“In the Language of Putin” — Ukraine’s Policy of Forced Assimilation – Part I

Dear Readers:

Today I have this piece, which tackles the thorny issue of Ukrainian language policy.  This is the story of mostly ordinary people who are fed up and fighting back against attempts to force them to speak Ukrainian in public.

Bilingualism in the Ukraine used to be a fairly non-contentious issue, with Russian and Ukrainian dialects peacefully coexisting (not unlike French and English in Quebec)until the Maidan coup of 2014.

But after Maidan, militant Ukrainian Nationalists have attempted to impose their own dialect as the only acceptable one in everyday use.  Threats against the legal status of Russian was one of the key issues which impelled the residents of the Donbass region to rebel and secede from the Ukraine.  Similar attempts to suppress Hungarian and other languages in the Western Ukraine, have led to a secession movement there as well.

One should note that the vast majority of Ukrainian residents have at least passive knowledge of both Russian and Ukrainian, with a preference for one or the other as the actively-spoken one.  The “active” language is the one in which they feel most competent to form spoken sentences.  This functional bilingualism reminds me of a scene I personally witnessed in a public place in the U.S., in the town in which I live:  A Hispanic woman and her daughter were standing inside a shop carrying on a complete two-sided conversation, with the mother chattering away in Spanish and the daughter responding in English!

Many studies have noted the benefits of bilingualism to the developing brain.  And there are benefits to the developed brain as well.  Namely, it behooves people to know at least one international language; such knowledge opens them up to the larger world.  Examples of such “international” languages being English, French, Italian, Chinese, Russian, etc.  The Ukrainian language, delightful as it is, can no longer be considered an international language, due to the rapid economic decline of the Ukraine and its teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state ripe for partition.  Hence, any Ukrainian mother who is not putting her child into the classroom to learn an international language, is doing a great a disservice to that child.  Any Ukrainian child who grows up speaking only the Ukrainian dialect, will find himself cut off from a world of knowledge and opportunities.

Putting on my Linguist cap here:  The very notion of politicizing language is illogical and constitutes a form of “magical” thinking.  Namely, mistaking the Medium for the Message.  Human Language itself is nothing more than a system of encoding and expressing thoughts/meaning.  In theory, it matters not whether the transmission of thoughts occurs via French, German, or a series of beeps.  Therefore, the contention of Ukrainian Nationalists, that anybody speaking Russian is expressing a political stance is, again, a form of magical thinking.  And yet, ironically, Nationalist bullying has led to an everyday form of Street Resistance in which some Ukrainian residents insist on speaking Russian as a form of defiance.

With that preamble, and without further commentary, here is the piece in question:

“She Will No Longer Work As A Conductor”

A train conductor named Nina Vakulik who works the Nikolaev – Ivano-Frankovsk route may lose her job because of a passenger’s complaint.  The passenger’s name is Yaroslav Popovich.  Yaroslav told his side of the story on his Facebook page:

She addresses me in Russian:  “Your ticket and documents.”  I ask her to serve me in Ukrainian.  She reacts aggressively:  “Who told you that I must serve you in Ukrainian?  I don’t know Ukrainian, and I don’t plan to learn it.  I will serve you in Russian.  If you don’t know Russian, then go and learn it, you Nationalist.”

Popovich then hastened to complain to the manager of the train, with the latter promising to take measures:  “If she doesn’t know Ukrainian, then she won’t work any more as a conductor, we’ll transfer her into an office job.  Not only that, but we will be sure to coach all of our conductors.”

We don’t have Vakulik’s side of the story, but we know she is in trouble, as is every Ukrainian citizen who is even accused of “disrespecting” the official state language.  For example, in the fall of 2017 a customer of the store “EKO Market” in the town of Vyshgorod called the police and lodged an official complaint when one of the shopgirls spoke to him in Russian:

The cashier started to ask me questions in a foreign language, I asked her to speak in Ukrainian, and she refused.  I am reporting that she has violated the laws of the Ukraine, according to which the default is to serve (customers) in Ukrainian.  She told me quite brazenly:  “I don’t understand Ukrainian.  I’m Russian.”

There is actually a fanatical cadre of Ukrainian Nationalist “volunteers” who roam around public places and try to catch people who, in their view, are violating Ukrainian language policy.  The bullying campaign against those in violation then continues on social media.

The Case of Yury Romanenko

There was a famous incident in the summer of 2017 when the well-known Ukrainian blogger and journalist Yury Romanenko was asked to leave the TV studio when he refused to speak in Ukrainian  [in which he is actually quite fluent].

Romanenko (seated in the middle) is asked to leave the show.

The host of the show “Straight Talk”, Ostap Drozdov, had asked Romanenko to speak in Ukrainian, and the latter agreed; but in the course of the show he switched to Russian.  Drozdov interrupted him and asked him to switch back to Ukrainian, but the blogger refused on matter of principle:  “No, I don’t wish to speak in Ukrainian.”  “In that case,” Drozdov ordered him, “I am asking you to take off your mic and leave the studio.”  To which Romanenko agreeably complied.

Later Drozdov posted an entire emotional manifesto on social media justifying his ham-fisted actions in the studio:  “Russian-speaking people will cause a war in the Ukraine.  They stubbornly ignore the concept of a single state language.  You, who are mono-lingual Russian speakers on principle, you may well be great people, you might donate money to the army, your sons may be serving in the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces, but you yourselves without even understanding this, will be the cause of a war.  Because you, carriers of the Russian language, ignoring Ukrainian, mark my country as a country of the Russian world.  Your language is not just the language of Pushkin, but also of Putin.  Your language is not just the language of Dostoevsky, but also of the Luhansk-Donetsk hirelings.  Your language is not just the language of Tsvetaeva, but also of Patriarch Kirill.  Your language makes my country a country of the Russian world.  The hiss of bullets and the thundering of Grads sounds in your language.  This is our common tragedy.  You will never admit this.  But somebody must say this to you, and I beg you to think about this.  Switch to Ukrainian.  In 25 years perhaps it will be said:  Every citizen must know the official language, and know how to use it.  And if you don’t, then you are a dysfunctional citizen.”

The ideas expressed in Drozdov’s rant are no longer the bailiwick of just marginal radical activists, they are quickly being mainstreamed, along with the rollback of Russian language teaching and limitations imposed on the use of Russian on TV, radio, and other media.

Next:  anti-Nationalists find creative ways to fight back.

[to be continued]

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