Putting Ukraine’s Russian Language Issue into an International Perspective

Vladimir Putin makes a big point of protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine as if they were Russian. The huge flaw in his logic is the fact that a vast majority of the people in the country speak Russian. They also speak Ukrainian. It is the largest natively multilingual country in the world. Moreover, the language issue is seldom as divisive as Putin would make it seem. Let’s take a look.

Switzerland is the world’s most perfectly multilingual country. This country of less than 8 million speaks German, French, Italian and Romanche. The percentages are 65 percent, 23 percent, eight percent and one percent. As a bonus, most educated Swiss speak English as well. There is no notable friction on language front.

Some cities are quite bilingual: Brussels in Flemish and French, Montréal in English and French, and Strasburg in German and French. Knowing the language is a simply a matter of getting along. These cities happen to be located on linguistic borders. The countries on either side of their particular borders, however, tend to be monolingual. Or, if they are not, they use English as a second language.

English is far and away the world’s most important second language. It is a mandatory subject in elementary schools in the smaller northern European countries – the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. While natives of these countries all speak their native language, they expect to speak English when they study abroad, travel, and do business.

English is the world’s lingua franca. It is the language that Indians from different regions of that vast country use to communicate with one another. It has the richest vocabulary of any world language, and far and away the most support in terms of dictionaries, word processors, search engines and everything else one could want to go with a language. It is grammatically fairly easy, and because it is so universal most people who speak English can converse usefully with people who don’t speak it well. While there may not be a vast number of natively bilingual people one of whose languages is English, English is by far the most prevalent second language among people who are bilingual to some degree.

English colonial expansion spread the language throughout the world. Britain colonized the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, and a lot of Africa. The language remained because it was useful. However, these events happened one or two centuries ago. Countries have either adopted English as their native language, as in Liberia, or as a firmly established second language for the educated.

The expansion of the Russian speaking world has been more recent. The Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe until three decades ago. Russian was a mandatory subject in school, and a knowledge of Russian was essential for career development for the generation now in their 60s and 70s. It was a living imperial language until recently.

That has certainly been the case in Ukraine. Ukraine has been dominated by Russia since Bogdan Khmelnitsky was forced into a fateful choice between Poland and Russia in 1648. Various czars and commissars have forced the teaching of Russian over the years, to the extent that everybody has some exposure. Just as an example, my wife’s parents, born in the 1940s, spoke Ukrainian in school. 30 years later in the same region my wife was schooled in the Russian language. Russian is what we speak at home. Needless to say, the choice was made in Moscow, not anywhere in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s situation differs from that of many of the former Soviet Socialist republics only in the period of time that it was dominated by Russia. The Baltic states came under the communists only after World War II. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had been under czarist control, but later and not as strongly. The same can be said of the Central Asian ‘stans. For this reason one can get by in any of them, even today, by speaking Russian. However, without a doubt Russian is more pervasive in Ukraine than the others because of the length of the association and the determination with which the language was forced on the population.

That is the history of what is to my knowledge the largest almost totally bilingual country in the world. It is home to the world’s third-largest Russian speaking city, Kiev. Yes, Ukraine is Russian speaking. No, it is not because they love Russia. They remain bilingual because their own language, and sense of themselves as a people, has survived massive programs of education, indoctrination, exile, colonization, repression and starvation conducted by the Russians.

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