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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- Language Policy And National Integration

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The closure of Russian-language schools in Ukraine over the last decade has prompted ethnic Russian groups there to protest what they see as a policy designed to promote the assimilation of ethnic Russians into the Ukrainian nation.

Three ethnic Russian groups in Ukraine -- the Russian Movement of Ukraine, the Russian-Ukrainian Union, and For A Single Rus -- have announced plans to picket the Ukrainian education ministry this week because of what they say is Kyiv's policy of "liquidating Russian-language education in Ukraine and [promoting] the assimilation of Russians and Russian-language citizens."

According to a press release issued by the Russian Movement of Ukraine last week, the Ukrainian government over the last decade has changed the language of instruction in 1,300 schools from Russian to Ukrainian. As a result, the press release said, only 10 percent of the schools in the country are now conducted in Russian even though "not less than half of the population considers Russian to be its native language."

The Russian Movement said that this shift is taking place despite the wishes of parents and that written appeals to the education authorities have not produced any results. The group said that it will now engage in picketing government offices and other forms of protest in order to attract attention to this issue.

In most of the post-Soviet communist countries, questions concerning the language of instruction are among the most sensitive and contentious of all public issues. On the one hand, anything that touches the lives of children and their futures is something adults are likely to take seriously. And on the other hand, the debates taking place now reflect the continuing shadow of Soviet-era policies. But nowhere are these discussions more difficult than in Ukraine.

During the Soviet period, Moscow allowed union republics to have schools in their own national languages but promoted the use of Russian as the language of instruction both where there were sizeable numbers of ethnic Russians and where parents could be persuaded that learning the language of what was called "interethnic communication" would give their children a better chance in their future professional lives.

In Ukraine, both of these groups were numerous. By 1989, the date of the last Soviet census, ethnic Russians constituted more than 20 percent of the population of Ukraine. And many Ukrainians whose language is closely related to Russian accepted happily or not that having their children go to Russian-language schools was career-enhancing.

But with the end of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians, like their counterparts in other post-Soviet republics, decided that they could and should promote their national language as part of their general effort at nation- and state-building. Indeed, many of them felt that changing over to Ukrainian was almost a patriotic duty.

Such attitudes became even more widespread as Ukrainians recognized that the Russian Federation where millions of Ukrainians live -- the exact number is a matter of dispute -- did not in the past and has not now provided any Ukrainian-language schools for its citizens. And many Ukrainians were upset that international bodies that regularly urged Ukraine to keep Russian-language schools never demanded that Russia open Ukrainian-language ones.

Kyiv's gradual shift in the language of instruction from Russian to Ukrainian in many schools is widely popular among Ukrainians. But not surprisingly, it is generating a backlash among ethnic Russians and among those Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian. As a result, Ukraine now finds itself caught between Ukrainians who want their children to speak Ukrainian and ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians who want their children to speak Russian.

The picketing due to take place this week is unlikely to change anyone's mind. But it will certainly call attention to a political issue that is far from resolved, one that may ultimately be more important than economics or geopolitics in determining Ukraine's future.