Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Language in Post-Soviet Ukraine

The Eastern-Western Ukrainian Debate

After more than seventy years of being under Moscow-based Soviet control, when all of the countries of the former Soviet Union were required to speak Russian, these countries are now returning to their native cultures and languages since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  As they should! Ukraine is culturally split between east and west. There tends to be a lot of tension between the two which makes for a hot political climate. Western Ukrainians are often identified by eastern Ukrainians as “nationalists” because they want to speak only Ukrainian and demand that all government documents be written only in Ukrainian. It is said that they refuse to speak Russian even though they are fluent in both languages.  Eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia, culturally identifies more with Russian culture.  The Ukrainian Prime Minister doesn’t even speak Ukrainian!

Here are a few arguments that I came across on my travels for both points of view:

Pro Ukrainian language: We live in the country of Ukraine.  We are Ukrainian, NOT RUSSIAN, and we should speak Ukrainian!

Pro Russian language: We have been speaking Russian for the past century. My mother who is 70 years-old only knows Russian.  Now that all of the official government documents are written in Ukrainian, she can’t understand them!  It’s unfair!

The uncommon, yet diplomatic point of view: This was Kiev-Rus, we should have both languages as official languages.

What I found to be true of Western Ukraine is that they were the most hospitable folks I’ve ever encountered on the planet. Their land is lush with rolling green hills, healthy soil, rivers, lakes, and streams flowing with pure water.  In the villages, yes, it was true-most people only spoke Ukrainian, although those who could speak Russian, definitely spoke Russian with me.  It may have been due to the fact that I was a foreigner and not a Russian, and they didn’t have to make a point to not speak Russian with me. It was the only way we could communicate!

In regards to language, it will be interesting to capture the differences between Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Do the Kazakhs feel strongly about speaking Kazakh or do they mostly speak Russian?  I suppose that is like comparing apples and oranges considering that Kazakh culture has absolutely no connection with Slavic culture although they were forced to speak Russian and were ruled by Russia.

I leave Ukraine with a bit of sadness. I fell in love with the rivers which they call Ukraine’s Amazon-a bird-lovers paradise, the fairy-tale-like Carpathian Mountains, and the quaint, cobbled-stoned beautiful city of Lvov.

I’m definitely returning to this rich land next year. Would you like to join me?

One of the greatest lessons I observed in Ukraine is the response to the economic crisis (a phrase I heard constantly).  I was puzzled by how extravagant Ukrainians live and how well-kept their cities were.  I definitely didn’t see any signs of economic crisis here.  The cafes and shops were filled with Ukrainians.  There were more Mercedes and BMWs here than in San Francisco.  They repeatedly asked me whether we sense the economic crisis in the states. I said that I am constantly reminded of the crisis in the NGO world which has lost most of its financial support by 30%, the teachers who are loosing their jobs, the stores which are going out of business and the vacant buildings in Berkeley.  My Ukrainian friends tell me as we sit around a full table of caviar, grapes, champagne, salmon, and meat, “We’ve had to deal with so many crisis and unknowns that we’ve learned to enjoy today because we have no idea what tomorrow will bring”.  An attitude I think that we Americans could embrace.

1 comment:

  1. http://rm.pp.net.ua/blog/melissa_prager/2010-07-22-83

    Thank you! Very interesting material!