Will Russian-Speaking Kiev Continue to Hold Its Tongue?

On January 16th, another norm of the Ukrainian “law” on languages comes into force (in quotation marks — because an act that directly contradicts the constitution cannot be called a law). From now on, if a waiter in a cafe, a clerk in a bank, a locksmith in a car service, etc., etc., addresses the customer in Russian, the customer has every right to call the police. It might seem like a silly joke — if it wasn’t true.

It is curious that this is not the first or even the second case when on this date, January 16th, laws are introduced in Kiev, the purpose of which is… I would say in one word – to intimidate. And thus, of course, to force compliance.

On the night of January 16th (according to the old style, which was then in effect), 1918, an uprising against the Central Rada began in Kiev. Who remembers — the so-called January Uprising? And so, the commander-in-chief of the Kiev Military District, captain (!) Shinkar, declared that Kiev was under a state of siege and issued a decree prohibiting public meetings “without my special permission”, the release of printed works without prior censorship, imposed a curfew from 10 pm and other “charms”. In general, he tried to establish such a local dictatorship.

How that story ended for the Central Rada is well known.

On January 16th, 2014, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted the so-called “laws on dictatorship”. Many people probably remember them. There were also a number of “charms”: criminal prosecution in absentia, criminal liability for libel, banning the activities of media that do not have state registration, and much more. The goal was transparent: to bring the then “revolutionaries” under these laws and thereby retain power.

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How it ended for the-then president (and the Verkhovna Rada) is even better known. However, as we now understand, the stakes in that game were very high, and the main players were outside of Ukraine and were stronger than Ukraine itself. So, such laws, other laws — they had no chance.

And now on January 16th, strike three.

This time – no curfew, no dictatorship… all according to “European standards”. In any case, this is what the supporters of the “most democratic language law in the world” convince us. Many of you have probably seen their brilliant utterances. In Poland – in Polish. In France – in French. Therefore, in Ukraine – in Ukrainian!

Let’s be honest, without diplomacy. Like most other such thoughts of ultra-patriots, this thought is a sample of what is commonly called “bullshit”.

Yes, in Poland, where Polish is not the native language of 1 or 2 percent of the population, it is quite natural to use precisely it by default. And then, in Poland, as far as I know, there is no such idiocy as the requirement for cafe waiters to address the visitor exclusively in Polish. Anyway, when I was there, the waiters usually addressed me in English.

Yes, in France there is the so-called “Toubon Law” of 1994, which establishes the priority of the French language in the public sphere. By the way, at one time it was criticised a lot and in detail: they say, this is too much. But if Jacques Toubon, then Minister of Culture of France, the author of this law, got acquainted with the Ukrainian “law”, he would have groaned in annoyance: “How is it possible?!”.

Do not believe me – read the French law, the Ukrainian “law” and compare.

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In France, a participant of a scientific conference has the right to speak in French. I.e., they cannot be forced to speak in a language other than French. But, of course, if he prefers another language, the law does not restrict him.

In Ukraine, a participant of a scientific conference is not allowed to speak in Russian.

French law defines French as “the language of study, work, commercial transactions and public services”. But, of course, nowhere is it indicated in what language the waiter in the cafe should address the visitor. (And in Paris, they often address visitors in English. I have been to Paris many times. I know this firsthand.)

The language situation of Ukraine is not the situation of Poland or France, but, for example, Luxembourg. The language of the same name as the name of this country exists perfectly well, but no one even thinks of putting forward the slogan “In Luxembourg – in Luxembourgish!”. On the simple grounds that it is not native to a significant percentage of the population there. And, of course, the state respects its population.

Why does the Ukrainian state break the population of its capital and not only them? Dictating to private business owners and their clients what language to communicate in? Despite the fact that in any civilised country it is not a matter of the state?

Yes, it is clear why. It, the state, must somehow assert itself. Its economic “successes” are well known. The level of social standards is similar. Here it, the state, churns out “victory” over “victory” on the language front.

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And do not try to persuade us that, like, according to the same “law”, you have the right to be served in Russian – just ask. Yes, it is written in the “law”. But the calculation of its authors, in my opinion, is obvious. Ukrainian is understood by almost everyone in Ukraine. Therefore, a polite person will usually not ask the waiter to switch to Russian. Kindergarten antics on the theme “I do not understand Russian!” – this, again, is the prerogative of our ultra-patriotic compatriots. Plus, in an environment where from every TV channel the phrase “Russian is the language of the occupier! Switch to Ukrainian and you will be saved!” can be heard – part of the population will not ask to serve them in Russian, not only out of politeness, but out of fear. I do not really doubt that the authors of the “law” have calculated this.

So, citizens, we are preparing for January 16th. We put the language (Russian) away, in kitchens, in basements, etc. And if you are a service worker — it would be better for you to forget it at all. You’ll be healthier.

How will this January 16th, strike three, end for the current Ukrainian leadership?

Honestly? I think: in nothing. Native speakers of Russian in Ukraine, for the most part, have long been accustomed to the role of whipping boys, sit quietly and hold one’s tongue.

However, time will tell.

Denis Koronin

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