed correct version was changed to "в Украине", although you might imagine it's hard for many people to grasp.

  23. A.M. said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 5:42 am

    Oops… how many typos… sorry!

  24. MD said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Bringing it back to linguistics a bit, one thing that really surprises me about Ukraine is the change in perceived language standard. I have not lived there for 15 years now, but when I was growing up, there was a clear notion that there is standard Ukrainian, which was based on Kyiv-Poltava dialect (essentially spoken in central Ukraine). I always knew that I lived in a region with its own "Galytsky" dialect, and had a clear notion that there were differences with the standard taught in school.

    Nowadays I sometimes meet students coming from Ukraine, a generation younger than I am. They seem to always think that my dialect is somehow the "true" Ukrainian. Or, as one of them recently said, "I don't speak Ukrainian to my parents, I speak surzhyk", "surzhyk" being an often derogatory term for eastern and southern dialects that contain a great number of words borrowed from Russian.

    Having learned something of linguistics, I tend to think about such things as dialects now, and not attach great significance to "pure" language. But in Ukraine there seems to be a very strong prescriptivist movement, and a notion of language purity which is many times stronger and more pervasive than the prescriptivist opinions in English this blog so often talks about, and people generally having very strong opinions about how one "should" speak in Ukrainian and where they or others may fall short of that standard.

  25. Michael Newman said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    It's amusing to see this from Barcelona (where I am now). People can get passionate about the subject on either side of the Catalan-Spanish debate, but most see them as a well a bit tiresome. Bilingualism is just largely accepted. I've been doing about 40 interviews in a school here mostly full of L1 Spanish speakers, and have heard two complaints about the Catalan medium education, and I had to ask to get them.

  26. soonerliberty said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    I'll weigh in on this. I have an M.A. in Russian and have a Ukrainian wife from the western half of Ukraine. To put it mildly, those in the west of the Ukraine despise Russians and often claim the Nazis were a better option than the Communists. Golodomor/Holodomor did not help matters.

    As far as the language is concerned, it is not a dialect of Russian. It is a full-blown language. In fact, a lot of Ukrainian is closer to old church Slavonic than is Russian. Ukrainian also exhibits heavy influence from Polish. A Russian speaker could understand anywhere from 10% – 90% depending on the context. I'm learning it. The grammar is similar but the vocab is different. Many Russian chauvinists claim Ukrainian is a dialect, but it's like saying that Dutch is a dialect of German. There is no substance to the claim.

  27. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    However, on reflection now, I think it's relevant that while a few Norwegian words appeared in my family's usage here and there, no one was otherwise even fluent in the language or used it in any significant respect.

    I think this is a generational thing, though. My grandfather was born in South Dakota and lived in a Norwegian-speaking household in his early childhood; he was adopted by Danish immigrants in the same town and had to adjust to a Danish-speaking household. And I know from the stories my mother tells that his adoptive parents spoke Danish quite a lot for the rest of their lives, though my grandfather was himself native-level fluent in US English.

    From what I see of my neighborhood and family today, I don't think today's Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children are assimilating any more slowly than that. It's pretty analogous.

  28. MD said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    Michael Newman, how does the integration work in Barcelona? Do you ever get monolinguals? The challenge in Ukraine is the populist subtext of regional language laws, which is used by some politicians as a selling point: "if you are currently a monolingual Russian speaker, and a regional Russian law is passed, then there will be no need to learn Ukrainian for either you or your children, Russian will be accepted, and everyone knows Russian, anyway". The last part of this is not true anymore, not for kids born in the Western Ukraine in the last 15 years or so, who never studied Russian in school. Even I, with my Soviet education and 8 years of Russian in school retain my near-native spoken Russian competence, but can no longer write Russian properly after about 20 years out of practice. Which I discovered to my consternation recently when a bank manager in Ukraine demanded that I fill their internal form in Russian, claiming that they don't have any in Ukrainian (which is against the current law, but I was not going to press that point at the time). I assume that Spanish speakers from other parts of Spain would face the same problem in Barcelona. Or would an adult have to learn Catalan if they moved there permanently?

  29. elizabeth yew said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    The current issue of the New Yorker (December 24&31,2012) has an article about a merchant ship traveling from Murmansk to China via the Arctic circle. The (American) reporter describes the officers as all from the Ukraine, and all the seaman from the Phillipines. He said the officers all spoke together in Russian. Can be be correct? Could they have been speaking Ukrainian which the reporter took to be Russian?

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