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The turmoil in the Ukraine: It’s about the language, stupid!

Apr 22, 2014
By John Freivalds

300 million in 1990.

150 million in 2025.

100 million in 2035.

The figures indicate the number of Russian speakers in the world and show that, in a mere 45 years, their numbers will have declined by a third. It is this huge decline, plus action by the Ukrainian Parliament that was the catalyst, and not the only cause, for Russian President Vladimir Putin invading Crimea.

The action: the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkovna Rad) abolished the 2012 law “On State Language Policy” the day after it dismissed President Victor Yanukovich. The law allowed the country’s regions like Crimea to use more than one official language, in addition to Ukrainian, where over 10 percent of the local population speaks another language. Ukraine has 27 regions and several in eastern Ukraine, thus, it adopted Russian as an official second language. Two western regions introduced Romanian and Hungarian as official languages. No more.

Polish Foreign Minister Radolsaw Sikrski saw this as a big mistake: “The new Ukrainian government should signal ever so eloquently to the ethnic minorities in Ukraine that they are welcome in Ukraine, that they are going to be part of the new Ukraine. Also, Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe, with its laws on protecting minorities. Attacks on the use of other languages in Ukraine are a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights.”

The Russian foreign minister also weighed in on the “infringing of the right to speak [people’s] native languages, discrimination based on ethnicity or country of origin, attacks and acts of vandalism performed on monuments of historical and cultural heritage such as Ukraine’s Soviet and the Imperial Russian past have been torn down all over the country in the past few days.”

Geopolitical considerations, such as Russia having its naval base in Crimea and the shrinking in size after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were all too much for Putin to take. The venerable mother tongue that he grew up with was being ‘dissed’ as a ‘sobichi  yazik,’ a dog’s language, as the Russians call other languages of the former Soviet Union.

What Ukraine did was dramatic, but all the former Soviet republics have encouraged their native languages at the expense of Russian, which the Soviet Russians did to them. Claire Nutall, writing in Russia Beyond the Headlines in an article entitled “In Central Asia Russian Wave Ebbs Away” notes Kazakhstan as an example: “Although the Russian language is deemed equal to Kazak under the constitution, legislation and programs in Kazakhstan since 2001 are increasing the use of the Kazak language as the main language of government. This proves to be an obstacle to access in education and enrollment in the civil service for a large part of the Russian minority.”

The same is true in Latvia, where I was born and still own land. But to protect itself, Latvia joined NATO and the European Union and adopted the euro - all to send a warning to Russia. I used to be considered a fringe nationalist by many people, but after what happened in Ukraine, I am mainstream again.

Putin is frightened by what he sees happening to the Russian language. According  to www.Russian-Moscow, "by 2025 Russian will be spoken by as many people as in the beginning of the 20th century. According to forecasts, within 10 years Russian should be overtaken by French, Hindi, Arabic and, within 15 years, by Portuguese.”

OK Ukraine

The Web site Kwintessential notes: “One of the remarkable aspects of the Ukrainian language is the fact that it exists at all in the modern world. It has been banned and discouraged by many non-Ukrainian regimes but has always maintained its existence somehow, even by informal methods of keeping the tongue alive such as in songs, folklore, and Ivan Kotlyarwsky’s “Eheyida,” which was the first book to be published in Ukrainian and has become a classic.

That the Russians would now claim Ukrainians were being unfair to Russian-speakers is ludicrous considering what was done in the Stalin era. Quoting from Wikipedia: “Major repression started in 1929-30 when a large group of Ukrainian intelligentsia was arrested and executed... Ideologues warned of over-glorifying Ukraine’s Cossack past and supported the closing of all Ukrainian cultural institutions and literary publications. The systematic assault upon Ukrainian identity and education combined with the effects of an artificial famine upon the peasantry - the backbone of the nation - dealt the Ukrainian language and identity a crippling blow from which it would not completely recover.”

The Ukrainian language is a member of the east Slave subgroup of Slavic languages and the official language of the Ukraine. According to Wikipedia, lexically the closest to Ukrainian is Belarusian (84 percent common vocabulary), followed by Polish (70 percent), Serbo-Croatian (68 percent), Slovak (66 percent), and Russian (62 percent).

The Russians maintain that it is merely a dialect of Russiaas it retains a degree of mutual intelligibility. The Spanish government says the same thing about Catalan. The Ukrainian language has six vowels and is written in a version of Cyrillic; the diction of the Ukrainian language has 135,000 entries.

In a poll done in 2009, of 1,000 Ukrainians, 52 percent said they use Russian as a chief means of communication; 41 percent said they use Ukrainian; 7 percent said they use a mixture of both.

More language intervention

The developments in the Ukraine are symptomatic of the decline of the Russian language. The decline is being debated at the highest levels of the Russian government. According to themoscownews, Benjamin Kagarov, deputy minister of education and science, said in a December 2013 conference that Russian would totally disappear beyond Russia’s borders within 50 years under competition from more aggressively mobile tongues such as English. The Modern Language Association in the U.S.reports that Russian and Latin are vying to be the least major languages studied in college; Spanish, French, and German are at the top.

The Russian government then allocated $50 million to set up language centers around the world, a la Alliance Francaise, but why study Russian at this juncture? Timur Atnahdev, a lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of Public Administration and Economics in Moscow, writing in Global Brief, is pretty pessimistic about the future of Russian and doesn’t believe any intervention by Putin in Ukraine, or any other former Soviet state, can help reverse the tide. In a stilted English translation he wrote: "The major global message and legacy in the Russian language was the classic Russian literature of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Checkov... The Russian heritage does not have a paradigmatic, political, or normative dimension in the idiom, of say, Greek philosophy or Roman law. It is simply part of European and Christian self-reflection. And self-refection does not necessarily make for geopolitical import or impact. In other words, people won’t be lining up to read Russian classics in their original language.

      This is an opinion piece by John Freivalds

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