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Grażyna Bober: The position of the Ukrainian language after regaining independence in 1991: Language policies and a battle for identity

Grażyna Bober: The position of the Ukrainian language after regaining independence in 1991: Language policies and a battle for identity
Author: Grażyna Bober


For centuries the use of Ukrainian language in Ukraine has been either limited or completely forbidden during the Russian domination. Having been deprived of language for a long time, which is one of the key factors to nation building, contemporary Ukrainian citizens struggle for their own fixed identity. Moreover, the position of Ukrainian has been questioned ever since the independence. In this essay, the author will attempt to depict the situation of the Ukrainian language as a state language in Ukraine in the last few decades through analysis of the implemented policies and recent statistics.  In addition, the book market issue will be analyzed. Later the issue of the identity battle between Ukrainian and Russian speakers and the attitude towards national bilingualism will be discussed. Eventually, the author will focus on the movements, manifestos and activities aimed at bolstering the position of the Ukrainian language.

Language policies after 1991

Within a few years after Ukraine regained independence a number of language policies were officially implemented. According to General Principles, Article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996, “the state language of Ukraine is the Ukrainian language”. Furthermore, “state ensures the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine”. Nevertheless, the Russian language is considered to be one of the minority tongues and all of them are given protection and privileges.[1] To settle the issue of minorities the Declaration of the Rights of Nationalities in Ukraine (1991) and the Act on National Minorities (1992) were applied. Both laws ensured convenient circumstances for minority rights protection.[2] 

When joining the Council of Europe, Ukraine was obliged to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), implemented in 2006.  It would not define the specific threshold for the number of language users or regions in which usually minority tongues were spoken.[3] There were many opponents of the ECRML ratification. As The Ministry of Justice stated, the idea behind ECRML is to protect languages near extinction.[4] Many Ukrainians claimed that Russian should not be considered a minority language, as it is not the language of an ethnic minority group, but a spoken tongue of nearly 50% of the population.[5] According to Olszański, the Council’s insistence on Ukraine joining the Charter might be perceived as a political mistake taking into consideration the fact that several countries with internal language issues (Ireland, Greece or Estonia among them) refused to sign the agreement.[6]

Multiple drafts of language policies were sent to Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, some of which persisted on the primacy of either Ukrainian or Russian. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions project from 2010 stated that Russian is the language the majority of Ukrainian citizens use daily and that Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism is historically formed.[7] Adopted in July 2012, Language Law (LL) On Principles of the State Language Policy stated that Ukrainian is the official state language. Nevertheless, the new LL recognized 18 ethnic minority groups and their languages. The number of  native speakers in these groups is greater than 15 million which is around 32% of Ukraine’s population.[8] According to the law, languages listed in it might receive a status of regional or minority language in administrative units where “regional language carriers living in the area, where the language spread is 10 or more per cent of the population of that area”.[9] When it comes to the ratio of Russian native speakers, it is more than 10% in nearly half of the counties of Ukraine.

The most recent law On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language defines Ukrainian as the only official language. According to Shandra’s (2019) description of the new LL, any attempt to give official status to any other language will be treated as a serious crime. The new law ensures the protection of Ukrainian with way stricter rules than before. Every Ukrainian citizen is obliged to know the state language. Applicants for Ukrainian citizenship will be required to pass a language exam. All sorts of public servants must be fluent in Ukrainian. When it comes to education, the language of instruction in schools and universities shall be Ukrainian. Some disciplines might be translated into other languages, but not Russian. Regarding television, in five years, the national channels should be 90% in Ukrainian. No less than 50% of Ukrainian book titles should be printed and sold in bookstores. Those who violate the LL must carry the administrative responsibility and pay a fine.

The present language situation in numbers

The first all-Ukrainian census took place in 2001 and the second one in 2012. The next one will be conducted in 2020. To depict the current linguistic situation in Ukraine, I will use the data collected in the Razumkov Center Poll in 2017.


pic. 1 Which language is your native language?[10]

According to the poll, 67,8% of the citizens consider Ukrainian to be their native language, 13,8% claimed it to be Russian, whereas 17,4% declared that both languages are their native tongues. On the right side of the image, statistics concerning regions and nationalities are depicted. 92.8% of Western Ukraine declared to be Ukrainian speakers and only 1,9% are Russian speakers. In the central part of the country, 83,8% of the population uses Ukrainian and 10,1% Russian as a native tongue. The results from the South are following: Ukrainian 41,5%, Russian 26,1%. Eastern Ukraine speakers: 36,1% Ukrainian, 24,3% Russian. Given that data, one might easily draw a simple conclusion: the Ukrainian language dominates in the Western regions, whereas in the Eastern parts of the country Russian is used more. There is another language split: “a social division between the urban and rural populations”.[11] According to Goodman (2019:9), the “urban-rural divide” means that Russian is spoken in the cities and industrial centers and Ukrainian in the villages.[12]

The book market

For years, the situation of the book market and publishing in Ukrainian has been poor.[13] Before the outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian books constituted 80% of all of the books, while after the start of the war, the percentage dropped down to 40%. When it comes to books published in Ukrainian, it was 65% in 2015 and 70,2% in 2017. The book market issue is ameliorating, but it took a lot of time. The matter of translating foreign books into Ukrainian is also concerning. Who would pay for the new translation into Ukrainian if the Russian version has worked well for 40 years? “When it comes to reading fiction, it absolutely has to be in Russian”.[14]

Although with time, more and more bookstores offered Ukrainian versions of the foreign titles. Nevertheless, even until now, most of the books are translated “through” Russian, as it is cheaper than a translation from the original language. Thus many readers choose the “cheap and easy” Russian alternative of the book. If there is none, then they pick the “Russian-thru”[15] option. It has flaws, it is not the most comfortable to read, but it is still affordable and might suffice. According to Besters-Dilger (2009:279), for many people, the Ukrainian language is the determinative criterion while selecting the book and for others Russian versions are essential to read.[16]

Мова or язык? The battle for identity

The situation in which two Ukrainians have a conversation with one of them speaking Ukrainian and the other Russian might confuse foreigners. Nevertheless, sometimes it is even more confusing for the Ukrainians. Three opinion “camps” have formed. One is for the complete revival of the state language. Representatives of that group might refuse to talk with Russian speakers or unconditionally perceive them as different. The other camp is for the use of Russian as the first language. Both camps might but do not necessarily have to “treat those speaking a different language as different from themselves, which likely affects – in most cases negatively – their manner of interaction with such people. Those speaking the same language tend to be viewed as similar and, by extension, kindred, potentially worthy of favourable treatment.”[17] The third camp is willing to speak both languages or just one, but has no hostile attitude towards the interlocutor using the other tongue.

I once read a blog post about an American Ukrainian who had Ukrainian parents speaking Russian and was raised in the United States. He visited L’viv (after the war broke), in which most people communicates in державна мова (ukr. state language). He went on a tour around the city. The American tried to talk to his guide in Russian, but he would refuse to talk in that language as “it is the language of the enemy”. The guide spoke poor English just to stick to his principles. People visiting L’viv and other places in the West of Ukraine know they should not use Russian as it would offend the locals.

On the other hand, Kyiv is considered to be the centre of the Russian speaking population. The capital “was almost completely “Russified” by the end of the 19th century, with Russian becoming the language of the middle and upper classes”.[18] Some people even claim it is shameful to use the Ukrainian language there as it is a sign of being from a village. Given all of the historical and cultural conditions, it would be impossible for the new dialect not to exist. Enter Surzhyk, a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. According to Olszański (2012), the majority of Ukraine’s population does not consider the linguistic problem to be relevant. “Conflicted, but not hostile “two Ukraines”, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking exist mainly if not only among elites and joined together they are the minority”.[19] Some of the people might be displeased or frightened by the common “bilingualism” as it is preventing the development of the mother tongue. Surzhyk might blur or soften the language frames of both Ukrainian and Russian.

Movements and activities benefitting of the Ukrainian language[20] 

There are people feeling responsible for the proper development of the Ukrainian language. Through their engagement in various social movements, the position of derzhavna mova has actually gotten stronger. “The conception of the state language has a central meaning but  without cultural practice from slogans to pamphlets and newspapers, from folk stories and heroes to epic poetry, novel and drama – the language is deprived of strength” (Said 2009:242).[21]

Due to the lack of Ukrainian cultural content, a policy was implemented in 2006. It stated that 20% of the movies should have Ukrainian dubbing or voice-overs and the number was supposed to increase up to 70%. That motivated people to act. The Kinopereklad movement was established, organising flashmobs or controlling the enforcement of the law by monitoring the presence of movies in Ukrainian in the cinemas. The successful implementation of the policy might be due to those activists. In 2007 a person named Konfucius set up a website named Hurtom. It is one of the biggest providers of Ukrainian content. The webpage archives TV series as their Ukrainian versions were erased after broadcasting. The place also serves as a digitilized storage of books, magazines or encyclopedias in the state language. With time Hurtom started translating and dubbing movies that were not accessible in the Ukrainian version. The quality of the recorded sound was not far off from the cinematic one. Hurtom also creates audiobooks and translates computer games.

In 2012 the Drizdzi movement was established. Its activists’ main task is to monitor the use of language in the public sphere. Gastronomy is the main field of action. The activists inspected several hundred of restaurants in Kyiv, in order to check whether the menus were availible in Ukrainan and the staff willing to communicate in Ukrainian. If not, authorities were made aware. Drizdzi managed to convince 60% of the restaurants to communicate with the customers in Ukrainian. They also launched interactive maps, which help to locate both the “Ukrainian” cafes and places in which it was barely used. The Sviatoslav Litynsky movement took a different approach in 2012 and started suing companies like Samsung (no instructions in Ukrainian), Volkswagen or Hewlett-Packard (no Ukrainian keyboard). They won most of the cases and thus persuaded other companies to comply as well.

From my perspective and in conclusion

There is no doubt that the language situation in Ukraine is complex and the so-called national bilingualism might seem worrying. Now, in light of the new language law, one should not be afraid of Russian taking over the Ukrainian language. Nevertheless, bilingualism in Ukraine seems to be a rather strong and lasting phenomenon. Most of the Ukrainians a have neutral-tolerant attitude towards the matter of language, whereas radical representatives of intelligentsia from both sides have hostile attitudes towards the opposite group. In my humble opinion, an Ukrainian-speaker should not blame the Russian-speaker for speaking a different language and vice versa. For most of the Russian speakers, this language is purely a communication tool, which is easier to use. To some extent, it is unconditional.

On the other hand, language is an integral part of nation-building and demanding that Ukrainian take a special position in that process is not only understandable but necessary. Those who are not used to speaking in a titular tongue might at least try to master the language properly. The new language law will certainly contribute to that. Ukrainian is one of the most unique Slavic languages with a long history. There is a large legacy of beautiful folk songs in derzhavna mova that need to be preserved, revived and heard. For me, the position of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine is slowly getting more and more stable and grows in strength with every single year, despite the war.


[1] Translation of the Constitution of Ukraine. https://rm.coe.int/constitution-of-ukraine/168071f58b, accesed 14.06.2019
Original version: https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/en/254%D0%BA/96-%D0%B2%D1%80

[2] Itsvan Csenicsko, Viktoria Ferenc, Transitions in the language policy of Ukraine (1989-2014), (Peter Lang Edition, 2016), 354

[3] Ibid, 357

[4] Ibid, 360

[5] Juliane Besters-Dilger, Language Policy and Language Situation in Ukraine: Analysis and Recommendations, (Peter Lang:2009), 9

[6] Tadeusz Olszański, Problem językowy na Ukrainie. Próba nowego spojrzenia, (Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia. Centre for Eastern Studies: 2012), 43

[7] Ibid, 46

[8] Itsvan Csenicsko, Viktoria Ferenc, Transitions in the language policy of Ukraine (1989-2014), (Peter Lang Edition, 2016), 362

[9] Law of Ukraine On Principles of the State Language Policy https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/anot/en/5029-17 Date of entry into force: August 10, 2012, Accessed, June 2019

[10] Statistics based on a poll carried out by Razumkov Center Poll in 2017. Image source: https://www.ukrainianlessons.com/language-situation/

[11] Tatiana Zhurzhenko, “Language Politics” in Contemporary Ukraine: Nationalism and Identity Formation. In Questionable Returns, (IWM Junior Visiting Fellows Conferences: 2002), 12

[12] Shandra A. Ukraine adopts law expanding scope of Ukrainian language, 2019 http://euromaidanpress.com/2019/04/25/ukraine-adopts-law-expanding-scope-of-ukrainian-language/

[13] Some parts of the paragraph on book market (and the matter of translation through Russian) are based on Ms Joanna Majewska’s lecture Culture of Ukraine, that I attended in Jagiellonian University in 2018.

[14] Juliane Besters-Dilger, Language Policy and Language Situation in Ukraine: Analysis and Recommendations, (Peter Lang:2009), 279

[15] I allowed myself to create a phrase similar to McDonald’s “Drive-thru” customer service, which is also convenient as it is cheap and fast.

[16] Juliane Besters-Dilger, Language Policy and Language Situation in Ukraine: Analysis and Recommendations, (Peter Lang:2009), 279

[17] Volodymyr Kulyk, Language and Identity in post-Soviet Ukraine: Transformation of an Unbroken Bond, 2013, 2

[18] Olga Ivanova, Language situation in post-Soviet Kyiv: Ukrainian and Russian in the linguistic landscape and communicative practices, (Peter Lang Edition:2016), 380

[19] Tadeusz Olszański, Problem językowy na Ukrainie. Próba nowego spojrzenia, (Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia. Centre for Eastern Studies: 2012), 52

[20] Social movements for Ukrainian language in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution till present time (2005-2017). Based on the article: Jurij Hałajko, Marta Zimniak-Hałajko, Ruchy i inicjatywy społeczne na rzecz języka Ukraińskiego. Kulturotwórcze strategie oporu (Movements and activities for the benefit of the Ukrainian language), (Collegium Civitas:2016)

[21] Said E., Kultura i imperializm, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków, 2009

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