Language has long been one of the key battlegrounds in the struggle to determine Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity. While most of the population is able to communicate in both Ukrainian and Russian, the issue has consistently served as a political flashpoint ever since Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Ukrainian is the official state language, but the status of Russian has ebbed and flowed over the past quarter century under a series of different administrations. Alleged oppression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians was one of the key reasons cited by the Kremlin in spring 2014 to justify Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The language issue has also been central to the ongoing Kremlin-led separatist war in eastern Ukraine that is now entering its fourth year.
Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians spoke out against the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, rejecting Russian claims of any rights violations. Thousands more went even further, taking up arms against Russian hybrid forces in the east of the country. The role of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the defense of the country has changed perceptions about what it means to be Ukrainian and led to a more inclusive approach to issues of national identity. Nevertheless, the ongoing conflict with Russia has placed the long-term development of the Russian language in Ukraine under question. With many of Ukraine’s largest cities still predominantly Russian-speaking, the future of the language in Ukraine is an issue of huge strategic importance.
The Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research (UCIPR) recently carried out an EU-funded nationwide study to gauge opinion among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The study involved six focus groups in cities across Ukraine, along with expert interviews and surveys with opinion leaders in a range of fields. The subsequent report, “Russophone identity in Ukraine”, offers a range of timely insights into attitudes among Russian-speaking Ukrainians towards the historic changes taking place in the country. Business Ukraine magazine asked UCIPR’s Julia Kazdobina what this study can tell us about the future evolution of Ukraine’s language politics and invited her to explore how the opinions she encountered across the country are likely to shape national identity issues.
Many observers claim that until the outbreak of the current war with Russia, people typically regarded Ukrainian identity as closely tied to the Ukrainian language. They argue that this approach has now changed, with widespread acceptance of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as full and equal members of the modern Ukrainian nation. Does your research support these claims?
Attitudes towards Russian speakers in today’s Ukraine are changing, but the conflict with Russia means that it remains a controversial theme. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot more acceptance since so many Russian-speaking Ukrainians participated in recent historical events in support of Ukraine, including the Revolution of Dignity and the volunteer movement in response to Russia’s hybrid war. On the other hand, many of Ukraine’s Russian speakers live in the conflict zone and some of them do indeed embrace the “Russian World”, together with its messages that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and Ukrainian independence is an aberration. Many welcomed the Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This generates a lot of distrust. Nevertheless, people are starting to understand that while it is sometimes possible to find a connection between the language a person speaks and their attitudes towards the current conflict, language is not an accurate indicator of political loyalties. Due to the role of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression, we are indeed witnessing an historic evolution in our understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian. However, somebody speaking Ukrainian is still a lot more likely to be regarded as a Ukrainian patriot than somebody speaking Russian.
How important has the conflict with Russia been in forcing Russian-speaking Ukrainians to assess their attitudes towards national identity? Can we talk about new-found feelings of Ukrainian patriotism among Russian-speakers, or does your research point to a more deeply-rooted sense of attachment to Ukraine that was previously underestimated?
Our research has shown that a number of Russian speakers started developing their Ukrainian civic identity long before the start of the current Russian aggression. Some study participants indicated that they first felt Ukrainian rather than Russian during the 2004 Orange Revolution, some even before that. This does not necessarily mean they switched to the Ukrainian language in their daily lives, but most of them increased their usage and consumption of Ukrainian. The current conflict certainly sped up this identification process. Most of Ukraine’s Russian speakers knew there was no persecution of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, so when Russia attacked Ukraine under the pretext of protecting them, they saw Russia’s actions as international aggression. Consequently, their Ukrainian civic identity grew stronger. They did not want to identify with the aggressor or be in any way responsible for what the Kremlin was doing in Ukraine.
According to your report, many Ukrainians who previously identified culturally with Russia are now rejecting these ties. Will this lead to the emergence of a specific Russian-language Ukrainian culture that is distinct from the cultural world of the Russian Federation?
That culture is already emerging, although at this point it is most evident among people in artistic and creative circles. One small but enlightening example of this split from Russian culture that we encountered during our survey is the story of an annual poetry collection published in Odesa called “Russian poetry in Ukraine”. Due to changing attitudes towards national identity, the organizers of the collection decided to change the name to “Ukrainian Poetry in Russian”. There is plenty of other evidence pointing to the growth of a distinctively Ukrainian Russian-language cultural identity. A number of east Ukrainian authors write in Russian but produce work rooted in today’s Ukrainian realities.
Ukraine and Russia are drifting apart in many ways. We are witnessing the severing of long-standing cultural ties between the two countries. Ukrainian singers and performers who give concerts in Russia face heavy criticism in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian government policies are limiting access to Russian TV and printed materials. Russian performers who have visited Crimea in violation of Ukrainian legislation can no longer enter the country. All these measures will help to facilitate the emergence of a specifically Ukrainian contemporary culture, including a Russian-language Ukrainian culture. Those who work in the Russian language will continue to do so. After all, it is not easy for writers or performers to switch to another language. Many see no reason to change, as Russian remains a widely used minority language protected by the Ukrainian Constitution.
The Kremlin has justified its intervention in Ukraine as an effort to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speakers, but the findings of your report suggest that the war has alienated Ukraine’s Russian-speaking community and placed them in opposition to Russia. How did attitudes towards Russia vary from region to region during the course of your research?
We cannot draw any definitive conclusions about regional differences based on the research we have done. Larger scale research would be required to come up with clear answers. However, in Kramatorsk, the administrative center of the part of Donetsk region under Ukraine’s control, we saw several people hostile to Ukraine and the Ukrainian language. In Kharkiv, some of our study participants had a hard time condemning Russia’s actions because they had family members living in the Russian Federation. These are snapshots. To give a definite answer to your question about regional differences, one would need to have a far larger sample.
Few would dispute the fact that bilingualism is the reality in today’s Ukraine, but opinion is divided over whether this bilingualism is a strength or a weakness. What did the Russian-speaking Ukrainians you engaged with have to say on this subject?
Most Russian speakers did not see a problem with bilingualism. It was important for many of them to speak Russian and to teach their children the Russian language as they consider it their native tongue. Most of them said that teaching their kids at home would be enough. However, some mentioned that they would like their kids to have the opportunity to study Russian at school and to study Russian literature. At the same time, they sent their kids to Ukrainian language schools. It would seem that for many Russian speakers, bilingualism is a way to preserve their identity while at the same time integrating into the Ukrainian political nation, where Ukrainian is gradually replacing Russian as the lingua franca.
Your report concludes that Russian-speakers in Ukraine do not experience any oppression. If this persecution narrative is essentially a myth, how do you account for the considerable international attention paid to claims of discrimination against Russian-speakers over the past three years?
I believe any attention is a consequence of Russia’s large-scale disinformation efforts, together with the presence of political forces in Ukraine that began the process many years ago by playing the language card in domestic Ukrainian politics. Numerous Ukrainian oligarchs invested heavily in political parties that raised, but failed to resolve, the language issue. They did so in order to encourage people to fight over identity issues rather than asking questions about the sources of oligarchic wealth. Political forces exploiting the language issue stood behind former President Viktor Yanukovych. Some researchers actually trace the beginning of the Russian disinformation campaign against Ukraine back to the 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine, which saw opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko and his supporters labeled as Nazis. Once he became President, Yushchenko’s efforts to Ukrainianize the movie market and to educate Ukrainians about the events of the Holodomor (artificial 1930s famine organized by the Soviet regime) were strongly resisted. Both Russia and Yushchenko’s domestic political opponents politicized and deliberately misrepresented these efforts. Ukraine’s failure to counter these disinformation attacks helped create the impression that the rights of Russian speakers were genuinely under threat.
Russian propaganda efforts intensified during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, when Ukrainians revolted against the corrupt Yanukovych government. Russian disinformation sought to portray the protesters as Nazis, and then later branded the post-Yanukovych interim administration as a military junta. By this point, Russia had mastered the art of projecting its disinformation into the Western media environment. The Kremlin’s information apparatus was well organized and lavishly funded. Ukraine was in no position to counter Russia’s information offensives, being preoccupied with the post-revolutionary situation in the country and the immediate realities of resisting Russian military aggression. This allowed Russia considerable freedom to promote various false narratives in support of its intervention in Ukraine. Ironically, all the available evidence shows that if any language is facing oppression in today’s Ukraine, it is the Ukrainian language.
Surveys on Ukrainian attitudes towards national identity tend to adopt a comparative regional approach. Meanwhile, generational differences do not receive nearly as much attention. During the course of your research, did you identify any significant differences in attitudes towards Ukrainian identity between older and younger Ukrainians?
Younger Ukrainians are much more likely to identify with Ukraine. They are also less likely to feel discriminated against if only the Ukrainian language is used. For example, it is hard for people from older generations to watch movies in Ukrainian or to read medical instructions in Ukrainian because they have used Russian all their lives. The younger generation does not have that problem. They understand Ukrainian just as well as Russian.
Ukrainian-language music quotas for radio stations have recently been introduced. Similar steps are under consideration for Ukrainian TV channels. Based on your research, is there a danger that attempts to accelerate Ukrainian-language usage in Ukrainian society could spark a backlash?
In our research, most people recognized that the current language situation in Ukraine is a consequence of the Russification policies of the Soviet Union. Many of them said that it was not right that Ukrainian speakers are unable to receive information or services in their native language in some parts of the country. At the same time, people said that if they were ordered to speak Ukrainian, they would resist. They would not accept forced Ukrainianization. Based on these responses, I think the current language quota initiatives are not likely to provoke resistance unless political parties try to play the language card again. However, with oligarchs from the east of the country losing a large share of their income base and the parties they formerly supported losing a significant portion of their electorate, I do not think this is currently a very likely scenario.
Your report rejects the idea of language as a key cause of the war in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it characterizes the conflict as a clash of values. How would you define these conflicting values?
Study participants had a hard time defining exactly what these values are. I think as Russia retreats more and more into the Soviet past and as Ukraine moves more and more in the direction of a Western-style open society, the answer to this question is going to become clearer. On Maidan, Ukrainians were trying to assert their right to make their own decisions. They demanded the right to be free of government oppression. Russia did not like that, because it considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence. The current Russian leadership believes that the use of force is perfectly acceptable when a country like Ukraine disobeys. I think the conflict is essentially between those who value freedom and fair competition, and those who want to go back to a past where there was no freedom but where everybody could expect to receive enough for minimal subsistence.
Ukraine has the world’s second largest Russian-speaking population. Kyiv is the largest Russian-speaking city on the planet outside of Russia itself. It seems safe to assume that people will be speaking Russian in Ukraine for generations to come. What do you see as the future for the Russian language in Ukraine?
I think Ukraine will remain a bilingual country for several generations, although the share of those who are proficient in Russian is going to decrease, especially in western Ukraine. In future decades, Ukraine will have its own Russian-speaking minority who will also be proficient in Ukrainian. As the conflict with Russia ends, their presence is going to become uncontroversial.
About the interviewee: Julia Kazdobina is an analyst at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research