Language Wars

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SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine—I went to Sevastopol to talk to people about the Black Sea fleet, but once I arrived, I found that there was another topic that was much more controversial: language. The Ukrainian government, as is typical with newly independent countries, is attempting to strengthen its citizens’ sense of national identity, and that includes promoting use of the Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian. While Russian was heavily favored during the Soviet era, these days, TV and radio commercials must be in Ukrainian, and the government just forced several of the biggest Russian TV channels off the air. More and more schools teach in Ukrainian, and foreign movies have to be dubbed into Ukrainian.

In Crimea, where 97 percent of the population speaks Russian at home, the new rules are a bit looser. School, for example, is still conducted mainly in Russian, and the Ukrainian government is using the carrot as much as the stick—for example, it opened an elite new high school in Simferopol that boasts the only two indoor swimming pools in the city. The language of instruction is Ukrainian. While signs for businesses in the rest of Ukraine have to be in Ukrainian, in Crimea, local businesses can post signs in Russian; only national or international companies must run their ads in Ukrainian.

Still, the creep of Ukrainianization into Crimea has alarmed Russians. I met Raisa Teliatnikova, head of the local office of the Russian Community of Crimea, an organization funded by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov that pushes for more rights for Russian-speaking Crimeans. “It can be a case of life or death—an elderly woman gets drugs from the pharmacy and the instructions are in Ukrainian, and she could die,” Teliatnikova claimed. “In court, every trial is in Ukrainian. In schools, everything is in Ukrainian.” Here I interrupted. I thought almost all schools in Crimea taught in Russian. “Next year, all education will be in Ukrainian,” she said. “And the history textbooks have perverted history, they talk about Russia like it was Ukraine’s enemy. It’s complete nonsense.”

Most of this is exaggeration, to put it generously. I found that trials are mainly conducted in Russian. And while prescription drug information is usually in Ukrainian, the controversy—which several other people mentioned—is a bit ginned-up. After all, who really reads the detailed pharmacological information, contraindications, and whatever else is in the small print? Most people just take the medicine as often as the doctor says, so it seems unlikely that old Russian ladies are dying because they can’t read Ukrainian.

This sort of exaggeration has clearly had an effect, though, leading people to believe that the problem is worse than it is. Groups like the Russian Community are more active in Sevastopol than in Simferopol, and I heard many more complaints about the language situation in the former than in the latter. For example, I went to a movie theater and met a couple who were making a production of checking that the movie they wanted to see hadn’t been dubbed into Ukrainian. But they were asking about a Russian movie, and even I knew that Russian movies were left alone. (Foreign movies are dubbed into Ukrainian and given Russian subtitles.) My translator, a Russia-sympathizing, Putin-loving Ukrainian who has lived in Sevastopol her entire life, was convinced that all local television was in Ukrainian. (She watches only Russian channels via the Internet.) But when I checked the television in my hotel room, I found that, at least in the evening, all local TV stations except one broadcast in Russian.

There are signs that tension is rising. Among Sevastopol’s 2,000 monuments, the newest is to Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded the city in 1783. Her statue—just across from the Black Sea Fleet Museum—was vandalized with blue and yellow paint (the colors of the Ukrainian flag) shortly after it was unveiled in summer 2008. The culprits were never caught, and as one city official told me, “both sides could gain” from riling up nationalist sentiment. Today, the statue is “protected” by volunteer Sevastopol residents and decorated with fresh flowers.

Whenever U.S. ships make port calls to Sevastopol, people turn out to protest. Teliatnikova showed me pictures of one such protest in September: The first photo was of a woman giving a one-fingered salute to the ship, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas. The protests apparently made the American sailors aboard change their plans to stroll around the city; instead, they took a bus tour. “They are military men, but they were afraid,” she laughed.

But another Russian Community member, Alexander Morosov, who came into Teliatnikova’s office during our interview, wanted to temper her anti-Western tone slightly. Russians fondly remember Americans’ contributions to the defense of the Soviet Union in World War II, he said. He told me about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a famed Soviet “girl sniper” credited with 309 kills during World War II, who took part in the defense of Sevastopol and was later received by President Roosevelt at the White House. “We treat Americans with great respect,” he said. “But when you come as NATO representatives, that’s what we reject.”

I had a little more sympathy for Russian complaints of Ukrainianization when I met Alexandr Skripnichenko, the director of Sevastopol Television, who had a Ukrainian flag and photo of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko behind his desk.

While half the station’s programming is in Russian and half is Ukrainian, starting in April 2009, the ratio will switch to 25 percent Russian, 75 percent Ukrainian. I said that seemed like a lot for Sevastopol, since 97 percent of people spoke Russian in their homes.

“This is a natural process. This is Ukraine, the state language is Ukrainian, and it’s getting stronger and stronger,” he said. “Two years ago, there used to be protests about this, but the situation has gotten better. Many people have come to the conclusion that they need to speak the state language, and young people especially speak Ukrainian perfectly well. The real problem is that there are a lot of people who want to learn Ukrainian here, but the schools don’t provide them the opportunity.”

He said the blame lies with Soviet military veterans, who agitate for Russian-language rights. “They retired when they were young, and they still have a lot of energy. They are accustomed to having a high social status, their wives are highly educated, and they’re used to getting things their way. That’s why it’s hard for them to accept speaking Ukrainian,” he said. “Young people are more flexible with regard to language, and it’s easier for them to adapt.”

As we left the interview, my translator—a 24-year-old who spoke Russian and had no desire to learn Ukrainian—looked at me with an “I told you so” expression. It was hard to argue with her. For the Ukrainian government to be so tone-deaf and cavalier about the wishes of its ethnic Russian citizens seemed to bode ill for them to ever become fully invested citizens of Ukraine.

Russians can be exasperating. I thought back to my interview with Sergei Kiselev, the professor in Simferopol. He had mentioned the same quote from Yushchenko as had Nadir Bekirov, the Crimean Tatar activist: “Ukraine is one nation, one people, one language, one religion.” Kiselev’s response was hysterical: “This is a Nazi Ukraine. Today the state policy is fascist. Hitler said ‘one people, one church, one state.’ So what is the difference?” Kiselev is obviously overstating his case. But he had a point. What Ukrainians see as a long-awaited national awakening is seen by Crimeans, both Russians and Tatars, as chauvinism. And what looks in Kiev like a legitimate push-back against Moscow’s meddling in Crimea looks much more sinister to the individual Russians who have lived here for generations. The pre-Orange Revolution governments in Kiev, for all their many faults, managed to keep a lid on the tense situation in Crimea. It remains to be seen whether Yushchenko will do the same.