Learning a Lesson From Bulgaria

KIEV, Ukraine -- In the middle of June, the Razumkov Center and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology tried to throw light on what Ukrainians think about making Russian the second official state language. The results of the poll showed that 56.2 percent of the nation’s population “are completely in agreement” or “somewhat in agreement” with the idea.

Still, giving in to the opinion of the majority of Ukrainians and granting Russian official status would be a big mistake on the part of lawmakers. Moreover, these data can be interpreted as evidence of the government’s insufficient energy in promoting Ukrainian.

At the beginning of the 1980s, when I was a schoolboy, I was given a table of subjects, among which were included “the native language” and “the Russian language.” The teacher asked us to cross out the “Russian” and pencil in “Ukrainian” instead. He explained that Russian was our native language. When I got a little older, I discovered that my beloved Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Scott didn’t exist in Ukrainian translation, and that I had to read these authors in Russian. I watched foreign films dubbed exclusively into Russian; only a few Soviet movies, meanwhile, were in Ukrainian. Entertainment, and the announcement of stations in the subway, and the signs in the stores – everything was in Russian. Back then I didn’t really think much about why I spoke Ukrainian at home but Russian everywhere else. I was just surprised by it.

Thinking about this issue and analyzing it started for me at the end of the 1980s, when the language issue become relevant. Back then it was easier for me to communicate in Russian than in Ukrainian. Then, in 1989, Ukraine’s Supreme Soviet passed the law on languages, which secured official state status for Ukrainian.

What has changed since then? Russian hasn’t given up its position. Russian schools are functioning, Russian language books and media are published, Russian translations are shown on television, Russian-language movies are screened, and the movies you rent are all dubbed into Russian. Even state officials are obliged to know Russian and to answer visitors in that language.

Ukrainian is in a significantly worse position. Ukraine lacks even one theater in which Ukrainian-dubbed movies are shown, the state doesn’t support the national book publishers, and the overwhelming majority of the mass media is in Russian.

The result is a closed circle. Since almost every Ukrainian understands Russian, there’s no sense in publishing books or making movies in Ukrainian. It’s possible that there’s nothing terrible about the fact that Russophone Ukrainians should exist – after all, the Irish are English-speaking, and everything is more or less fine.

But here we should recall the rebirth of Finnish. A hundred years ago, Swedish was widespread in Finland, especially in the cities – and now Swedish-speaking Finns practically don’t exist. In its own time, Bulgarian occupied second rank in Bulgaria, while Turkish, the language of the country’s former imperial master, ruled. Thanks to skillful linguistic politics, Czech became the basic language in the Czech Republic, where once German was widespread.

But there are other examples. In 1998, our neighbor Belarus made Russian its second state language. The result is that Russian has almost completely squeezed out Belarusian. If things go on like they have, that country’s language could simply die out.

Even though they’re Russified, many Ukrainians have strenuously read Ukrainian books, consciously chosen Ukrainian mass media outlets, and watched Ukrainian-language TV – and with time their knowledge of Ukrainian became deep enough that they can speak it fluently. Furthermore, I know of cases in which ethnic Russians who came not long ago to Ukraine thoroughly studied Ukrainian. And if many Ukrainians can’t speak Ukrainian fluently, that’s not because they don’t wish to, but because of a lack of Ukrainian-language environments, which have to be energetically set up.

The sociologists’ data doesn’t point to the way things have to be. When the experience of other countries is added to them, they are rather an incentive to action. The Russian government granted numerous advantages to its book publishers. Many federal taxes were cancelled, and many municipal taxes pared down, for publishing houses. The result was that Russian publishing blossomed and took over the Ukrainian market. The Ukrainian government should do the same thing. It also follows that the use of Ukrainian should be encouraged on television, in the movies, and in the print media in every possible way. The degraded Ukrainian movie industry should be helped. And, in the end, more people will speak Ukrainian.

In other words, the Ukrainian government has to start creating Ukrainian-speaking environments, and the sooner the better.

Source: Kyiv Post