Opinion: Russian language failing to attract Ukrainian youth

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Pranešk apie klaidą

The Lithuania Tribune presents an opinion article by our reader, Tom Liutkus, the EU affairs consultant, who speculates on the changing face of the present-day Ukraine’s linguistic landscape, which used to be dominated by the Russian language.

UkrianianLanguage has historically held a central role in Ukrainian politics, both uniting and dividing the country.

In a banal press release, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education recently released new statistics on foreign language learning in Ukraine that hints at the country’s inexorable drift towards the West. Non-Russian European languages now account for an impressive 69 per cent of second foreign languages in the country among grade-schoolers – almost all learn English as their first foreign language. The most popular choice by far was German, with 52 per cent of fifth-graders currently enrolled in a German course, followed by French at 14per cent.

Given these trends, a vast majority of Ukrainians should be conversant in either English or German within a decade. This is in stark contrast to the linguistic landscape of the country’s incumbent political and economic elite. Before independence, the only Ukrainians with proficient knowledge of non-Russian European languages were the small minority that attended the country’s elite universities (or that were in the KGB).

Language as a unifier

The Russian language still has a strong hold on Ukraine. The country is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet and surrounded by countries where Russian is often spoken. Not surprisingly, media, television, pop music, and cinema are overwhelmingly Russian. It’s virtually impossible to grow up in the country without developing a working knowledge of Russian. Russian is also the native language for about a quarter of Ukraine’s 45 million citizens and an official language in 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions.

Surprisingly, during the early years of the Soviet Union, in a deliberately long-term strategy implemented in many other Soviet dependencies, the Bolsheviks encouraged the development of Ukrainian language and culture. It was only in the early 1930s when Stalin came to power that this policy was abruptly reversed to dramatic and bloody effect. Much of the Ukrainian intelligentsia was purged and a mass campaign of Russophication was undertaken to suppress the Ukrainian language and install Russian as the dominant tongue.

Tom Liutkus | Photo courtesy of Tom Liutkus

Tom Liutkus | Photo courtesy of Tom Liutkus

After the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that sent the USSR on a trajectory towards integration, old nationalisms began rearing their heads. Upon its independence, many thought that Ukraine too would be torn apart along linguistic lines. Despite the persistence of Russian, the Ukrainian language, enshrined in the constitution in 1996, managed to precariously bind the country together. Waves of policies aimed at rehabilitating the use of Ukrainian in schools, politics and the media have helped the language regain its dominant position.

Today, old cultural and linguistic allegiances still play an important socio-political role in the country. The country’s electoral landscape is divided largely along linguistic lines with pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists (West and Central Ukraine) pitted against Russia-leaning Russophiles (largely in the East). Nevertheless, few expect the country to fall apart outright. The internal tension of the last generation has instead been replaced by a broader battle over the geopolitical allegiances of the country – a battle of influence between East and West.

Russian tug-of-war

Russia hopes to keep Ukraine firmly anchored within its geopolitical orbit. Beyond economic interests, Russia has always considered Ukraine as an essential part of its own identity; hence its Europeanisation poses an existential threat. With Ukraine, more so than with many other ex-Soviet states, Russia relies heavily on constructing national myths and meta-narratives that bind Ukraine into a common destiny with Mother Russia. Given the strong cultural affinity between the countries – from the Russian Orthodox Church to Russian popular culture disseminated in the Ukrainian media – there are a number of levers of influence that can be manipulated.

The Russian language itself is thus of critical importance to Russia’s cultural pull. The Kremlin may not hesitate to throw its weight around in more traditional ways, provoking trade wars and driving up gas prices for its energy-dependent neighbour, but it knows deep down that it is fighting a losing battle if it cannot maintain its linguistic hold over the country. On the political front as well, the country is drifting from the Russian sphere of influence. In November, it is expected that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will sign a free trade agreement with the European Union, snubbing Russia and its Eurasian Customs Union.

Of course, the increasing dominance of non-Russian European languages does not in any way mean that the next generation of Ukrainians will completely turn their backs on their geopolitical or cultural affinity with Russian – or that Ukraine can withstand the more blunt weapons in Russia’s diplomatic arsenal. It does, however, provide a gateway to new ideas, as well as to much wider economic horizons for the entrepreneurial youth. Young Ukrainians are already increasingly turning to the West for their cultural consumption and the political class seems convinced that the country’s economic future lies in Europe.

***Tom Liutkus is an EU affairs consultant based out of Brussels, Belgium. He acts as an independent expert and works closely with a number of different consulting firms. Specialised particularly in EU regional policy, he principally conducts evaluations and performance audits of various financing mechanisms. Of Lithuanian descent, he grew up and was educated in the United Kingdom, but has preserved a strong attachment to the Baltic region and, more generally, Eastern Europe.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Lithuania Tribune.

One thought on “Opinion: Russian language failing to attract Ukrainian youth

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