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» Society » Ukrainization: Ukrainian and Russian Language Issues in Ukraine

Ukrainization: Issues and Arguments

Last update: Jan. 16, 2010 (article totally reworked)

What is Ukrainization?

Today many visitors to Ukraine and foreigners living in Ukraine are aware of the Ukrainian government's efforts to establish, or reestablish, Ukrainian as the dominant language of Ukraine's civic and cultural life. These efforts -- referred to as "Ukrainization" -- are most striking in predominantly Russian speaking cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, Simferopol, etc. where all official signs and most external advertising are now in Ukrainian.
"Ukrainization" is the "policy of increasing the usage and facilitating the development of the Ukrainian language and promoting other elements of Ukrainian culture, in various spheres of public life such as education, publishing, government and religion" [Wikipedia]. Ukrainian is the country's single official language and is the primary spoken language of half or slightly over half of Ukrainian citizens. The other major language, of course, is Russian, which was favored in public life across much of Ukraine over the long period of Russian and Soviet domination.
Examples of Ukrainization policies include greater support of Ukrainian speaking drama theaters, stimulus subsidies for certain literature in Ukrainian, requirements for university professors to lecture in Ukrainian, rules requiring school teachers to speak to children in Ukrainian, laws requiring the dubbing of all foreign films into Ukrainian, and regulations governing the use of Ukrainian on radio and television.
In general, Ukrainization policies are directed at public activities that fall under significant state control; language usage in commercial and private dealings is not affected. Thus, for instance, official government statements are issued in Ukrainian, but members of Parliament can be seen debating in Russian on TV. A conference with government officials present will probably use Ukrainian as its official language, but individual speakers may choose to speak in Russian. Street signs are in Ukrainian, but locals may use their Russian names. Professors lecture in Ukrainian but may speak with students in Russian during their office hours.
For a fuller perspective, this article should also contain a section on "Russification" and the many ways in which Russian language and culture were promoted in Ukraine under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Why Ukrainization is a heated issue

The "language issue," as it is often referred to, can be emotionally charged, as you will see from the comments ta the bottom of this article. People from the west of Ukraine generally view Russia's historical influence on Ukraine negatively. Russians, to many of them, have been invaders and oppressors, and the language that they brought with them was artificially placed in a dominant position as the language of government and civic life. Furthermore, Russian speaking people were repeatedly brought in from Russia to work and settle in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainization to them is about forging a national identity and correcting historical injustices.
On the other side of the debate are Ukrainian citizens who are native Russian speakers and, often but not always, ethnic Russians (in truth many Ukrainian citizens are a complex mixture of Slavic, Central European, and Central Asian blood; Ukrainian last names are common in Russia, and vice versa). They do not perceive themselves as newcomers to Ukraine, but identify strongly with the cities and rural areas they live in. Many of them feel that their language is being marginalized and squeezed out of civic life even in areas where nearly everyone is a native Russian speaker. Many feel perceive Ukrainization as the agenda of a minority of "dangerous" Ukrainian nationalists. Some note that Kiev was actually the birthplace of Russian culture and statehood. Quite large numbers of people in the east and south of Ukraine traditionally have supported the establishment of Russian as a second official language, but support for this position among the political elite is fairly weak.
In the middle, typically, are people who live in bilingual environments such as Kiev and larger towns of central Ukraine. Many of these people are Ukrainian russophones -- i.e. ethnic Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian, but feel psychologically close to Ukrainian, too. These people generally perceive neither support of Ukrainian language and culture nor legitimizing public use of Russian language as critical issues. Obviously, a probable reason for this is that they themselves are fluent or nearly fluent in both, so shifting language politics do not threaten them with large and uncomfortable personal adjustments. Also in the moderate camp, intriguingly, are many residents of Transcarpathia -- Ukraine's far west, where self-identification with the modern Ukrainian state is low due to having been part of so many different countries in recent history and to speaking different regional dialects.
The "language issue" is often used as a rallying point by politicians and ideologues and contributes to an "us versus them" mindset among some Ukrainians.

Ukrainization strategy

Contemporary Ukrainization (the first was in the early years of the Soviet Union, followed by a long period of Russification) is directed at achieving the following immediate goals:
maximize the number of schools and institutes of higher education with instruction in Ukrainian
maximize the use of Ukrainian in government bodies and official organizations
maximize the use of Ukrainian in radio and TV broadcasting, the press, advertising, and movie dubbing
promote the development and raise the status of Ukrainian culture (in comparison to Russian culture) within Ukraine
It is generally thought that Ukrainian Russophones (ethnic Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian, who make up as much as 30% of the population) can be swayed to switch to Ukrainian fairly easily. In many or most cases these people do not have very strong psychological ties to the Russian language or Russian culture. Many are receptive to patriotic themes and to Ukrainian folk culture. Ukrainization strategists hope that with a bit of encouragement these Ukrainians can be prodded to adopt Ukrainian as their primary language.
I am not aware of any studies that look at to what degree this is actually taking place, but based on studies of ethnic self-identification in Ukraine I would estimate that perhaps 2-5% more Ukrainian citizens use Ukrainian as their primary language today than in 1991.
Among Russian speaking ethnic Russians, getting people to switch to Ukrainian is understandably more difficult, particularly if such people form a majority in a given locale. Russian is part of their cultural heritage and identity, and Ukrainian is perceived as a foreign language of little personal relevance. It is thought that over time -- perhaps one generation -- these people can be taught Ukrainian in school to at least become comfortable with the language, and that they can learn to use it in official settings and when communicating with people from other regions of Ukraine.
In practice, however, implementation of Ukrainization policies in areas with a high concentration of ethnic Russians are probably not subtle and gentle enough to consistently elicit a positive response. Instead, there is a lot of backlash and resentment. Complicating the effort is Ukraine's short political history. The country does not yet have the sense of permanency that states such as Finland, Ireland, or the Czech Republic enjoy. There is still quite a bit of "longing" for the Soviet Union, as well as hope for closer ties with Russia. Many people question Ukraine's chances for long-term sovereignty. Many ethnic Russians and even some Ukrainians feel that they were severed from the rest of the Soviet Union against their will.

The ideology behind Ukraine's current Ukrainization policy

I don't believe this ideology is stated anywhere outright, but it can be pieced together. It seems to have two aspects:

1. Pragmatic geopolitical aspect

By achieving maximum linguistic (and thus informational) and cultural independence from Russia, Ukraine will strengthen its own sovereignty, and the idea of reuniting with Russia in any way or form will be abandoned forever. Ukrainian citizens will be more loyal to the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian national interests as opposed to Russian and Russophile political forces who favor reintegration with Russia and other CIS states. 

2. Nationalistic aspect

First imperial, then Soviet, and now post-Soviet Russia has been dominating Ukraine for centuries and suppressing Ukraine's culture as a result of promoting its own imperialistic aims. Russian language and cultural dependence on Russia have been artificially implanted in Ukraine and should be removed. Russian-speaking Ukrainians are a "historical mistake" and should learn to use Ukrainian in their everyday lives, while ethnic Russians in Ukraine should learn Ukrainian and use it in their public dealings. Ukrainian should become the default language of public use in all regions of Ukraine.

Is Kiev becoming a Ukrainian speaking city?

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, has been a primarily Russian speaking city for many generations. Here perhaps more than anywhere else is Ukrainization felt, mostly due to the strong government presence.
In Soviet times, Ukrainian was used much less often in public, and Russian was the de facto language of public interaction. Today, recent surveys show that up to 30 or 40% of people in Kiev speaks Ukrainian at home — quite a bit more than just two decades ago. However, during this time the city's population has also swelled from an official 2.6 million to 4 million, with the vast majority of new residents coming from Ukrainian speaking towns and villages. In the Soviet Union it was much more difficult for people from the countryside to change their place of residence, and now people are flocking to big cities in search of work. Most of these people are Ukrainian speakers, which is affecting the language balance in towns. However, during the economic crisis of 2008-2009 large numbers of migrant workers left Kiev after losing their jobs, and the relative prevalence of Ukrainian has once gain decreased slightly.
While more native Ukrainian speakers have flocked to cities like Kiev in search of opportunities, that does not necessarily mean that they bring their language with them. I have many people in Kiev from western Ukraine who switched to speaking Russian after moving to Kiev because everyone around them spoke Russian. Speaking the dominant language can become an issue of fitting in and not seeming like a "country bumpkin." In white-collar circles there is some stigma against "Surzhyk" -- a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian characteristic of less educated Ukrainians from rural provinces.
I would estimate that the number of business offices in Kiev that have a primarily Ukrainian speaking environment is more like 10%. Among government offices and NGOs the number could be as high as 40-50%. When a language enjoys a majority, it is self-perpetuating and becomes the default language of social interaction in a disproportionately high percentage of situations. It is only because so many people in Ukraine are bilingual that there is any choice of language at all.

Disinformation about the use of Ukrainian and Russian in Ukraine

Studies consistently shows that Ukrainian and Russian are spoken in approximately equal amounts across Ukraine as a whole, with a greater concentration of Russian speakers (i.e. people who report that they usually speak Russian in their daily life) in the east and south and in metropolitan areas, and more Ukrainian speakers in central and western areas and, in general, across most of Ukraine's rural areas. I have attempted to give my own estimates of Russian and Ukrainian usage in different cities of Ukraine here.
Despite these studies which show consistent results year after year, foreign readers interested in Ukraine and language use of Ukraine inevitably encounter starkly contradicting statements on the relative use of Russian and Ukrainian in the country. On one website you may read that Russian is spoken more often, while another site will state the exact opposite — such as the following:
"Imperial Russia may not have been able to exterminate the Ukrainian language from the land, but they did have a strong influence on the country. Today Russian speakers make up the second largest language group in Ukraine – though they occupy a relatively small percentage when compared to those who speak Ukrainian." [source:]
What is a "relatively small percentage," if virtually 50% of the inhabitants of Ukraine speak Russian at home? This and similar texts spread blatant falsehoods, promoting the authors' vision of the way things are supposed to be in Ukraine instead of the way they actually are. Here is another inaccurate representation of the language picture in Ukraine without the emotional tone:
Ukrainian is the official language and is the first language of about 67% of the population. Russian is widely spoken by about 24% of people, and in some eastern areas of the country it is the main language (The World Factbook). Other minority languages include Belarussian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian. [source:]
These same statistics are repeated by the otherwise authoritative CIA guidebook:
Languages: Ukrainian (official) 67%, Russian 24%, small Romanian-, Polish-, and Hungarian-speaking minorities
Is Ukrainian really the "first language of about 67% of the population?" In other words, did 67% of Ukraine's citizens grow up speaking mostly Ukrainian in the home? Surveys in Ukraine place this number at around 50%, where it has hovered for decades. The phrase "Russian is widely spoken by about 24%" seems to suggest that it is not even their native language, just a language they "know well," much like English in The Netherlands. In actuality, Russian is "well known" by about 90% of the population. The phrase "in some eastern areas of the country" is also deceptive, as Russian is the dominant spoken language of all the cities of eastern Ukraine, many cities in central Ukraine (including Kiev!), and most in southern Ukraine (including all of Crimea, Odessa, Kherson, Nikolaev, Krivoy Rog, and Melitopol).
- a factual view of the language situation in Ukraine by Taras Kuzio, a frequent writer on Ukraine.

The nationalist agenda and the role of the Ukrainian diaspora

The majority of texts such as the excerpts cited above seem to be written by 2nd and 3rd-generation Ukrainian nationalists living in Canada and the U.S. Their immigrant ancestors experienced Soviet repressions and anti-Ukrainian persecution and passed on a particular view of things that has been idealized (simplified and amplified) by many members of the Ukrainian diaspora to the point of being completely out of touch with the realities and attitudes of modern-day Ukraine.
Here is what is twisted over and over again in statements by foreign Ukrainian nationalists. First of all, it is assumed that only ethnic Russians (approx. 17% of the population by self-definition, according to the most recent census) are "Russian speakers," ignoring the fact that approximately 30% of Ukraine's population are people who consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians yet speak Russian among themselves. Next, authors with nationalist leanings often compare the number of ethnic Russians to "those who speak Ukrainian," which includes Russian speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians who also know Ukrainian. Such agenda-driven twisting of the facts (or could it simply be ignorance?) is often maddening to those of us who actually live in Ukraine and know the situation to be completely different.
While the overwhelming majority of reader feedback on this website has been positive, I have also gotten a number of critical letters from disgruntled readers who didn't like statements on this site such as "Russian is the dominant spoken language in 10 of the 11 largest cities in Ukraine." One tried to tell me to "come visit Ukraine yourself instead of believing what other people told you about it" (!) and that "you don't hear much Russian in Kiev these days anymore" (!!). First of all, I have lived in Kiev since 2000, and secondly, Russian is the preferred spoken language of approximately 60-70% of Kiev residents (significantly down from the Soviet era, when it was quite rare to hear Ukrainian at all in Kiev).
Here is another letter to from a Ukrainian American that shows the level of emotion that can surround the language issue. This message was written in response to my page on opportunities to study Russian and Ukrainian in Ukraine:
You Russian bastards. Ukrainian and Russian are both very unique lanaguages. I certainly hope the language of the russian pigs leaves independent ukraine. True ukrainians were forced to assimilate in russification. But they should learn ukrainian...NOT RUSSIAN. It is the nation of UKRAINE.
This and many other letters and messages I have read from people living outside of Ukraine suggest that aversion of Russia and the Russian language is more prominent among Ukrainian descendents living in the USA and Canada than among Ukrainians living in Ukraine. Such dislike can sometimes be found in "Galicia" -- around the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk areas -- but is rare elsewhere. Surveys consistently show a high degree of cultural acceptance between Ukrainians and Russians — much higher than between, say, Ukrainians and Americans. (!)
Finally, at some forums about travel in Ukraine, foreign visitors sometimes ask questions like, "I am going to Odessa for a year. Which language should I learn?" To these and similar questions nationalistically-minded forum members often try to tell people to learn Ukrainian "because it is the single official state language," despite the fact that almost no one speaks Ukrainian in Odessa! Why learn a language that you will hardly be able to use? Some nationalists seem to find it personally offensive that someone might choose to learn and practice Russian in Ukraine. They cannot accept the current state of affairs in Ukraine and insist on correcting historical wrongs even if it is highly impractical for "innocent expats" to do so.
In short, many members of the pre-Soviet Ukrainian diaspora have preserved the attitudes of their immigrant and refugee ancestors, while modern-day citizens of Ukraine mostly express quite different attitudes that have been shaped by the realities of life in Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine.

Speculations on the future of Ukrainian and Russian in Ukraine

The future of language usage in Ukraine seems to be closely related to its political future. I think the second will determine the first more than vice versa. If Ukraine is able to maintain its current borders and degree of sovereignty for a long period of time, it is likely that the Ukrainian language will continue to grow in importance. If, due to international conflict or economic reasons, Ukraine's status were to change, it might find itself in a position where Russian becomes more important again. I'm not a political scientist (and even if I were, these things are very hard to predict), but it seems reasonable to expect that Ukraine's political future will be a continuation of its past or at least heavily influenced thereby. That means that it will retain close ties to Russia and remain on the fringes of western European civilization, and that any wars on its territory are likely to rewrite its boundaries.
My prediction is that the language balance will not change drastically in spite of government attempts to influence the situation one way or the other. I accept that I could be wrong. In fact, I'll begin by stating the main long-term factor favoring the success of the Ukrainian language: the fact that Ukrainian nationalists are more passionate about the issue and are more unified and self-assured than their opponents. They have a clear vision for the country, whereas their opponents' vision, if any, lacks an inspirational quality. This is what Ukrainization has going for it. In this section I will bring up some points that support my prediction (which is not by any means a value judgment) of limited success for Ukrainization.
First of all, Ukraine does not enjoy a strong national identity as a country based on a single dominant ethnic-cultural-linguistic group (such as Poland, Slovakia, or Russia), as a conglomeration of ethnic groups enjoying equal status (such as Switzerland), or as a melting pot of immigrants (such as the United States). This lack of a clear national identity seems to me to be a weak point that will undermine attempts to stimulate a national revival, including the establishment of Ukrainian as the dominant language.
Part of the identity "problem" seems to stem from the fact that different parts of Ukraine were parts of different empires for extended periods of time. The longer Ukraine stays together and the more economically, politically, and administratively interdependent its regions become, the greater the likelihood that a national identity will emerge. I suppose that Ukrainization could eventually be successful in the absence of a national identity simply by people making incremental choices in their personal self-interest, but it seems to me that national identity was a key factor in the success of other countries who embarked on ambitious crusades to reestablish their native languages and were successful.
I'm not saying that such a Ukrainian cultural revival cannot occur in the future; it just does not seem to be occurring right now over a large enough part of the country. There was a partial revival in the early 90s which culminated in Ukraine achieving its independence, however, it was soon overshadowed by the post-Soviet economic collapse. At the moment, there just does not seem to be a ton of excitement over Ukrainization, but maybe I'm missing something? A lot of Russian speakers in the east, south, and even center feel antagonized. "Let them feel what it's like" -- some nationalists may insinuate, but is that a formula for a cultural revival?
Another factor that will surely influence the language situation in Ukraine is the economic and political power of surrounding countries and of Ukraine itself. The better the opportunities in Russia compared to Ukraine, the more incentive there will be for Ukrainians to maintain proficiency in Russian. If western Ukraine were to emerge as a new economic powerhouse and a major draw for immigrants, it would probably be a lot easier to "ukrainianize" the country.
Furthermore, there is a great disequality between the two languages in terms of cultural development and number of speakers. The Russian language vortex with its 300 million speakers (native and non-native) and prestigious cultural heritage will always be beckoning. Learn Russian and you can experience a diversity of cultures and locations across half of the Eurasian continent, as well as read classics that are household names around the world. Speak just Ukrainian and you can experience the plains and river valleys of Ukraine and tell foreigners about authors they have never heard of.
The languages also enjoy unequal prestige within Ukraine itself. Russian is spoken in large cities, Ukrainian in the countryside and provinces (a slight overgeneralization). Ukrainian really only shows itself to be a metropolitan language in the city of Lviv. However, Lviv's cultural attractiveness is arguably matched or exceeded by Kiev (mostly Russian speaking) and Odessa (Russian speaking). It is particularly difficult to imagine a Ukrainian speaking Odessa.
A very basic factor is simply linguistic inertia. People don't choose their native language; it is given to them by their childhood reference group -- family and peers -- who speak among themselves the language that, on average, they know best. That is how children of immigrants to the U.S. grow up native English speakers and how ethnic Ukrainians born to Ukrainian speaking parents in Kiev grow up native Russian speakers. Furthermore, very few people learn new languages as adults to the point that they change their language of everyday use.
The linguistic makeup of a region tends to change slowly from generation to generation in the absence of remarkable circumstances such as foreign invasion, forced population movements, or massive cultural revival. Totalitarian rulers and empire builders of the past such as Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, and the Inkas recognized this inertia and forcibly moved people around in order to homogenize culture. One of the most effective, but ethically unacceptable ways to ukrainianize Ukraine would be to expel all self-identified ethnic Russians, thereby homogenizing the population enough to make further Ukrainization inevitable.
Finally, I do not think that the political leaders who support Ukrainization actually have in mind a total switch to Ukrainian in all areas of life. While this is certainly a wish of some Ukrainian nationalists, including those in the Ukrainian diaspora, the powerful elite are mostly realists and are probably focused more on reversing Soviet-era Russification and making sure all Ukrainians learn the state language than on getting everyone to speak only Ukrainian. To take Ukrainization beyond a certain reasonable level would require a degree of authoritarianism that few people are interested in.
In spite of the long-term obstacles I mention here, Ukrainization is currently enjoying some success. It has plenty of opponents, but they have not been able to resist the regulations being implemented. How successful these measures will turn out to be several generations from now remains to be seen.
As you will read below, some readers have disagreed with my views — especially some of the conclusions I have drawn. I have given them some 'air' below. I have also written a rant that may be of interest to readers who read the correspondence below and are intrigued by the issues raised.