An important new book by the distinguished University of Vienna linguist Michael Moser promises to be the definitive account of the anti-Ukrainian language policies of the Yanukovych regime. Entitled Language Policy and Discourse on Languages in Ukraine under President Viktor Janukovyč, 25 February 2010–28 October 2012, Moser’s monograph is slated for publication as part of the “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” series with Ibidem Press in Germany. Professor Moser is the author of eight books and a specialist on the Slavic languages in general and Ukrainian in particular.

The book begins with a short overview of the Ukrainian language’s historical development and treatment by both the Russian czarist and Soviet regimes. In particular, during the Soviet period:

The population of Ukraine was increasingly Russified through Russian-language education, Russian-language media, and the prevalent use of Russian in the public sphere. The use of the Ukrainian language was increasingly restricted to intellectual spheres that were under control of the totalitarian system, while the Ukrainian language standard was brought as close to Russian as possible. Apart from the Western territories that became part of the Soviet Union only in 1944, the Ukrainian standard language was rarely spoken in the streets of Ukrainian cities. Owing to widespread Soviet propaganda, those who did so were readily labeled either as country bumpkins or as “nationalists.” These tendencies lost momentum only when the Soviet Union was already about to collapse. But while the breakup of the Soviet Union did bring about a revival of the Ukrainian language, Russian never ceased to be widely used or even dominate in many spheres of life.

Given seven decades of forced Russification and de-Ukrainization, the Russian language enjoys exalted status in independent Ukraine. As Moser says, “My main argument is that the Russian language has never been under threat in Ukraine, but on the contrary tends to threaten the Ukrainian language.” Worse, the Yanukovych regime and the Party of Regions are doing everything they can to discriminate against the Ukrainian language and promote Russian.

While President Viktor Janukovyč and many others have routinely declared that Ukraine’s language legislation must go along “the European way” … concrete political actions have had a quite different touch and not led to any actual support [of] Ukrainian prior to the elections of 28 October 2012. Instead, it has only been the Russian language that has been quite efficiently promoted under the slogan of the “human right for the native language.” One vehicle of the propaganda has been the insistence on the alleged importance … of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in Ukraine. This deserves attention inasmuch as Russian, though in fact legally protected by the Charter, does not meet the criteria of a regional or minority language as defined by the Charter itself. In contrast, neither the President nor the party in power have demonstrated any serious efforts for the development of any of the true regional or minority languages of Ukraine—or for the “human rights” of the speakers of those languages. Moreover, virtually nothing has been done to meet the demands of Ukrainophone citizens of Ukraine with regard to spheres where Ukrainian is obviously underrepresented, as in the media.

But that’s not all. As I’ve repeatedly argued in this blog, the Yanukovych regime doesn’t just discriminate against Ukrainian language, identity, and culture, it is positively hostile and in fact embraces a discourse and worldview that can best be termed “Russian supremacist,” with all the nasty connotations that term conveys. According to Professor Moser: “those representatives of the party in power who take an active part in Ukrainian language policy routinely refer to the Ukrainian language and identity only along patterns that have been well-known since Russian imperial and Soviet times. … they stick to an image of Ukrainian as an incomplete or ‘soiled’ language of little or no value as compared to the ‘great and powerful’ Russian language.”

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s domestic Ukrainophobes have found support in Vladimir Putin’s hyper-chauvinist Russia.

Particularly since 2004, official Russia and other ideologists of Russkij Mir [the Russian World Foundation] have routinely stigmatized the alleged suppression of the Russian language and the Russophone population of Ukraine, while the minority rights of the Ukrainian population, the second-largest minority in the Russian Federation, have increasingly been not only neglected, but even violated during the past two and a half years. Along with that, official Russia has returned to Russian imperialist ideologemes denying the very existence of the Ukrainian nation and language. Moreover, Russkij Mir ideologists in Russia as well as in Ukraine have increasingly depicted any initiatives for the support of the Ukrainian language as “nationalist” or “fascist” and stylized their own attempts to maintain or enlarge the Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, for which the Russian language plays a crucial role, under the slogan of a struggle against “fascism.”

There are several villains in Moser’s measured account, but two are worth mentioning. The first is the notorious anti-intellectual thug Vadim Kolesnichenko, who was the driving force behind the anti-Ukrainian language law adopted by Ukraine’s Parliament last summer. Here’s Moser on Kolesnichenko: “Kolesničenko’s discourse perfectly demonstrates the essence of the current struggle for the ‘human right for the native language’ in Ukraine. The same person who routinely refers to ‘European values’ and the necessity of the democratization of Ukraine, particularly in the sphere of language legislation, routinely makes statements that present him as a totalitarian politician of a neo-Stalinist type, who has cultivated a remarkable type of post-Soviet new-speak filled with hate rhetoric.”

The other villain is, of course, the notorious intellectual thug Dmitri Tabachnik, Ukraine’s minister of education, science, youth, and sports. According to Moser: “In the educational sphere, where the dissemination of the Ukrainian language had been most successful until 2010 (although Russophone schools or classes have always remained widespread particularly in the South and the East of the country) … Tabačnyk has made all possible efforts to cut the use of Ukrainian language and foster the use [of] Russian instead. This concerns preschool, school, and university teaching as well as the production of textbooks or the procedures of entrance exams. Tabačnyk continues to deny the very existence of the Ukrainian nation even as Minister of Ukraine.”

Professor Moser’s conclusions are not entirely gloomy:

There is no doubt that language policy as conducted under Viktor [Janukovyč’s] Presidency will have a major impact on the history of the Ukrainian language in the years to come, and that this impact will tend to be to the detriment of the state language. In the end, however, the actual impact of this policy depends on factors that are not under the direct control of politics. The decisive factor will be the reaction of all citizens of Ukraine[:] Those who speak whatever language they wish, but accept the status of Ukrainian as the state language of Ukraine and have a favorable attitude toward it, [a]nd those whose preferred language is Ukrainian and whose loyalty toward their language is of crucial importance.

There are two other reasons for some optimism. First, the Yanukovych regime is dreadfully incompetent, and policymakers who cannot tie their own shoelaces are unlikely to destroy a language. And second, the regime and its supremacist allies won’t be around for much longer. Ukrainian language, culture, and identity will.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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