Ukraine Divided Over Language Row

KIEV, Ukraine -- The future status of the Russian language in Ukraine is the cause of public and political debate. The BBC's Helen Fawkes speaks to Russian-speakers who fear discrimination and Ukrainians who are proud of their mother tongue.
It is a difficult lesson for Oleg Tikhomirov.

The teenager is being taught Ukrainian. It is the official language and everyone studies it.

But like all the children in his class in Kiev, Oleg's native language is Russian.

His family is part of the 30% of the country who say that Russian is their mother tongue.

"I think the worst thing is to introduce Ukrainian language using force and to take away choice from people," says Oleg's mother, Irina Tikhomirova.

Russification Fear

Following last year's disputed presidential elections where language became a contentious issue, these people fear they will be discriminated against.

Defeated candidate Viktor Yanukovych had promised to make Russian a state language. He was supported by Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine, while Viktor Yushchenko was largely backed by the Ukrainian-speaking West.

Many of his supporters voted for him because they want to put a stop to the "Russification" of their country.

"I think the Ukrainian language is still hugely under threat," Mr Yushchenko said in a newspaper article shortly after being elected.

"The previous administration didn't think there was a problem but if we lose our language we lose our culture."

During Soviet times people were taught to speak Russian. It was only after independence that Ukrainian became the official language here.

Russian is still widely used in this country, especially in the east, the Crimea and the capital. According to a recent opinion poll, six out of 10 people would like Russian to become Ukraine's second official language.

Two of the main opposition parties are now trying to get parliament to introduce laws to protect the rights of Russian speakers. They want to make it easier for people to use their native language while at school and dealing with the authorities.

Labour Camp

"Many people have never learnt to speak Ukrainian and they find life difficult. We want equal rights for Russian-speakers," says Mikhailo Illarionov, from the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine.

The media caters for both languages. You can buy newspapers in either Russian or Ukrainian. One television station even uses both languages at once.

The most popular programmes on the music channel M1 have two presenters. One of them speaks only Ukrainian while the other just uses Russian.

Flicking though a pile of black and white photos at his home in Kiev, Yevhen Sverstyuk looks back at more repressive times.

The Ukrainian author picks out pictures of himself and fellow prisoners. In the 1960s Yevhen wrote a book in Ukrainian. He was punished by the Soviet authorities and spent 12 years in a labour camp in Siberia.

"The Ukrainian nation has been fighting for their native language for centuries. People have even died in the struggle to use the Ukrainian language," he says.

Many of those who voted for Mr Yushchenko speak Ukrainian. They now hope for a new chapter in the country's history - where there is less Russian influence and more pride in the native language.


.natalya. said…
I'm sorry but this article by BBC is really annoying. How can a person live in Kyiv and not know Ukrainian for God's sake its Ukraine and it's language is Ukrainian not russian.