World savvy: Language and turmoil in Ukraine

Close to 300 million people spoke Russian in 1994, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. That number has already decreased by about 120 million, according to Russia’s Benjamin Kaganov, deputy minister of education and science. And the number of Russian speakers is projected to keep dropping in the next 50 years, something that has spurred Russia to allocate around $46 million to open language learning centers around the world.

It was this huge decline plus an action of the Ukrainian Parliament that was perhaps an overlooked catalyst for Vladimir Putin invading Crimea starting in late February 2014. The action: the Ukrainian Parliament abolishing the 2012 State Language Policy law the day after it voted to dismiss President Viktor Yanukovich on February 22, 2014. The law allowed the country’s regions to use more official languages in addition to Ukrainian if they were spoken by over 10% of the local population. Because of this law, 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions, primarily in Eastern Ukraine, had adopted Russian as a second official language. Two Western regions introduced Romanian and Hungarian as official languages, but with the abolition of the law this is no longer true.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said the cancellation of the law was a mistake. Commenting on the instability in the Crimea, where the majority of the population speaks Russian, he told CNN, “The new Ukrainian government should signal very eloquently to the ethnic minorities in Ukraine that they are welcome in Ukraine; that they are going to be part of the new Ukraine. And also Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe, [with] its laws on protecting minorities.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry weighed in, claiming that this was an “infringement of the right to speak native language [and] discrimination based on ethnicity or country of origin.” The Ministry also complained that the forcible removal of Russian monuments in the Ukraine, such as statues of Lenin, constituted “attacks and acts of vandalism performed on monuments of historical and cultural heritage.”

Geopolitical considerations aside, this was all too much for Putin to take. The venerable mother tongue that he grew up with was being rejected in favor of Ukrainian, and Putin is frightened by what he sees happening to the Russian language. According to “The Future of Russian Language,” published on the Center for Russian Language Studies website, it is possible that by 2025, the number of Russian speakers in the world will halve. It is likely that within ten years, Russian, now ranked fourth in the world, will be overtaken by French, Hindi and Arabic, and within 15 years by Portuguese. Controversial Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed in March 2014 that this language decline is partially the fault of the Russian vowel ы, close but not identical to the sound of y in English. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” Zhirinovsky told lawmakers, asking for removal of the letter. The politician said Russian was the only language with this sound, but the letter ы also exists in some Turkic languages, including Kazakh and Kyrgyz, which use the same alphabet.

What Ukraine did was dramatic, but all the former Soviet republics have encouraged their native languages at the expense of Russian, remembering what the Soviets did to them. Claire Nuttall, writing in Russia Beyond the Headlines in an article entitled “In Central Asia, Russian wave ebbs away,” quotes a report from Minority Rights Group International noting that in Kazakhstan, “Although the Russian language is deemed ‘equal’ to Kazakh under the constitution, legislation and programs of ‘Kazakhization’ since 2001 are increasing the use of the Kazakh language as the main language of government,” which is “proving to be an obstacle to access to education and employment in the civil service for a large part of the Russian minority population.”

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.

The translation company Kwintessential notes on its website that “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 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. During the years 1929 and 1930, a large group of Ukrainian intelligentsia was arrested and executed. Additionally, ideologues warned of over-glorifying Ukraine’s Cossack past, and supported the closing of all Ukrainian cultural institutions and literary publications. An assault on Ukrainian identity and education was combined with an artificial famine, and all of this dealt Ukrainian a crippling blow from which it would never completely recover.

The Ukrainian language is a member of the East Slavic subgroup of Slavic languages and the official language of the Ukraine. Lexically the closest to Ukrainian is Belorussian (84% of common vocabulary), followed by Polish (70%), Serbo-Croatian (68%), Slovak (66%) and Russian (62%). Some Russians maintain that Ukrainian is merely a dialect of Russian, as it retains a degree of mutual intelligibility. In the 2001 census, 52% of Ukrainians in Kiev said they use mostly Russian as a chief means of communication; 18% said they use Ukrainian; and 32% said they use a mixture of both.

The developments in the Ukraine are symbolic of the decline of the Russian language as a whole. The aforementioned Benjamin Kaganov said in a 2013 conference that Russian could 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 United States reports that Russian and Latin are vying to be among the least-studied major languages in college; Spanish, French and German are at the top.

But no intervention by Putin in Ukraine or any other former Soviet state can help reverse this tide. The major global legacy of Russian language has been the classic Russian literature of such greats as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but not too many people seem to be lining up to read Russian classics in their original language.