Russian Language In Retreat In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The fidgeting, wide-eyed girls and boys squeezed around a table in Elizaveta Moklyak's kindergarten class are helping lead a cultural and political revolution.

Ukraine flag (L) and Russia flag

With her pointer and colorful posters, Moklyak teaches Ukrainian to Russian-speaking children - ensuring that by the end of the school year, the language of their homeland no longer sounds like a foreign tongue.

Sixteen years after shrugging off Moscow's rule, Ukraine is reclaiming a language that - like scores of other local languages across the former U.S.S.R. - the Soviet leadership once disdained as inferior to Russian.

Today Ukrainian has emerged from second-class status, slipping quietly into the chambers of government and popular culture. This marks more than a cultural change: It could doom any hopes Russia may have of restoring its traditional political influence over this country of 47 million.

Just two years ago, some Russian speaking regions in eastern Ukraine talked of secession, fearing dominance by Ukrainian-speakers in the west. The language debate was one of the most divisive of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which helped oust Ukraine's pro-Moscow leadership.

While competition for political power continues, Ukrainian may already have triumphed in the language war.

``I think there is the sense that Ukraine has passed over the hump on this issue, that there has been a big, but quiet, victory,'' said Ivan Lozowy, a political analyst.

Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, but its use declined sharply after the Soviet breakup in 1991. Native languages rebounded, and English made inroads among intellectuals and business leaders.

Where Russian speakers in the Soviet republics once enjoyed social and political advantages, many now struggle to keep up in school, to fill out forms in government offices and to compete for jobs.

In Latvia and Estonia, Russian speakers complain of discrimination. That resentment erupted in violence in the past week, when Estonia's Russian-speaking minority protested the removal of a monument honoring Soviet soldiers from downtown Tallinn.

In Georgia and Azerbaijan, many youngsters now see English as a ticket to success.

However, Russian is still firmly entrenched in some former Soviet states, including in Central Asia, where it is widely seen as having brought culture and civilization to the medieval khanates that once ruled the steppes. But even in places where Russian remains strong, nationalists are trying to chip away at its dominance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears deeply worried about the erosion of the use of Russian worldwide, and last week called for creation of a national Russian Language Institute.

``Looking after the Russian language and expanding the influence of Russian culture are crucial social and political issues,'' Putin said in his state of the nation address.

In countries like Ukraine, that influence is shrinking.

The nation's Ukrainian-speaking west yearns to be part of Europe; the Russian-speaking east and south is the base of politicians who want to maintain Ukraine's historic ties to Moscow.

Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who make up about half the country, say they feel excluded from the Ukrainian-speaking society. In the past year, many regions have tried to enshrine Russian in local laws, and their champion, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has said he would oppose aggressive ``Ukrainianization.''

But even Yanukovych has brushed up on his Ukrainian and now uses it - not only at official meetings, but at rallies of his Russian-speaking supporters.

Some Russian-speakers feel besieged.

Mykola Levchenko, 27, secretary of the Donetsk city council, said Russian-speakers like himself suffer daily insults and some Ukrainians even question his patriotism. When he buys a Ukrainian-made home appliance, he says, the directions come only in Ukrainian.

``In world society, Russian is a major language, Ukrainian isn't,'' he said. ``Why would we give this up?''

After Ukraine became independent, it declared Ukrainian the sole state language and switched over more than 80 percent of its schools. Nearly all universities now teach in Ukrainian; as a result, parents push children to study Ukrainian early.

``Without this it would be difficult for him in life,'' said Yulia Bondarenko, who speaks Russian at home to her 7-year-old son, Zhenya, but sends him to a Ukrainian-language school.

Ukrainian and Russian both use the Cyrillic alphabet and have the same linguistic roots, and it's not uncommon to hear people slip seamlessly from one to another. Many words are similar - the Russian word for apple is ``yabloko,'' Ukrainian is ``yabluko'' - but differences also are common.

For example, thank you in Russian is ``spasibo;'' in Ukrainian, it's ``dyakuyu.'' And even simple words can be different: in Russian, yes is ``da'' and no is ``nyet;'' in Ukrainian, yes is ``tak'' and no is ``ni.'

Ukrainians in Kiev joke that if a traffic cop pulls them over, they'll curse in Russian, then switch to Ukrainian - which conveys an air of authority - to try to persuade the officer from writing a ticket.

``We have nothing against Russian, we all use it,'' said Yuliya Vladina, a 22-year-old DJ. ``But we have a language - Ukrainian - so why shouldn't we promote that? It's progressive. It's hip.''

Ukrainian's identification with pop culture appears to have been a key factor in its success, particularly among young people.

Many popular bands sing in Ukrainian. ``People are learning the language from our songs,'' said Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, lead singer of Okean Elzy.

Ivan Malkovych, director of a Ukrainian-language publishing house, rushed out a Ukrainian translation of the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, beating Russian-language publishers. That success, he said, helped attract young readers to other Ukrainian-language titles.

Russian does maintain its dominance in some fields. Most national newspapers publish only in Russian, as do many magazines.

But every year, the demand for Ukrainian publications increases - propelled by readers who began learning the language in kindergarten classes like those taught by Moklyak.

Source: Guardian Unlimited