Fighting Words in Ukraine

by Translation Guy on June 20, 2012

Until fists fly, parliamentary debate can be pretty boring. Which is what makes the parliament of the Ukraine so fascinating, as legislators pull no punches when it comes to debating the issues.

Recent parliamentary maneuvers includes the tossing of eggs, smoke bombs and furniture, so the latest fist-fight over a bill that would allow the use of Russian as an official language in parts of Ukraine is nothing out of the ordinary.

During a session last week, a donnybrook erupted over a bill that would allow the use of the Russian language in courts, hospital and other institutions in the Russian-speaking areas of the country.

Fun to watch, but sad to see, since the fist-swinging Ukrainian parliament reflects deep linguistic divisions in a country sharing two mutually intelligible languages.

For centuries the vast plains of the Ukraine have marked the shifting borderlands of great empires and of a sometimes sovereign people. As the Tsars consolidated their hold over the region in the last few centuries, Russian speakers migrated first to empty lands in the south and east, and then later to growing factory towns throughout the region, establishing linguistic dominance in all the major cities, which forced Ukrainian internal immigrants to use Russian as well. Meanwhile the Tsars, fearing separatist nationalism, tried to iron out linguistic differences by forbidding the use of the Ukrainian in public settings. After Russian reconquest in 1920 after a brief period of Ukrainian independence, the Soviet government did not actively suppress Ukrainian but “protected” it with national minority status, thus maintaining Russian in its status as the dominant language.

With Ukrainian independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian became the sole official language of the new nation. And it remains so today, even though one in three citizens is a native Russian speaker and about half say Russian is their first language. Since the languages are mutually comprehensible, most citizens speak both with ease, and it’s not uncommon to hear both used interchangeably in conversation without any concern over who is speaking in what language, according to Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor.

But for many Ukrainians, protecting the language is a way to protect against Russia, just as Québécois so avidly defend French against the inroads of Anglais. “Ukrainian is a dying language in its own motherland,” says Ivan Drach, a writer and political activist. “The saturation of media from Russia leads to the domination of the Russian political mentality here, and this undermines Ukraine’s independence.”

So while the effort by President Viktor Yanukovich to make Russian official in eastern Ukraine has helped his popularity among his Russian-speaking constituents in the east, they are fighting words for  Ukrainian nationalists looking to complete the separation of Ukraine from Russia once and for all.

“Of course far-right and far-left are not satisfied with it, because some want Russian to be the one official language, the others Ukrainian. We think that Ukraine is a multi-language and polyethnic state,” Vadym Kolesnichenko, a member of the president’s party, told Euronews.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year sentence for “abuse of power” in another bare-knuckle Ukrainian political dispute, issued a no-holds-barred statement against the proposed legislation on her website:

“It’s a crime against history and against the people. And I seriously assert that I won’t let them do this! Listen to me, here, behind bars; I won’t let you sneer at Ukraine!”

No end in sight on this debate as tempers flare. Hopefully the fighting will remain in parliament where it belongs.


  1. Lori says:

    If 1/2 the country’s first language is Russian anyways, I can’t imagine that the Ukranian electorate will have a problem with this outside of extremists or be too impressed with their elected representatives.

  2. Great read, amazing that something like langauge which can bridge divisions can also enflame them.

  3. Phylllis says:

    Crazy Ukrainians

  4. Bily Banyas says:

    This phenomena is not unique to the Ukraine, there have been some explosive incidents in legislatures in Asia in the past few years.

  5. Karen says:

    I’m confused, is the aim to change the official language to Russian or just allow its use in courts and other vital areas?

    • Ken says:

      Not to change, Karen, to add.

  6. Carole says:

    I honestly can’t believe this is such a contensious issue, there are places in the world where I think the divisions are wider and something like this hasn’t been so explosive.

  7. Roberta says:

    I found this quite an interesting set of circumstances and its strange that a language could be dying in its own motherland, great stuff.

  8. Mals R says:

    Really interesting read, makes me feel better about Congress

  9. Ukraine has much larger problems than this, they are essentially a puppet government of Putin’s regime anyways, so I imagine that this law will pass.

  10. Pingback:Translation Guy » Street-Fighting Words in the Ukraine

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