A look at Ukraine’s complicated relationship with its official language over the last century
31 years ago, in 1989, the Verhovna Rada passed a law, making Ukrainian the main language in Ukraine. This landmark law is still a prime example of the struggle for full independence – something that we are still fighting for today. While many countries have more than one official language – take Switzerland for example – others cherish and value their own unique linguistic treasure. With a past linked to other countries, Ukraine now consists of territories that once belonged to the Russian empire, Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Belarus and many more. If we dig as far as the medieval times, Ukraine was partially in the hands of Lithuania too. On the one hand, this shaped and enriched the Ukrainian language; on the other, many people in Ukraine don’t speak Ukrainian because of it.
Perhaps the best metaphor to describe this phenomenon would be: water currents shaping an island. After all, nature has come up with some weird looking islands. If we begin to think of Ukrainian language as a square piece of sand in an ocean surrounded by many currents, over the years the square will morph into a new shape with some of it being washed away; a never-ending, complex process. The currents that have formed modern Ukrainian language are Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Belarussian, German, French, Tatar, as well as many other weaker currents including English.
The most prominent one, of course, is Russian. We can divide the formation of the modern Ukrainian language into a few stages. Starting in 1917, Ukrainian became continuously purged; this was a continuation of the Russian empire’s policy on foreign languages. Then, from 1923 to 1932 Ukrainian was accepted, but it was neither encouraged, nor discouraged; the language was allowed to exist freely. Moving into a much darker period of the 1930s with the beginning of Holodomor, speaking Ukrainian was seen as a crime. Right up until 1957, Ukrainian was not considered official and speaking it was viewed as an act of protest. During the time of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, Ukrainian was once again allowed to exist. However, the dark times came back yet again, and until Gorbachev’s perestroika was introduced, Ukrainian didn’t exist in any official papers. Anyone who spoke Ukrainian was considered primitive and undereducated. However, the Soviet Union began to fall, and with it the ban on Ukrainian too. This sparked a revolutionist and nationalist movement around Soviet states, and soon enough the landmark law was signed. Nonetheless, Russian remained prominent in the post-soviet world.
The influence of Russian on Ukrainian does not end here, the most interesting part begins with Ukraine as an independent state. Despite the Constitution being rather clear on the fact that the only official language in Ukraine is Ukrainian, almost half of the population uses Russian in their daily lives. Indeed, the difference between official and daily language is legally significant, and it gives light to the role Ukrainian plays. This is one of the main reasons given by the Russians for their invasion in 2014: the alleged persecution of a predominantly Russian population in Donbas and Crimea regions. The runaway president attempted to follow the Russian rhetoric in 2012 by trying to make Russian the second official language but was stopped. Following the 1989 incident, 30 years later, another controversial and significant law was cooked up. The law that solidified the important role of Ukrainian continued to cause public outcry and gave a platform for pro-Russian parties to pontificate about far-fetched discrimination. Indeed, the way pro-Russian media spoke about this law posed questions about the validity of their information. With pro-Russian parties still claiming that Russian-speakers face discrimination alongside other things, it is clear that the steps Ukraine is taking are still not enough.
As you can see, issues around “mova” (language) still exist to this day, and it will take a lot of time before Ukrainian becomes the equivalent of German in German, French in France, or Hungarian in Hungary.