Friday, May 3, 2019

Modernizing Ukrainian a Long-Term Challenge for Kyiv, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – Vladimir Pastukhov sparked a firestorm of criticism (as well as some passionate support) when he suggested not long ago that the Ukrainian language law was “the best gift” Kyiv has offered Vladimir Putin since he invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea (

            Now, another argument he has made about the language situation in Ukraine seems set to set off another and perhaps even more intense debate. The London-based Russian analyst has suggested that modernizing the Ukrainian language is a real and often unacknowledged challenge for Kyiv (

            Discussing his earlier article, Pastukhov says that there are “two extreme points of view on the language problem in Ukraine.” On the one hand, representatives of the Russian nation don’t see any problem with a large segment of Ukrainians speaking Russian. And on the other, many Ukrainians believe they must make the transition to a Ukrainian-only space very quickly.

            Ukraine is a young country and suffers from the problems of youth, he says. It has “been under thee strong colonial influence of Russia for the course of a minimum of 300 to 400 years.” That influence has not only included the spread of Russian among ethnic Ukrainians but the influence of Russian on the Ukrainian language itself. 

            One most ask oneself: “can a state exist if there is no linguistic unity at its foundation? I think that it can’t.” Consequently, linguistic unity must be promoted if the state is to survive, but in the case of Ukraine that involves both the spread of Ukrainian and “the restoration of the degraded language of the titular nation.”

            But trying to solve these tasks in a “Bolshevik” manner, by force and discrimination, won’t work. Instead, it will divide and weaken Ukraine.  Instead, Pastukhov argues, Kyiv must promote the modernization of Ukrainian and its attractiveness to Russians and Ukrainians, something that will take work over many years.

            There are several reasons why Kyiv must do so slowly. The first arises from Ukraine’s demographic situation.  There is a very large Russian-speaking community, it dominates in some regions including in the capital city, and its existence means that even there, Ukrainians speak “a specific language, which may be designated a pastiche” of both.

            Expelling the Russian from Ukrainian will be much harder than getting Russians and Ukrainians to speak Ukrainian, as difficult as that will be, the London-based analyst suggests.

            Seeking to move to Ukrainian by decree, Pastukhov says, would “mean the suppression of certain cultural traditions of an enormous part of the population,” rather more than the 30 percent of Ukrainian citizens Kyiv says are Russian speakers. And that effort would necessarily provoke a deep split in Ukrainian society.

            Few people can transition from one language to another completely over even a prolonged period, and those who speak a new language to them are different than those who speak a language they have learned from birth, an observation Pastukhov says he can confirm from his own experience.

            When he speaks Russian, the analyst observes, he is one thing. Indeed, he is “one Pastukhov.”  “But when speaking English, [he is] a completely different Pastukhov who is forced to choose from a totally different and very restricted vocabulary.”  And that is after ten years of living in London!

            “There are geniuses who can” learn a new language thoroughly, “but the average individual lacks that possibility.” Forcing him or her to do so will backfire. What they speak will be degraded and that degradation will affect the language community they are being compelled to join.

            Moreover, and this is an even more important reason for Kyiv to proceed slowly and carefully. An effort to achieve everything quickly will “seriously revive the struggle within society.” That is not what Ukraine needs, Pastukhov says.  But it is very much what “Russia needs now.”

            “Russia doesn’t need Ukraine as a colony which it would like to seize. Russia needs a weak and divided Ukraine which is struggling with itself and in which Moscow can carry out a policy of administered chaos.”  Because that is so, Ukraine needs to proceed cautiously: its goals are entirely appropriate. The methods some are pushing now aren’t.

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