The recent turmoil is Ukraine is only the most recent -- and most violent -- chapter of a long-running dispute over how the country should situate itself in relation to its former dominant power, Russia, and its former Cold War enemy, the West. The unrest has once again exposed deeply entrenched divisions between what is often characterized as the “Russian-speaking” East and “Ukrainian-speaking” West of the country.
"While the roots of this division and the political allegiances of Ukrainian citizens are far more nuanced and complex than what these labels suggest, it is certainly the case that the question of what sort of nation Ukraine is and what it should be is often framed around language practices, which can serve as a proxy for more serious issues," said Debra Friedman, an assistant professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at IU Bloomington.
"For some, the continued presence of Russian in Ukraine represents an unwanted remnant of the Soviet past and a symbol of continued Russian influence in Ukrainian affairs, while for others it represents the strong cultural and historical ties that have long connected these two nations and which should not be casually discarded," Friedman said. "For those holding such positions, any attempt to elevate or diminish the status of Russian is not just about language but represents an attack on their conceptualization of what it means to be Ukrainian and is therefore fiercely promoted or resisted.
"Other Russian speakers frame these issues in more personal terms; for them, Russian is simply their native language, the language in which they feel themselves to be most competent, or the language with which they most closely identify. Such individuals may understandably feel uneasy about being marginalized in a country in which Ukrainian language competency is a requirement for social advancement or in which speaking Russian is viewed as a sign of disloyalty to the Ukrainian state.
"Yet it is important not to allow perceptions of this 'linguistic divide' to obscure the fact that most Ukrainians are bilinguals who routinely use both Ukrainian and Russian and who do not necessarily see language choice in such starkly dichotomous terms."
In interviews Friedman conducted with Ukrainian teens from both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking families in a small city roughly halfway between Kiev and Lviv, she found that most recognized the symbolic value of Ukrainian as the state language and largely opposed proposals to give official status to Russian.
"Nevertheless, they also defended their right to speak any language they wanted and did not necessarily see a conflict between their identification with the Ukrainian nation and their oft-stated preference for speaking Russian in their daily lives, especially among peers," she said. "Indeed, for some of these young people, Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism and 'freedom of linguistic choice' was a defining characteristic of their Ukrainian identity and one that distinguished them from presumably monolingual Russians.
"The presence of this middle ground makes me cautiously optimistic about the future direction of Ukraine in the aftermath of its latest revolution, assuming that its leaders are prepared to embrace it," Friedman said. "Nevertheless, although we cannot reduce the current situation in Ukraine to one of Ukrainian speakers vs. Russian speakers, we must also recognize that the symbolic power of both Ukrainian and Russian means that language differences are potentially exploitable by politicians or ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum both within and outside of Ukraine.
"I therefore hope that the new government will focus on those issues that unite Ukrainian citizens across the so-called linguistic divide -- such as the stagnant economy and the pervasiveness of corruption -- and take care to avoid inflaming an already delicate situation by acknowledging and addressing the legitimate concerns of Russian-speakers. I fear that failure to do so will only serve to delegitimize the government in the eyes of those in the 'pro-Russian' East and plant the seeds for future conflict."
Friedman is an assistant professor in the Department of Second Language Studies in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. Her research focuses on the cultural, political and ideological contexts of language learning and teaching in multilingual communities. Her recent research examines the role of Ukrainian language education in the formation of Ukrainian national identity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-855-2680.