Monday, March 24, 2014

Ukraine - The Language Issue

The dominant language of every colony is that of the colonizer. One of the reasons English is the language of business around the world is that it was/is the dominant language of the British and now American empires.  When colonies break free of an empire they have a choice to make regarding language.  If they have a relatively homogeneous population with one native language, that is the one they will opt for, especially if it is different from the language of the colonizer and relations with the colonizer were less than friendly.

America, I read somewhere, almost chose German as their official language because it was the language of many of the colonists at the time and because it was NOT English.

The language of the Russian Empire was and is Russian.  Period.  It was imposed over time on the peoples of the Urals, Siberia, the Far East, the Caucuses, and the Central Asian 'Stans, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Baltics.  In many cases from time to time, other languages and cultures were rigorously surpressed. Post breakup of the USSR, many of these colonies declared independence and had to deal with ethnicity and language issues.

Kazakhstan, Stalin's favourite dumping ground for deported minorities, was 40% Russian, 40% Kazakh and 20% of about a dozen other ethnicities at independence in 1991.  (Currently it is about 64% Kazakh, 23% Russian and 13% other).  Nazarbayev had to walk a pretty fine line between the hothead Kazakhs who would like to run every Russian out of the country, given their historic treatment by Russia and the Russian population. who would like to see Russia take back about half the country arbitrarily included when Stalin drew up the borders.

Wikipedia says "Kazakhstan is officially a bilingual country: Kazakh, a Turkic language spoken natively by 64.4% of the population, has the status of the "state" language, while Russian, which is spoken by most Kazakhstanis, is declared the "official" language, and is used routinely in business, government, and inter-ethnic communication, although Kazakh is slowly replacing that. Education across Kazakhstan is conducted in either Kazakh or Russian or both".

Language in Ukraine is a huge and very complicated issue. The language of the empire is the language of privilege.  It is a constant reminder to the colony of the suffering it has endured at the hands of the colonizer.  Those remnants of the colonizers left behind view loss of their language not as a loss of privilege or a leveling of the field but as outright discrimination.  (Anyone who has tried to deal with White (Male) Privilege will understand).

There are two parts to this issue, language and ethnicity.  The 2001 census reported Ukrainian ethnicity at 77.5% and Russian ethnicity at 17.2%.  The map below shows the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians by Oblast on 2001.

Source: Wikipedia
This map shows the reverse of the above; percent of ethnic Russians by Oblast.


The picture takes on an even more Ukrainian appearance when one looks at ethnic Ukrainians at the Raion level in the map below. (Circles represent cities).
Source: Wikipedia

However Ukrainian ethnicity does not mean Ukrainian as first language. Only 67.5% of the population claim Ukrainian as their first language, while 29.6% claim Russian as their first language.  Voting tended to follow language lines, with the Russian speaking oblasts voting Party of Regions and Communist and Yanukovych and Ukrainian speaking oblasts voting Timoshenko and other Parties.

Source: Financial Post
Again, at the Raion level the picture is predominantly Ukrainian language, with Russian speakers concentrated in the cities and along the southeastern edge. Blue represents Ukrainian language with the dividing line between dark and light colours at the 80% level.

The article is HERE; another good article from the Washington Post is HERE

When Ukraine declared independence, Ukrainian was enshrined in the Constitution as the official language.  Because it had been repressed for so long, if both languages were made official, Russian would simply have overwhelmed it and Ukrainian would never have had a chance.  Virtually all Ukrainian speakers understand Russian (and vice versa, though Russian speakers sometimes pretend not to understand Ukrainian). Even today, the vast majority of publications on the news stands are in Russian, as are half the TV stations.  (Canadians will recall that Canadian content had to be legislated for Canadian TV and radio stations in order for Canada to develop any kind of cultural industry).

Russian speakers in Ukraine screamed discrimination.  Russian speakers listen to Russian TV and during elections, so it was easy to split the voters.  One of the reasons Yanukovych was elected president in 2010 was a promise to make Russia an official language. Another was that a great deal of money was put into scaring the Russian speakers about how they would be discriminated against etc etc by western Ukraine.  (He may be an SOB but he is our SOB).

The language law that Yanukovych passed entitled "any local language spoken by at least a 10% minority be declared official within that area" was based on the  European Charter of Regional Languages, originally written to protect minority languages in danger.  Obviously this was hardly the case but it allowed the bill to pass with a 50% plus one majority rather than the 75% needed to change the constitution. The bill was essentially a fraud.

One of the most serious mistakes of the new post-revolutionary Rada was to cancel Yanukovych's language law.  The president wisely refused to sign it but it played right into Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda which claimed that the fascist government would forbid people to even speak Russian.


  1. I appreciate this article, and I look forward to the next one! Merv

  2. Thank you! I was planning on writing a post on the language issue. My experience with it is from Estonia, but the issues are similar: The Soviet attempt at obliterating the local language and replacing it with Russian, which leaves lasting bitterness; the refusal to admit to speaking the "wrong" language, although most people are bilingual, and the part that language plays in making a nation, particularly when that nation has been colonized.

    1. Please do write that post. I will reference it on my blog.
      I just ran out of space to cover everything I wanted to say; such as the fact that ethnic Russians in Ukraine mostly arrived after Holodomor and after WWII to replace the millions upon millions of victims of both Stalin and Hitler. I suspect that Russians in the Baltics arrived much the same way; to replace deported people, to hold all important offices etc.

  3. Thanks for filling in some details, Al. Now, if we could just get Canadians to understand English and French.

    Blessings and Bear hugs.

  4. Thank you so much for these maps and your analysis. This evening on "As it Happens" a journalist from The Economist was expressing concern that Putin might send Russian forces from Crimea over to Transdniestria, seizing Odessa along the way and cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea. This sounded insane to me, but then, several weeks ago the seizure of Crimea would have sounded just as insane.

    1. That is what we are all afraid of. The uranium industry here in our city and the huge mines and steel mill at Krivii Rih make us fair game for "protection".



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