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Ukraine Holds Politically Charged 'Dictation' Contest

"If 700 people were able to write it flawlessly, this would not be a competition," says respected Ukrainian linguist Oleksandr Avramenko.

KYIV -- Ukraine's annual dictation contest has always carried political undertones.

The competition, officially titled Ukrainian Dictation of National Unity, was launched in 2000 to promote the Ukrainian language in a country where almost one-third of citizens consider Russian their mother tongue.

With Kyiv struggling to stamp out a separatist insurgency in the country's predominantly Russian-speaking east, this year's November 7 dictation was an opportunity for organizers and participants to show their support for Ukrainian territorial integrity.

The National Radio Company, which organizes the contest, said the cash prizes usually awarded to winners would be redirected to Ukrainian soldiers battling the separatists.

"For the first time in 14 years, people are writing the dictation for the idea rather than for the prize," it said in a statement.

The contest, held annually on the eve of Ukrainian Writing and Language Day, is popular in the country. Last year, more than 13,000 participants sent in their copies.

This year's dictation was broadcast live on radio as part of a two-hour show featuring politicians and cultural luminaries.

The presenter, respected linguist Oleksandr Avramenko, read a 180-word text packed with grammatical traps and complex spellings.

"The dictation is difficult," Avramenko, the author of schoolbooks on Ukrainian language and literature, told RFE/RL. "If 700 people were able to write it flawlessly, this would not be a competition."

Svitlana Dolesko, the head of the Kyiv-based Center of Ukrainian Culture and Art, was one of the guests invited to take the dictation at the National Radio Company.

She made seven mistakes, six of them tied to punctuation.

"I will come here every year from now on," she said, "until I can proudly say that I didn't make a single mistake."

Language is a highly sensitive issue in Ukraine.

One of the first bills adopted by Ukraine's new Western-leaning parliament proposed stripping Russian of its status as an official language in Ukraine.

Then-acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, facing a public outcry from Russian speakers but also from many Ukrainian speakers, chose not to sign the bill into law.

Moscow, however, has cited the move as part of what it denounces as the repression of Russian speakers in Ukraine -- a notion it has invoked to justify its support of separatists in the country's east.

A large proportion of the residents of eastern Ukraine have only superficial knowledge of Ukrainian and speak either Russian or a mix of Russian and Ukrainian known as "surzhyk."