September 18, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov


Kiev as a Russian-speaking stronghold of "orange revolutionaries"

On the eve of the snap elections, scheduled for September 30, most of Ukraine's political parties are rivaling in the effort to convey their views to those voters for whom the Russian language is more dear and understandable than the Ukrainian. Posters of the liberal-nationalist Our Ukraine-Popular Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc, decorated with portraits of the founders, President Viktor Yushchenko and ex-Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko, are published in two languages. Curiously, the Russian-language posters are of a higher demand, as any of the cheerful young distributors can tell you – in perfect Russian, which they speak to one another as well. The only exception is the production of Yulia Tymoshenko's BYUT party, which does not use Russian language on principle. Still, the street activists, distributing BYUT's materials, also address one another in Russian.

Many of today's political leaders of Ukraine have learned the so-called "mother language' in the process of their recent political career, using this knowledge as a tool in their rivalry. The confession of Mrs. Tymoshenko that she learnt to speak Ukrainian only in the period of her work in the 1999-2001 government of Viktor Yushchenko may be an exaggeration. Still, this school of studying the official national speech is familiar to most of Ukraine's politicians.

Arriving in Kiev and looking at the notations on signboards and ads, you get an impression that you have found yourself in the capital of a Slavonic country with a language similar to Russian, but significantly different. In a while of two-three hours you find out that this first impression was incorrect: in the streets, as well as in public transport, you hear Russian speech four-five times more often than the Ukrainian speech. The Ukrainian-speakers are mostly elderly persons. In the subway, you see persons reading predominantly Russian-language books and newspapers. Eventually, you come to a conclusion that the Ukrainian statehood is an invention of a narrow bunch of "samostiyniks", proponents of independence from Russia Ц exactly as it is described by many Russian authors.

However, this second impression appears to be also incomplete and superficial. After a while, you guess that the Ukrainian-language notations, as well as TV speech, is not alien to the residents of Kiev. Secondly, the manner of speaking Russian in everyday life reflects not the cultural identity but rather the cosmopolitan essence of one of the largest cities of Eastern Europe.

In its turn, the Ukrainian language plays a role, similar to that of Latin language in medieval Europe. Russian is used for everyday communication in private. Ukrainian is used for public speech Ц from the university rooms to TV discussions. The skills of speaking Ukrainian language have become a necessary condition of acceptance into the ranks of the national elite. On the contrary, illiteracy in Ukrainian language is regarded in the establishment as a sign of boorishness.

Quite naturally, the examples of this kind inspire many Ukrainians of the new generation, wishing to inherit power from Yanukovich, Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and other political idols. They don't forget Russian. On the contrary, they realize that without knowledge of Russian, they are unlikely to achieve any success in politics, business and science Ц similarly to the role of English in the West. However, the "state Latin" is a special science, a symbol of elitism. Besides, this destination of the "derzhavna mova" (state language) differentiates the official language from widely spoken dialects, used in Ukraine's rural districts.

Therefore, BYUT's intention to neglect Russian speech does not significantly restrict this party's popularity. This party concentrates its efforts on the active and mostly Russian-speaking layer of the population, for which language is "on the 17th place of significance", as its leader says.

Those Russian politicians who believe the language problem to be central in the Russian-Ukrainian controversy, as well as in the elections, are seriously mislead. As a matter of fact, there is

no significant cultural difference between Yulia Tymoshenko, originating from the Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk, Viktor Yanukovich Ц a Byelorussian from Donetsk, and Viktor Yushchenko, born in the Russian-dominated northernmost Sumy Region. It is more significant that a citizen of Kiev, no matter which language he speaks at home and an office, perceives himself as superior over the provincials from Donetsk, and would not like them to take power.

The described political phenomenon concerns not only Kiev. Across the whole territory of Ukraine, we deal with a political self-definition of a vast number of cultural Russians, whose way of thinking is inaccessible to narrow-minded Russian "patriotic nationalists". It is reflected in differentiation of an integral national feeling into two loosely connected segments. Their Russian identity Ц in ethnic, linguistic and cultural aspects Ц does not automatically predetermine their affinity to the Russian nation as a whole and to Russia as a fatherland. Instead, many of them view themselves as belonging to the Ukrainian nation, which is a potential element of the Promised Land of Europe. This phenomenon is much easier to condemn than to avow. Even more problematic is the task to propose a real alternative to the "new Russian Ukrainians", without which their number is going to multiply.

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