Ukrainian and Russian: The Geo-Politics of Language

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The Russian-speaking population of Ukraine has been at a disadvantage since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Ukrainian parliament, this occasionally erupts in violent brawls caught on YouTube; for average citizens, it is a humanitarian problem. Early on in this conflict the Peace Corps instructed its volunteers in Ukraine to avoid speaking Russian whenever possible. This almost certainly stoked the tensions that have now, years later, destabilized the country.

In the fall of 1997, just after graduating from college with a degree in English and Russian Studies, I completed Peace Corps training in the city of Cherkassy, then was sent north to Chernigov, my placement city. I then spent several weeks in Kiev before “early terminating” – that’s Peace Corps jargon for leaving your assignment before completing the customary two years of volunteer service.

The cities where I clocked time in Ukraine are all situated along the northern section of the Dnieper River, which serves as a dividing line between the Ukrainian-dominant west and the Russian-speaking east. Most of the people I met in this central region preferred conversing with me in Russian, or lapsing into Surzhik, the cozy colloquial hodge-podge of both languages. Yet Peace Corps maintained a rather adamant policy that Ukrainian was the preferred language for all our interactions with the Ukrainian public in this part of the country. Ukrainian had become the country’s only official language after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This never sat well with me. Peace Corps Ukraine volunteers were instructed to side with a single language in a bilingual country. Now that Russia has annexed Crimea and is threatening a military invasion of eastern Ukraine, I can’t help but see the Peace Corps’ approach as evidence of America’s interference in a cultural conflict in which it should never have been a player.

Other volunteers told me that in its early years, Peace Corps taught everyone Ukrainian, even the volunteers who were placed in Crimea and the far eastern cities like Donetsk, Kharkov, and Lugansk, where almost all of the locals spoke little or no Ukrainian. Eventually, Peace Corps conceded that these volunteers were better off learning Russian, when it became clear that they were being sent into the field woefully unprepared to communicate.

In the central part of the country, where both languages were relevant, we were told that we needed to be role models for the citizens who knew Ukrainian but were more comfortable speaking Russian. These people were complacent, they told us; lazy, even. They only spoke Russian because the Soviet Union had forced it on them in school for several generations. If they heard Americans speaking Ukrainian better than they did, they would feel ashamed of themselves, and that was a good thing (or so we were told).

We were also warned to keep an eye out for that ugly plague of Surzhik, and not to let it infect our use of either language. And Surzhik was everywhere – on the trolleys, in the stores, on the local television news. Even the intelligent mother and daughter I lived with during training used it to speak with each other. They had been warned by the Peace Corps about modeling sloppy language for us, though, so they mostly spoke to me in clean Russian, except for a few days when we made a token effort to converse in Ukrainian after somebody from Peace Corps scolded them for letting me speak so much Russian.

As somebody with an academic interest in linguistics and language history, I knew that forcing a language on a population, even a language that may have been at one time forced out of them, was an age-old recipe for discontent and conflict. I even had a hard time thinking ill of Surzhik, though I could hear it corrupting both languages as people spoke. Much as we may try to pin down correct usage with grammatical rules, dictionaries, and textbooks, language is ultimately democratic, its evolution driven by the people who speak it. It may have been ugly to some people’s ears, but from a linguistic point of view Surzhik was a perfectly natural development for speakers torn between two rival languages.

Mine wasn’t necessarily a majority view of the country’s language politics. Plenty of Peace Corps volunteers believed they were benefitting the country by speaking textbook Ukrainian, even when people struggled to converse with them. These folks would respond with friendly scorn when I expressed a preference for speaking Russian because it was easier for me to communicate with people and forge relationships. There were other language problems, too: One woman assigned near the border in southwestern Ukraine told me most people in her town spoke Romanian. Other parts of the west had strongly Polish-influenced dialects.

The more urgent stories of language oppression, though, came from Ukrainians themselves: a university student during the Soviet Union collapse, for example. She considered herself Ukrainian, but her family and friends only ever spoke Russian. The Ukrainian language was a minor academic requirement for her in school; she never learned to speak it with any fluency. When Ukraine gained its independence and Ukrainian was declared the official language, she and other Russian-speaking students suddenly found themselves in classes conducted strictly in Ukrainian.

Of course, Ukrainians in the western part of the country had plenty of legitimate complaints about being forced to learn Russian when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and about the disadvantages they faced in the many communities where Ukrainian was and still is the primary or even sole language. Neither side of the country has had an easy linguistic ride over the last century.

What I was witnessing, though, looked like a regulatory pendulum swing from one extreme position to another, not a benevolent policy change aimed at benefitting the population as a whole. I found myself in an awkward position — the language I’d studied for years turned out to be as frowned upon as it was useful. I remember looking up chess terminology, memorizing the phrase “politicheskaya peshka”, so I could explain in Russian, if the need arose, that I — because of the language I spoke — felt like a political pawn.

Flickr photo by Dieter Zirnig: Ukraine, 2010

Since her brief stint in the Peace Corps, Andrea Gregovich earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of Nevada Las Vegas and has been honing her skills as a translator of Russian literature.


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First, the writer posits

First, the writer posits that Peace Corps’ early language policies contributed to the current state of affairs in Ukraine. She also argues that this was an example of American cultural interference. If she knew/remembered anything about Peace Corps policy she would recall that the language policy is set by the host country in this case, Ukraine. Not Peace Corps, and not the United States. Thus, she should direct her next angst-filled puff piece toward the then-Ukrainian government. Which incidentally was headed by pro-Russian politician Leonid Kuchma – hardly the sort of guy who could be accused of oppressing Russian language speakers.

Second, if I were critiquing an ineffective policy and saying that it contributed to a large-scale international crisis there are a few things that I would mention: how long the policy was in place, how many volunteers it affected, have those policies been changed, do those policy changes actually address the underlying cause or condition? Failure to do so suggests to the reader that the author is more interested in complaining about feeling like a political pawn than improving the alleged problem.

Third, if she had stuck around for the “customary two years” she would have learned that volunteers in areas where both languages are spoken learn to use both Russian and Ukrainian. But I suppose that isn’t really relevant because hanging out in Kyiv, Cherkassy, and Chernigov for a month of two makes her a subject matter on being a PCV in Ukraine. Just like studying abroad in France for a semester makes someone an expert on being Parisian. If the author had asked a volunteer who had served in Ukraine at any time since the Beanie Baby craze, she might have learned that her point about PCVs speaking Russian was moot.

I am sure that when she sat down to write this coming-of-age-tale, the author thought that she was enlightening her readers and providing a nuanced view point to the larger discussion about Ukraine. Instead this article stands as a fine example of why not doing your homework and backing up your assertions with anecdotes (rather than actual data) makes for poor policy analysis. The silver lining to all of this is that at least we know that the author is putting her degree in Creative Writing to good use.

Peace Corps Update

It's unfortunate to hear that this was what it was like when you served. Having lived as a PCV in Ukraine from 2009-2011, I found Peace Corps extremely accomodating when it came to teaching volunteers both Ukrainian and Russian. They also managed our expectations and explained that it would be highly unlikely for any of our communities to use either pure Ukrainian or pure Russian. I was never told that I was supposed to be an example. Instead, the language instructors made it clear that our language lessons would provide us with a foundation and that we were certain to pick up local dialects. As for my personal experience, I lived in the West, so most people in my community spoke clear Ukrainian, but many volunteers ended up speaking Surzhik, including my husband. To this day, he has trouble differentiating between words that are Ukrainian and Russian, which is pretty common for Ukrainian children too- and very telling about how the culture is changing. Sure, people speak differently throughout the country, but all Ukrainians understand one another. This only seems to become an issue when other deep social problems surface (corruption, economic woes, etc.) and people on either side want something else to use to stoke the flames.