A few years back, desperate for something new to read and in a situation where I couldn’t afford to be too discriminating, I picked up Margaret Drabble’s “The Witch of Exmoor”. After a couple of chapters of its dull, plodding prose, I was inspired to put it down and never finish it, although it would be a sovereign remedy for insomnia. There was something about it, though, that I always remembered. In those first few chapters, the characters are gathered to play a parlor game that should be a metaphor for the work of lawmakers and politicians everywhere. Called “Can You?”, the game requires the participants to devise a set of laws that will govern a hypothetical society, within which they must themselves live. The catch is that you don’t know, while you’re framing the laws, who you will be in the new society, except that it’s very unlikely you will be who you are now. You might be black. A lesbian. A cripple. Crazy as Glenn Beck. You might have fifteen children. You might have a terminal illness.
You might be an immigrant who doesn’t speak the official language.
Lawmakers, and those who aspire to be lawmakers, have a more complex job than you might imagine – and a couple of hours of mental exercise spent trying to devise imaginary laws that are fair to everybody while not disproportionately favoring anybody would demonstrate that reality to your complete satisfaction. Imagine, now, that your efforts to do so are being subverted by a hardline nationalist like Askold Lozynskyj (this article brought to my attention by Michael Averko).
The substance of Mr. Lozynskyj’s complaint appears to be the special status accorded to the Russian language in Ukraine by the National Constitution. Specifically, “…in Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.” No other language is specifically named as Russian is. Mr. Lozynskyj’s opinion of Russian as a language is fairly clear from the title of his editorial; “The Language of Czars, Commissars and Chauvinists”.
The part that really seems to turn Mr. Lozynskyj’s teeth sideways is as follows: “In Ukraine according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of the Russian language is guaranteed, taking into account that the Russian language is native, or such as is used daily by a majority of the citizens of Ukraine, equally accepted together with the Ukrainian language as the language of communication between individuals throughout Ukraine.”
Well, but Askold – do you mind if I call you Askold? Askold, I wonder if you’ve looked at the numbers when you began to develop your snit over the Russian language. Have a look at this map – thanks, Wikipedia – and you’ll see that, generally speaking, the mastery of Ukrainian is increasing naturally, without any government intervention. As the caption points out, use of Ukrainian by region is represented in red (looks kind of pink to me), and use of Russisan in blue. The lighter-coloured column represents data from 1989, while the darker-coloured column represents data from 2001. In almost every region, use of Russian has declined, significantly in some regions. Even in areas where it has not, fluency in Ukrainian has increased. What does that tell you? If you’re paying attention, it tells you that more people are bilingual. Overall, the map also tells you that you can’t afford to officially eliminate Russian, because it’s a powerfully dominant second language, although it’s not threatening Ukrainian.
How many people speak Russian? Turning again to Wikipedia (which is not my favourite reference, but I couldn’t find the data so well-assembled and displayed anywhere else, although other references generally agree as to ethnic composition), we see that Russian is the native language of nearly 30% of the population. Wait, though, Askold; that’s only half the story. The reference points out that of the remaining 40 or so ethnic dialects, nearly all are languages of the former Soviet Union. As such, they could reasonably be expected to have an acquaintance with Russian as well. Moreover, surveys conducted by FOM Ukraine in 2009 revealed “52% of the respondents stated they use Russian as their daily language of communication” – better than a 10% lead over Ukrainian – and “54% of the population in Ukraine believes the language issue is irrelevant, that each person can speak the language he or she prefers, and that a lot more important problems exist in the country”. This information, taken as a body of evidence, makes a powerful case for Russian being designated a second official language of Ukraine.
Is there precedent for that? Probably several, although one occurs immediately and naturally to me, because I live there. Canada has two official languages, French and English, and both have protected status in the context that you have a right to be served in any capacity in the official language of your choice. That doesn’t mean everyone must be bilingual, although that’d be the ideal. If the person you’re dealing with cannot speak the language of your choice, someone else will be provided who does, unless you choose to exercise a bilingual capacity of your own. Sound unreasonable?
I submit it’s not, but lets take a look at your country and mine, to look for other parallels. In Ukraine, 29.6% of your people speak Russian as their first official language, although nearly twice that say they use it as their daily language of communication. In Canada, 22.9% speak French as their native language. Pretty close, right? In Canada, though, French is heavily concentrated in Quebec and parts of New Brunswick, and very weak everywhere else in terms of representation. Canada is becoming more and more a multilingual country, as English – while still the language of the majority – is spoken as the native language of 59.1%. Other languages, though, represent 18% of the population, and that number is up while those representing French and English are down slightly. For the moment French is the only language, other than the majority English, that enjoys protected status. Note that this policy did not extinguish the use of other languages, that they are in fact increasing.
Here’s a phrase that might go further toward convincing you, Askold; “Capital flees insecurity“. Keeping the country in a phony ferment over language rights is bad for business. Let’s look at that a little closer, shall we? Canada – or, more properly speaking, Quebec – held sovereignty referendums in 1980 and again in 1995, to sample the will of the Quebecois to separate from Canada and go it alone as a nation. Both failed, although the 1995 result was a cliffhanger. What both had in common, though, was a steady exodus of cash and prestigious head office movements out of the province in those years, owing to a perception of instability. The 1980 referendum had the effect of stifling immigration to Quebec as well. Some of the head offices and investors never returned after things settled down. Getting the population wound up tight over language rights has consequences far beyond the immediate.
Let’s review. Askold’s preoccupation with language rights appears to spring from a dislike of Russia, and a perception of Ukraine having been mistreated by Russia. There’s some basis for that, although recent discussion of the Holodomor suggests that issue should not be included. The French in Canada had periods in which they were preoccupied with language rights, owing to a perception of having been mistreated by English Canada; again, there was some basis for that. The mass deportation of the Acadians immortalized in Longfellow’s “Evangeline” certainly did nothing to advance the image of English fairness in French eyes (interestingly, many of the Acadians were deported to what is now Louisiana, and the term “Cajun” is a version of the word “Acadian”); as well, employment inequity between the English and French persisted until recently, to the disfavour of the French. Let’s agree that both the Ukrainians and the Quebecois have some substantiation for their grievances. However, as history and experience suggest, cranking everyone up about language rights is extremely bad for business and investment, both costs that will have to be borne long after the excitement has died down. A significant share of the population in both countries speaks the dominant second language, warranting constitutional protection. Finally, popular enthusiasm in both countries for further uprisings over official languages is somewhat to the left of weak. Like zero interest.
The expression on your face in the picture that accompanies your article does not encourage me to expect reason from you, Askold. You look like a guy whose mind is made up. But you’re on the edge of making a big mistake, assuming you could get anyone else interested, which looks unlikely. Maybe you want to sleep on it. Two languages can work well, Askold. Good for immigration, good for business. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Especially when, as the map from Wikipedia suggests, your “problem” is resolving itself naturally, peacefully and without the requirement for bossy nationalist interference. Think about it.