Staunton, January 8 – The experience of Belarus shows that any country bordering Russia that agrees to make Russian a second state language puts its own language in danger and its population at risk of russification, according to Laris Masenko, a Ukrainian philologist at Kyiv’s Mohylev Academy.
And that is why, she says in an interview with Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service, Ukraine must not ever agree to giving Russian the status of an official or state language but rather insist that on its territory there is only one government language and that is Ukrainian
Since medieval times, the Ukrainian philologist points out, the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages have diverged, and as a result, “now the Belarusian language is in a much worse situation than the Ukrainian, although the situation of Ukrainian is one that cannot be considered satisfactory.”
In the 1920s, both language developed rapidly, but then the situation began to deteriorate with Soviet-sponsored russification. And that has continued since the two countries gained their independence, especially since “the Belarusians adopted Russian as a state language,” a step that has left their own language in much worse shape.
Exactly how bad things were with regard to the Ukrainian language under the Soviets is not well documented because no socio-linguistic investigations were permitted until very near the end of the USSR. Only in the 1980s did a group at the Institute of Linguistics emerge; but its researchers in fact promoted russification, Masenko says.
For example, she recalls, they conducted a survey ostensibly to find out about Ukrainian language knowledge but in fact “asked questions in order to determine how well [Ukrainians] had mastered Russians. Moreover, in every university were set up chairs for the Russian language. “Why should there have been so many researchers on Russian in Ukraine?”
At present, the state of Ukrainian is “worse” in the major industrial cities, but “the smaller the population center, the higher the percentage of people who consider the Ukrainian language to be their native tongue and use it; in the villages, the percentage is higher still,” she reports.
“In general,” the philologist continues, “the consciousness of people can be defined by the language which they consider to be native. If even a Russian-speaking individual considers Ukrainian to be his native language, this is the beginning stage as people recognize their attachment to the Ukrainian language.”
“But if a Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainian considers his native language to be Russian, then this individual is lost” to the nation, Masenko says. “Often such people are even more aggressive than Russian-speaking Russians,” as for example, Putin’s colleagues Valentina Matvienko and Dmitry Kozak who “are helping to destroy the Ukrainian state.”
“The most important thing that the Ukrainian language has received in the years of independence is state status.” Enormous progress has been made in education with the shifting of schools from Russian to Ukrainian even in Kyiv, where there were no objections to such a change.
But Ukraine has failed to do what Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have done and establish a state agency charged with protecting and promoting the language. Were one in place, lectures in many universities would not still be given in Russian and there would be more Ukrainian in all parts of public life.
At least, however, “a generation which understands Ukrainian and masters it has grown up” since 1991. Very few of these people can say that they “do not know Ukrainian” at all – and that is progress. There has also been progress in high and mass culture, although most of this took place in the 1990s and there has been less since.
“From the middle of the 1990s, we in fact transferred the main means of mass culture – television – to a position under the influence of Russia. All our channels belong to oligarchs, and they conduct their own policy. Here very large losses have occurred” with many associating Ukrainian with compulsion and entertainment with Russian.
Despite this, there has been progress especially among the young, but not nearly enough – and no one should comfort himself with the notion that there are Russian speaking Ukrainian patriots. There are indeed some, but there are many Russian speakers who are not – and who hold Ukraine and the Ukrainian language back.
Ukrainians have not “unified education and culture, and Russia uses this,” given its “enormous tradition of falsification” and the alike. And Moscow exploits the fact that many grew up in Soviet times when Russian was dominant. Changing that is hard. As one artist put it, changing cultures is not as easy as changing buses.
And because Ukraine is a democracy, it faces difficulties in this regard that authoritarian states do not. But that also gives it advantages, and Ukrainians who care about their language and nation must exploit them by being flexible enough to allow change to emerge organically rather than by fiat.