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#11 - JRL 8484 - JRL Home
From: "Dmitry Mikheyev" <mikheyev@podlipki.ru>
Subject: Russian and Ukrainian languages - rivals or brothers?
Date: Sun, 5 Dec 2004

Dear David, here are my tentative thoughts about the role of Russian and Ukrainian languages in current crisis.

For two weeks now I do not function as I used to. Of course, I do what "man gotta do" but the Ukrainian crisis wouldn't leave me neither day nor night.

I must confess that I belong to a rare endangered species of pathological optimists, and I don't believe in conspiracies because I know how difficult it is to pull off an even mildly complicated plan requiring collective efforts, to say nothing about a major conspiratorial plot.

With this said, I have a sense of some people playing very dangerous games and admit having a premonition of a coming disaster in Ukraine and in fact whole Europe (Russia including). I would appreciate any arguments dissuading me.

These days I spend all my spare time clicking TV channels, watching altogether about a dozen Russian-, English-, Polish- and Ukrainian- language programs related to Ukrainian events. This informal survey led me to an interesting discovery and gave me a sense of events that lie beneath "Russian-oriented and Western-oriented" dichotomy everybody seems to be caught into.

It is evident that the crisis has many dimensions and aspects: economic and political power-struggle among Ukrainian elites, Russian, European interests and geopolitical, imperial ambitions of a New Rome.

One aspect, though, is usually overlooked, or is mentioned in passing - the language. I had left Ukraine for good exactly 25 years ago. This gives me a time perspective worthy of attention of analysts and policy makers.

Back in my student years, coming from Moscow University to my parents in Kiev I was always struck by the existence in Ukraine of four languages - Russian, the canonic Ukrainian (Kiev-Poltava), and two dialects - one could be called Ukro-Russian (Ukrainized Russian), another - Westo-Ukrainian. I had no problem understanding the Ukro-Russian but couldn't speak it because I didn't know how to twist and mix Russian and Ukrainian words. As for the Westo-Ukrainian, it was so heavily infested with Polish and even German words, that sometimes I didn't quite understand it.

Today, having a luxury of watching three Ukrainian TV channels in my Moscow apartment, I have discovered that all these years, 13 years of independence including, have indeed changed the situation but not the way I thought they would. I was wrong in my assumption that Ukraine would be largely Ukrainized by now. It appears that the Westo-Ukrainian and the Ukro-Russian are going away, while the canonic Ukrainian is getting stronger. I was surprised to see that people in the streets of Zaporozie, Donbas, Kharkov, to say nothing about Kiev, Odessa and the Crimea, speak perfect Russian with practically undetectable accent! Clearly, for 60% to 70% of Ukrainians Russian is the language of choice at work and home. All Ukrainian politicians (with few exceptions) struggle to speak the canonic Ukrainian. You can see this struggle on the faces of Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovich and even nationalist-incarnate Timoshenko. What comes out of their efforts is Ukro-Russian, so they gladly switch to Russian whenever they can.

In other words, it appears that two artificial dialects (Westo-Ukrainian and Ukro-Russian) have declined, while the canonic Ukrainian strengthened and Russian improved. Russian language is not vanishing despite all the attempts during the Kuchma's reign to banish it by closing Russian schools etc.

If I am right in detecting the shifts in Ukrainian identity then Yanukovich' s intention to make Russian the second official language of the land runs with the trend of time. It makes political and economic sense to make the language of choice for the overwhelming majority of the population the official language. At least you don't have to translate documentation (particularly scientific and technical), books and movies from the language everybody understands anyway. It also means that the canonic Ukrainian is growing strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the Russian cultural imperialism.

My guess is that in two generations in Ukraine there will be only two languages - the canonic Ukrainian and the canonic Russian, plus, or course, lingo-Franco i.e. English.

Conclusion: Ukraine is destined to be two and a half lingual, a typical European nation, by the way. Therefore, apart from all other considerations (oil-gas, military-industrial complexes and bases, clans of oligarchs and so on), there lies a more subtle yet fundamental reality -- the subconscious cultural, linguistic and religious preferences. They have to be taken into account. They belong to the most resilient features of human psyche and no money or smart bombs can change them.

Dmitry Mikheyev is lecturer of management at the Academy of National Economy, Moscow Mikheyev@podlipki.ru 7-501-443-0008 mob. 7-903-746-9174 www.mikheyev.fatal.ru