Why Ukraine only has one official language

Protest against Russian invasion in Ukraine. Lisbon, Portugal. 27.02.2022 (Credit: Alice Kotlyarenko / Unsplash)

Russian propagandists often use the “language issue” card to justify Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The Russian speakers are “in danger,” they say, they need to be “protected.”

To prove their point they mention the fact that most Ukrainian schools don’t feature the Russian language in their curriculum. University admissions tests are only in Ukrainian, while many families have “been speaking Russian for generations.”

Russia says that this is why Ukraine should introduce Russian as a second state language. It appeals to countries like Canada and Switzerland that have successfully embraced multilingualism on a state level. Ukraine can do this too, Russia says, it’s “simple.” But it’s not.

To explain why it’s not simple, one needs to trace the history of Ukraine and how the two languages were born and developed. There are two rhetorics regarding the creation of the Ukrainian language: one that is shared by Ukraine and grounded in historical research and one that is spread by Russia.

Ukraine says that Ukrainian language is foundational for the country. It’s a separate language with its own history, cultural heritage, and more. Linguistics support this theory. Those claiming that Ukrainian language is not a “natural language” should just look at linguistic maps. These bare out years of historical research into the creation of Ukrainian.

The second narrative was created by Russia. It shows the Russian language as foundational for many Ukrainian regions. It ignores the reality that many of those regions were strategically russified through Russia’s colonisation of Ukraine.

Russia refers to Ukrainian as a “version of Russian” (sometimes a “Polish hybrid of Russian,” an “artificial language,” and so on). It claims that Ukrainian is “less developed” than Russian, it’s a “secondary language, and it’s also a “dialect, not a language.”

This perception of Ukrainian opens the door for belittlement of Ukrainian speakers. The belittlement is aimed at forcing Ukrainians to switch to the “more complete” Russian language. This is a language of a “great culture,” these Russians say.

It even allows Russia to push the agenda further by saying that if the Ukrainian language is not a “real language,” its people are therefore not a genuine nation. Ukrainians are just “uneducated Russians,” according to this Russian rhetoric.

The official policies of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union – both ruled over parts of Ukraine in recent times – supported this rhetoric. Having Russian as a second state language would supposedly simplify life for the Russian speakers who, on the one hand, are refusing to embrace Ukrainian language and culture; on the other, are not willing to move to Russia where the mechanisms for speaking Russian have been in place for years.

These days many Ukrainians view Russian as the occupant language and associate it with the country that threatens their state and people. This isn’t a new problem. It existed previously in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in the 1930s, 1960s, and later.

Viewing Russian as this greater, “more complete” language creates the ground for pushing the Ukrainian language out of the fields of culture, education, and science. This is justified by the claims that more people understand Russian, and it's a basis for publishing more books and articles in Russian, dubbing more films in Russian. Supposedly it’s the “commercially viable way.”

This agenda is expanded with a claim that Ukrainians “can’t even create anything of value.” In different eras, the work of Ukrainians was banned, shadow banned, or translated into Russian.

The agenda is a direct threat to everything Ukrainian in the spheres of culture and science, with the aim of replacing it with Russian products, which serves the idea of annexing Ukraine o Russia.

And this is the reason why the Russian language shouldn’t be considered an additional state language.