Friday, November 19, 2004

There's one issue I'm really tired of: the language issue as it relates to Ukraine. A non-issue, if you ask me, and I'll write about it now only because I haven't yet said anything about it here, on this blog.

So my friend wrote (on Daily Kos) that "the two halves of Ukraine don't even speak the same language." And The Russian Dilettante wrote this in a recent post about Ukraine:

Were I a citizen of Ukraine, I would vote for Yuschenko, that's for sure -- like most educated young and young-ish Ukrainians. As I see it from up North, Yusch's problem is that Western Ukraine supports him all too ardently. The West is the most economically backward, the most rabidly chauvinistic and anti-Russian bit of Ukraine that almost managed to hijack the Ukrainian nationalist cause without a slightest right to represent all of the country.

That scares moderate and/or Russophone and/or bilingual Ukrainians. (Not to mention the West is Uniate while most of Ukraine is nominally Orthodox.) If Western Ukraine belonged to Poland now as it did before 1939 and Molotov--Ribbentrop, Yuschenko would have two or three million votes less there but easily five more in the center and East of the country.

For quite a while, Yushchenko has been trying hard to get rid of this perception of Ukraine as a divided country: very sweet of him, I guess. He keeps repeating that Putin never addresses people from Russia's Western regions as 'zapadnorossiyane' (West Russians) and those from the East as 'vostochnorossiyane' (East Russians) - he just calls them all 'rossiyane' (Russians). A similar approach should work perfectly well here in Ukraine, too.

Regarding the language issue, he said this in an interview (in Russian) with in September:

Unfortunately, the current government hasn't been able to form a clear policy on Ukrainian, Russian or other languages. Our current prime minister [Yanukovych] writes with mistakes in both Russian and Ukrainian. But on the eve of every election, Ukrainian politicians begin to exploit the language issue. Leonid Kuchma used this slogan when he was running for president in 1994: "I'll make Russian the second official state language." So what? Who remembers this promise now?

As for my view on this, I always emphasize that in a democratic state there should be created the conditions for development of various cultural traditions, and this includes the use of different languages. Citizens of any European country are fluent in three or four languages, and we are still being overly dramatic trying to decide in which language we should communicate - in Russian or in Ukrainian? As a result, we speak Russian with mistakes and need a dictionary to speak Ukrainian.

Yushchenko's Ukrainian isn't perfect, by the way, and I've only noticed it at the big rally Nov. 6 (before that, I hadn't bothered to pay attention). Or perhaps the Ukrainian language that Yushchenko speaks is typical of someone who was raised in Eastern Ukraine, not Lviv (he keeps reminding us that he was born in a village 40 km from the Russian border, as close as it gets). The thing is, everyone understands both Ukrainian and Russian in this country, and most people speak either language with regional accents.

I have to admit that I also used to think that Yushchenko was not neutral ethnically, that he was more Ukrainian, so to say, than Kuchma and many other politicians. Yulia Tymoshenko, on the other hand, lacked this ethnic/regional coloring, and I'm really glad she's on Yushchenko's team. (Tymoshenko is also a very smart and good-looking woman, which is a kind of an asset if you're a politician. And another reason it's totally cool she's with Yushchenko is because our opposition is united, much like the Georgian opposition was last year, and unlike the Russian opposition: the Georgians won, the Russians bickered until they lost.)

(I have to digress now and say a few words about Yulia Tymoshenko: I used to say, half seriously, that if she ran, I'd vote for her: not because I believe she could bring about major changes - no one can right away - but because she'd be so so so good for the image of Ukraine - like Benazir Bhutto was for Pakistan. How many people outside of Pakistan knew about Benazir's corruption? Very few. And how many people associated Pakistan with the jihadis and a military dictatorship during Benazir's rule? Again, very few. Most were charmed with her, a brave and beautiful woman, a true democrat, blah blah blah, and Pakistan was considered a better country than what it is now. The same with Tymoshenko: if she became our president, the whole world would be sort of breathless, in love with her and, possibly, with all of us. Wouldn't it be nice.)

I have mixed feelings about The Russian Dilettante's post. On the one hand, I'm grateful to him for one of his perceptions of Yushchenko's electorate: "most educated young and young-ish Ukrainians." I consider myself one of those. But I think it's a contradiction to follow it up with a disclaimer: "Western Ukraine supports [Yushchenko] all too ardently." This other perception of half the country as "the most rabidly chauvinistic and anti-Russian bit of Ukraine" is, at best, a generalization. It's like saying that the majority of Russians who voted for Putin in March this year and for his party last year are rabid chauvinists because they didn't want to see the non-Russian opposition leaders ruling their country: after all, Irina Khakamada is half-Japanese, Boris Nemtsov is a Jew and Grigoriy Yavlinsky is a Jew originally from Lviv, Western Ukraine. Maybe this is indeed part of the reason Putin, a Russian, is so popular in his country, but it's still not as simple as that. Nor is it as simple in Ukraine.

Also, according to the Central Election Commission, Yushchenko received more votes than Yanukovych not just in West Ukrainian regions but also in Kyiv and Kyiv region, Chernihiv, Cherkasy, Poltava, Kirovohrad and Sumy regions - Eastern Ukraine. It's either confusing or quite telling, depending on where you're looking at it from.

The Russian Dilettante's conclusion that "moderate and/or Russophone and/or bilingual Ukrainians" are scared of those West Ukrainian chauvinists doesn't agree with me on a personal level. Russian is my first language; my English is better than my Ukrainian; I've tried to study German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Armenian, Urdu, Turkish, Latin, Romanian, French and maybe something else as well - more or less unsuccessfully; my favorite cities in Ukraine, besides Kyiv, are Lviv (West) and Odesa (South), and my least favorite cities are Luhansk and Donetsk (East, both) - oh, and I'm totally in love with Uzhgorod, a tiny town close to Hungarian and Slovak border (West), where people speak every language possible, not just Russian and Ukrainian. What's my point here? My parents and I speak Russian at home; my husband and I speak a mix of Russian, English and Ukrainian, depending on the mood we're in; I have friends who speak Ukrainian, and I have friends who speak Russian, and I have friends who speak English - and we understand each other perfectly. I am voting for Yushchenko not because I want us "Russophones" or us "bilinguals" to vanish or something. I vote for Yushchenko because, first, I respect him and, second, because I'll be terribly ashamed if Yanukovych becomes our president. I know that of those 11 million people who supported Yushchenko in the first round many have a similar view, if not the same (though with many I would probably not want to be friends, no matter who they vote for, but that's life).

Finally, the reason I'm so sick and tired of this languages issue is because I really believe that languages shouldn't be politicised this much. Languages are for reading, for making friends, for communicating. Languages are one of the most enjoyable things in life. Sometimes I wonder: would it be easier if Ukraine had 400 languages to choose from, like India? (Which reminds me - I should find out how many languages there are in Russia. Must be over a hundred.)


  1. Actually, I do think ethnicity matters more than well-minded, nice people assume -- how many non-WASP presidents has the US had, for one? It's discouraging that Russian liberals haven't been able to produce a major leader who is ethnically Russian. It makes voters suspect the liberal opposition is but a voice of successful ethnic minorities. Part of Yeltsin's appeal was that he was as Russian as one can get -- too bad he didn't live up to our expectations.

  2. My condolences to the Russian Federation's ethnic Russians... (I almost mean it right now.)