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After Ukraine’s new language law, it is high time for Ukrainian Russian

A State Institute of Ukrainian Russian needs to be established as a matter of urgency.

August 7, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Doctor Yuri (cc) flickr.com

On July 16 2019, Ukraine’s new language law, passed by the Ukrainian Parliament on April 24 2019, came into force. It was a momentous event. For better or worse, Ukraine is located in Central (or Eastern) Europe, where at present the ethnolinguistic nation state is the sole form of legitimate statehood. A language’s speakers are believed to constitute a nation. In turn, in the nation’s polity, its tongue is commonly declared the sole national and official state language. Hence, Bulgarian fulfills the role of an exclusive national and official language in Bulgaria, Estonian in Estonia, Hungarian in Hungary, Montenegrin in Montenegro, or Slovak in Slovakia. In line with the bilateral treaties (contracted in the framework of the French Prime Minister, Édouard Balladur’s, 1993 Pact on Stability in Europe) and the Council of Europe’s Charter on Regional or Minority Languages (1992), the public use of other languages, typically indigenous to a given nation-state’s territory, is guaranteed across Europe.

The Law of Ukraine: On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State language.

In postcommunist Central (or Eastern) Europe, Belarus is the sole polity that decided in 1995 to grant equal and official status to the non-national language of Russian, alongside the national language of Belarusian. As a result, during the last quarter of a century, the public employment of the national language has been rapidly limited to a tenth of the country’s population and a tenth of official documents and publications produced in Belarus.

This development, from the perspective of Central Europe’s ethnolinguistic nationalism, seems to delegitimise Belarus as a nation state. On the other hand, in the early 2010s, under the name of Russkii Mir (‘Russian World’), the Kremlin adopted the ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism for conquering, as in the case of Crimea or eastern Ukraine, or influencing, as in the case of the Baltic republics, Belarus, Israel, or Kazakhstan, areas and countries with Russophone populations.

However, unlike Moscow’s protestations to this end, Russian is not any minority, but a world language, similar in this regard to English, German, or Spanish. Spanish speakers in Colombia or Mexico are not Spaniards. Similarly, English speakers in Australia or the United States are not English and German speakers in Austria or Switzerland are not Germans.

Therefore, Russian speakers in Ukraine or Israel are not Russians, but Ukrainians and Israelis, respectively. In accordance with the offensive (geopolitical) function of the Russkii Mir ideology, Moscow claims it has the sole right to control the Russian language across the entire world. Americans or Canadians would laugh out loud if London proposed that only Britain should have the right to control the English language. In the case of world languages, each state where such a tongue is in official (or de facto) use controls and employs it in agreement with the state’s interests and needs. As a result, American English is used in the United States, Australian English in Australia or British English in Britain. The norm is the emergence and acceptance of country-specific varieties of global languages.

Apart from adopting the aforementioned new language law, Kyiv must now take another logical step in order to safeguard the ideological and geopolitical security of Ukraine in the context of Central (and Eastern) Europe’s ethnolinguistic nation-states, alongside resurgent Russia’s employment of ethnolinguistic nationalism for justifying and (re)building an empire. The nature of Russian as a global language, consisting of state-specific varieties, must be clearly recognised. Ukraine, under the relentless Russian onslaught since 2014, is best prepared to take this step, and lead the way towards recognition and acceptance of country-specific varieties of the Russian language in the post-Soviet nation states, alongside Israel and Mongolia.

Ukraine’s variety of this language is Ukrainian Russian (Українська російська мова Ukrains’ka rosiis’ka mova). Kyiv must take full control of its Ukrainian Russian, as widely proposed in the wake of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, though this practical and geopolitical necessity was sidelined and half-forgotten during recent years. A State Institute of Ukrainian Russian needs to be established as a matter of urgency. The institute’s first task should be the compilation of a corpus of Ukrainian Russian, that is, of Russian words, expressions and grammatical constructions used in speech and writing on the territory of today’s Ukraine during the last two centuries. Such a corpus would constitute the basis for preparing the normative grammar and dictionary of Ukrainian Russian, with an emphasis on usages and terms specific to Ukraine and those that reflect the country’s cultural, political and social specificities.

Petition on the creation of the Ukrainian standard of the Russian language lodged in 2015 with the Office of the President of Ukraine.

In turn, only these normative principles of correctness for the use of Ukrainian Russian (as worked out by the aforementioned State Institute of Ukrainian Russian) should be employed in school, state offices or any Russian language publications or mass media programs produced in Ukraine. In the United States, they write ‘theater’ or ‘catalog,’ while in Britain – ‘theatre’ and ‘catalogue.’ No one protests or goes to war on this account.

Going to war or annexing land over the puff of hot air that is language, is wrong and not worth it. The current price tag of the antiquated Soviet T-72 tank is 45,000 euros, which would be a more than sufficient amount of funds for compiling the corpus, grammar and dictionary of Ukrainian Russian. On the other hand, the latest variant of the US Abrams tank is 7.7 million euros, which would ensure the wide-ranging functioning of the State Institute of Ukrainian Russian for at least the next decade.

Seizing the strategic and geopolitical advantage of Ukrainian Russian is cheap and cost-effective, given that it would, overnight, delegitimise the Kremlin’s spurious claim that Russia is the ‘proper’ nation-state of all the globe’s Russian speakers. So far, Russia’s war on Ukraine has cost over 13,000 people their lives and displaced almost 2 million from their homes. Obviously, Ukrainian Russian will not stop the war, but should fatally undermine the logic of the Russkii Mir ideology as the leading ‘justification’ for Russia’s neo-imperial annexation and interventions.

Only after Kyiv has taken the vital step of recognising Ukrainian Russian can the Council of Europe and other international organizations, at long last, see Russian for what it is, namely, a global language that consists of country-specific varieties. The fact that Canadians speak English differently, for example, does not give Britain any right to attack Canada or annex the country’s lands.

By the same measure, the fact that some Ukrainians speak Russian could not and should not be seen as valid argument for Russian annexations and war against Ukraine. Now, after the passage of the new language law, the Ukrainian government and parliament must not stop halfway. They ought to claim Ukrainian Russian as one of Ukraine’s languages and take it out from under Russia’s growing offensive arsenal of hybrid warfare. It would be for a better and peaceful future for Ukraine, Europe, the world, and Russia itself.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 

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