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Hold Your Tongue: School Incident Plays Into Sensitive Issue Of Language In Ukraine


The incident in the Black Sea port city, where Russian remains the predominant language almost 30 years after Ukraine gained independence in the Soviet collapse, revealed deep-seated emotions that some citizens harbor toward the two tongues. (illustrative photo)

KYIV – For a speaker of either language, it may be hard to listen to the recording without wincing: An elementary-school art teacher in Odesa berates a pupil for responding in Ukrainian, rather than Russian, quickly driving her to tears in front of her classmates.

Speaking mostly in Russian, the teacher orders the girl to stand up and singles her out, rebuking her for "daring to speak Ukrainian here and putting herself above others."

A parents association posted the audio recording and identified the teacher as Rayisa Pirohova. She was fired on October 12 for "amoral behavior that is not compatible with professional duties."

The incident in the Black Sea port city, where Russian remains the predominant language almost 30 years after Ukraine gained independence in the Soviet collapse, revealed deep-seated emotions that some citizens harbor toward the two tongues. It also appeared to fit in with a trend in which the roles of Russian and Ukrainian, experts say, are gradually reversing.

Since 1991, the two eastern Slavic languages have competed with one another for dominance in the media, on radio and television, online, and in daily speech.

The fate of the Ukrainian language has often been equated with Ukraine's centuries-long struggle for statehood against the backdrop of Russian domination, which has included tsarist policies that suppressed and marginalized its use and its relegation to secondary status by Soviet authorities.

By the time Ukraine gained independence, Russian was by and large the lingua franca in most areas of life despite a draft constitution -- then approved in 1996 -- that set out Ukrainian as the state language.

Over the last decade, however, Kyiv has adopted measures and regulations to elevate the status of Ukrainian and make it more visible in society. A law signed by then-President Petro Poroshenko shortly before he left office after losing a reelection bid in 2019 states unequivocally that Ukrainian is the only official state language in the country.

Content requirements for Ukrainian in all forms of media -- TV, radio, online, and print -- were enacted. An education law was passed to make instruction of Ukrainian compulsory in primary schools.

Fighting Words

These and other policies have been a bone of contention for neighbors to the east and west of Ukraine, a country of 44 million that lies between Russia and several members of the European Union and NATO.

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin used protection of Russian speakers and their rights as part of the rationale for the forcible takeover of the Crimean Peninsula and Moscow's support for separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas, where Moscow-backed militants still hold parts of two provinces and an ongoing war has killed more than 13,000 people.

Budapest has blocked meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Council over the education law, accusing Ukraine of depriving ethnic Hungarians in its westernmost region, Zakarpattya, of the right to study in their native language. Defenders of the law note that it allows extracurricular instruction in Hungarian.

During a visit to Bucharest in September, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would not change the education law but intends to implement it in such a way as to protect both its own interests and the interests of other countries, including Romania. He did not give details.

The language issue is sometimes the stuff of fiery statements stemming from raw emotions -- and misunderstandings, in some cases.

In June, advocates of equal or priority status for the Russian language lashed out over social-media posts that showed electronic-order kiosks at a McDonald's restaurant in Kyiv that offered customers a choice of Ukrainian and English, but not Russian. Some suggested that Russian had been removed -- but in fact it had never appeared on the kiosks.

The company said that its language policy was in compliance with national law and that Ukrainian was used in communicating with customers but that employees will "switch to Russian if asked."

Russian Under Threat?

The shift toward wider use of Ukrainian comes amid concerns in the Kremlin that Russian is losing ground globally -- not just in Ukraine. In 2019, Russia's Education Ministry released estimates stating that the number of Russian speakers worldwide had halved since the Soviet Union collapsed.

It cited the Center for Scientific Research, a think tank attached to the ministry, which said the number of Russian-language learners had fallen from 74.6 million in the early 1990s to 38.2 million in 2018.

Putin has repeatedly suggested, without specific evidence, that such figures are the result of a concerted campaign against the Russian language abroad, in countries including Ukraine. In November 2019, Putin said that Russia was facing "artificial, crude, and at times absolutely unceremonious attempts to squeeze the Russian language out onto the global periphery."

Some Russian speakers in Ukraine share that view, but many others don't, according to a survey conducted in August by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation.

It found that 36 percent of Ukrainians believe that the rights of Russian speakers are violated, while 52 percent do not believe it. Meanwhile, it found that 51 percent of Ukrainians feel the rights of Ukrainian speakers are violated in Russian-controlled Crimea and the parts of the Donbas that are held by Russian-backed separatists.

And when polled about their main concerns, most Ukrainians put the language issue toward the bottom.

A survey conducted this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that the biggest concerns by far were the war in eastern Ukraine, corruption, and unemployment. About 1.2 percent of respondents listed broadened use of the Ukrainian language as something they hoped for, while 0.7 percent said the same about raising the status of the Russian language.

Role Reversal?

A mostly tolerant attitude toward language prevails, and it is not uncommon to hear Ukrainian and Russian spoken in one conversation.

As the visibility of the Ukrainian language grows, its speakers demonstrate a lower threshold of tolerance toward attempts to denigrate it, said Yaroslav Hrytsak, a professor of modern and contemporary Ukrainian history at the Ukrainian Catholic University in the western city of Lviv.

Had the incident at the Odesa school occurred "10 or even five years ago, no action would probably have been taken," he said, "but look how swiftly everyone reacted in this case, including the teacher being fired."

Hrytsak said that although the Ukrainian language was still a symbol of independence, "it's no longer a crucial symbol" because it has become more commonplace.

In a country long dominated by the Russian language in the past, he said, "Ukrainian is [gaining] a higher status and Russian...a lower status -- the roles are reversing.”

At the same time, analysts say, the distinction is blurring and become less of a focus because a civic national identity that is not narrowly defined by ethnicity and language is emerging.

Russian is the first language of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who beat Poroshenko by a landslide in a runoff vote. The majority of Ukrainian military personnel fighting against the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas are Russian speakers.

Yet controversies persist. A rights activist from the eastern city of Luhansk, Serhiy Melnychuk, won a Supreme Court ruling in September that compelled Zelenskiy to speak Ukrainian when fulfilling political duties. He had filed the initial suit after hearing the president speak Russian at an IT forum in May 2019.

Civil society groups in Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas that was held for weeks by the separatists but retaken by Kyiv's forces in July 2014, say that a local pro-Ukrainian activist and volunteer, Artem Miroshnychenko, was beaten to death for speaking Ukrainian in November 2019.

Miroshnychenko's brother told local media he felt the same way. Police did not investigate his death under a statute on ethnic violence and refrained from ascribing a motive.

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