Ukrainian is not Russian

« previous post | next post »

Paul Goble has an article in Window on Eurasia — New Series (7/24/21) that is short, succinct, and significant enough to quote in its entirety:  "Despite Putin’s Words, Moscow Does Recognize the Ukrainian Language as Distinct, Yaroshinskaya Says":

            Staunton, July 17 – All[a] Yaroshinskaya, a senior Moscow commentator who was politically active at the end of Soviet times and the beginning of Russian ones, says that whatever Vladimir Putin says about Russians and Ukrainians being one people, even he has been forced to recognize that a separate Ukrainian language has existed for a long time.

            Beyond question, Putin wants Ukrainians to speak Russian; but his discussion of the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations unintentionally calls attention to Russian efforts from the 18th century up to now of Moscow’s efforts to restrict Ukrainian, an acknowledgement of its existence and power (

         Again and again the tsars and the commissars and now “democratic” Russian leaders have tried to restrict Ukrainian and get Ukrainians to speak Russian. Yaroshinskaya details the decrees and decisions of Russian rulers from the times of Peter the Great to the present; and she points as well to the single exception until now.

            That was the period in the 1920s when the Soviets, under their policy of korenizatsiya or “rooting,” required all officials in the non-Russian republics to know the titular language on pain of losing their jobs. That policy created a large cadre of people with new linguistic skills and helped win support among the non-Russians for Soviet power.

            But in the early 1930s, Stalin ended that policy and returned to the Russian-first one of his predecessors and successors. Like them, he believed that the promotion of non-Russian languages helped power the rise of nationalistic and secessionist sympathies and movements and therefore suppressed those who had risen under korenizatsiya.

            “History,” Yaroshinskaya says, “as is well known repeats itself. Today in Ukraine is taking place so to speak a corrected version of korenizatsiya. And in doing so, the present-day Kyiv authorities are acting in the best traditions of the Muscovite Bolsheviks.” The successors of the latter are reacting in exactly the same way too.

            But in doing so, they are admitting de facto what they publicly deny: Ukrainian is a self-standing language; it isn’t some dialect of Russian that can be readily suppressed.

Alla Yaroshinskaya is a formidable figure.  Born (February 14, 1953) in Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine and educated at Kiev University, she is noted, among many other achievements, "For revealing, against official opposition and persecution, the extent of the damaging effects of the Chernobyl disaster on local people."  (source)

In closing, I would note that the question of whether Ukrainian is a separate language from Russian reverberates profoundly with the contention over whether the major topolects of Sinitic are separate languages from Mandarin, formerly a perennial matter of debate on Language Log, but more recently and increasingly only an issue of concern for ardent Chinese nationalists.


Selected readings


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Bob Ladd said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 10:11 am

    "…required all officials in the non-Russian republics to know the titular language on pain of losing their jobs."

    What did the author mean by titular here? Feels a lot like he might have picked a word he wasn't really sure how to use.

  2. Terry K. said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 11:15 am

    @Bob Ladd

    I took that to mean things like England: English; Scotland: Scottish; Ukraine: Ukrainian. Although, I suppose it's rather more like Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic: Ukrainian. And from looking at the list of (former) Republics in Wikipedia, looks like that does actually work for all of the Republics. They all had an official language that matches the Republic name. (Assuming the Russian matches the English in this, which is a reasonable supposition.)

    Now that you draw attention to it, though, I'm curious if the author's word choice (in English) does or doesn't reflect the actual wording of the requirement (in Russian).

  3. Terry K. said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 11:22 am

    Ooops… Scotland: Scottish is perhaps a bad example, as there's Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and Scottish English, but not "Scottish".

  4. Maxim said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 11:36 am

    @Terry K.,
    Yaroshinskaya uses wording "languages of national minorities".
    Naturally, it used to be (and continues to be) a topic fraught with numerous political and practical complications.

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 12:16 pm

    "Titular" was common usage during the Soviet period. E.g. Qazaq (Kazakh) was the "titular" language of the Kazakh SSR, which in the Soviet era had about 40% Russian population (some of whom were Russian-speaking Ukrainians). Uzbek was the titular language of the Uzbek SSR, although "official" Uzbek was (and still is) based on the heavily Iranized dialect of Tashkent. In the north, there were numerous Qïpchaq Turkic-speakers (a language distinct from Tashkent Uzbek) – the language of the actual Uzbeks who conquered the country in 1500. In the western zone, there were sizable heavily Oguz-influenced speakers, using a language closer to Türkmen than to Tashkent Oghuz. Qara Qalpaq, a separate Qïpchaq Turkic language is spoken in the Qaraqalpaq republic within Uzbekistan. The situation in Ukraine is complicated. In the major and many lesser cities, urban centers, many people spoke a Ukrainian-influenced Russian, termed Surzhyk. Brezhnev's Russian was an example of that (he was an ethnic Russian). Ukrainian was the "titular" language of the Ukrainian SSR, spoken more in rural areas. Western Ukraine (Halychyna) was an exception. Polish was widely spoken in L'viv (L'vov, Lwów, Lemberg) and Ukrainian was the daily language of Ukrainians there. The situation in Belarus' was similar to that of the Ukraine. The local version of Surzhyk was/is called "Trasianka". Belarusian was the titular language, but prior to 1991, largely heard in rural areas. Lukashenko almost always speaks in Russian, even today.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 12:40 pm

    @Peter B. Golden

    Thanks! That explains it – specialist jargon rather than poorly controlled low-frequency general vocabulary.

  7. profan said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 2:39 pm

  8. Michael Carasik said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 4:59 pm

    Ages ago my college professor of Russian told us he used to laugh whenever he heard Khrushchev (a Ukrainian) give a speech in Russian. He would mumble because he couidn't get the Russian case endings right.

  9. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 27, 2021 @ 7:02 am

    Isn't it risky for Russians to claim that Ukrainian is a "dialect" of Russian? I mean, doesn't that leave open the Ukrainian counter-argument that both Russian AND Ukranian/Belarusian are nothing more than 6th century dialects of Ruthenian?

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 27, 2021 @ 7:05 am

    Edit: Meant "16th century", not "6th century".

RSS feed for comments on this post