In Background, Ukraine, Ukraine language and nation

By a correspondent of New Cold in Ukraine, July 23, 2014

Street scene in Kyiv, photo Flikr CommonsThe statistics in Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Ukrainization’ are mostly correct when describing the general trends in education services. The numbers of students who study at secondary school and in higher education in the Ukrainian language has risen. The numbers studying in Russian have declined. (Russian language study remains required in secondary school). But the report is not a reliable measure of language in the country overall.

I recall many polls over language. Figures were often fabricated. Russian-speaking people were strongly advised to say they were Ukrainian speakers for the purposes of a given poll.

In reality, we see an opposite general trend – the sphere of Ukrainian language usage has decreased during the last 23 years [since Ukraine emerge from the Soviet Union as an independent country]. There are various factors contributing to this. First, state spending on culture and education has decreased. During the Soviet Union, for example, Ukrainian-language books were printed in millions; after the 1990’s, they are printed in the thousands.

Another aspect has been the ousting of Ukrainian people from the world of ‘Ukrainity’. Despite the rhetoric of Ukrainian language promotion and enforcement, the policy of Ukrainization often served as little more than securing the jobs for some people by ousting rivals for the same positions. The policy has, effectively, created barriers against ordinary people, eg people from rural areas. The Russian-speaking intelligentsia in Kiev mostly know the Ukrainian language, therefore, it is less affected by the language barriers that Ukrainization creates for others.

Some 30-35% of Ukrainians speak what is called ‘surzhik’ – a mix of Russian and Ukrainian languages. It is the spoken language of the lower classes–farmers, workers. The policy of promoting Ukrainian language was not designed to facilitate them to be involved in Ukrainian culture, as was language policy in the time of Lenin. Rather, it effectively marginalizes them as ‘not literate enough’.

Today, the Ukrainian language faces a trend of revival of various archaic forms, not used by the people and not spoken by ordinary Ukrainians. Thus, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie is trying to create its own ‘artificial language’ that it can use to secure its jobs by creating barriers to others.

When I hear in the streets of central Ukraine someone speaking ‘correct’ Ukrainian, I understand him or her to be from the ‘caste’ of Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia, speaking a different language than that of the common people. The aim of the policy is to exclude rather than include people, and therefore get rid of potential rivals for positions.

We should recall the rise of nationalism in Ukraine a hundred years ago. It was connected with the rise of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly small/middle merchants in western parts of the country, coming under the first affects of the development of capitalism. Ukrainian merchants who couldn’t compete with Polish, German or Russian merchants appealed to ‘nationalist’ sentiments in order to garner a part of a crowded market. But the local Ukrainian population would prefer cheaper goods from elsewhere.

The petty bourgeoisie began to use terror against its fellow ‘Ukraine’ poor farmers, demanding that they buy the local goods, though they were more expensive. Thus were organized the first paramilitary nationalist gangs aimed at threatening and terrorizing the Ukrainian lower classes. Essentially, it was the core around which Ukraine nationalism began to rise.

Today we have the same trend. Ukrainian and Russian capitalists are rivals. The Ukrainian ones appeal to patriotism. In the most extreme cases, business rivals from other nationalities are suppressed with the help of far-right militants. Even Ukrainian competitors can be declared ‘pro-Russian’ and suppressed.[1]

All told, Ukrainization in its current form leads rather to a decline of Ukrainian culture and use of language, since it implies that only the few who are ‘pure Ukrainians’ have rights. It becomes about privileges in business and jobs rather than enlargement of the number of Ukrainian speakers and enrichment of Ukrainian culture.[2] It tends to create a caste system since our bourgeoisie now is more preoccupied with preserving their wealth, positions and property. That’s also why they want to join up with the European Union. Its legislation makes it difficult to undo privatizations.

Last year, I traveled in many regions of Ukraine. I can state without equivocation that usage of the Ukrainian language has not increased, despite more than 20 years of ‘Ukrainization’ language policy.

[1] Recent YouTube postings show gangs of young rightists in Kyiv trashing the street food stands of Eurasian people that are common in the city.
[2] From a March 14, 2014 commentary on Open Democracy: “According to research from 2007, less than 0.5% of the Ukrainian population felt discriminated against because of the language they speak, and a survey in 2010 suggested that less than 5% are worried about their language being repressed.”


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