Ukraine learns language of nationhood

Ukrainians are speaking less Russian and slowly learning to love their own tongue, reports Tony Barber in Kiev
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The Independent Online
"Oh, for a good Ukrainian-English dictionary!" lamented a young Ukrainian woman employed as an information officer at a Western embassy in Kiev.

Dictionaries do exist, she explained, but the latest ones to land on her desk have all come from Toronto and New York. Thus they are full of slangy expressions (such as "hey!", translated in one dictionary as "hi!") which may be common usage among the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the United States but sound somewhat odd in the Ukrainian homeland.

In fact, for a native English-speaker finding his way around Kiev, possession of a Ukrainian-English dictionary may not be priority number one. Just as useful, if not more so, is a Russian-English one. The freshly-painted street signs in the Ukrainian capital certainly say vulitsya instead of ulitsa (Ukrainian and Russian for "road"), and point you in the direction of Kharkiv and Lviv rather than Kharkov and Lvov. But Russian is the language spoken by the lad in the bomber jacket selling Sting CDs on Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare, by the smartly uniformed waitress in the private pizzeria and by the hotel clerk who charges you for registering your passport with the police.

It is a tricky situation for the Ukrainian authorities. Less than five years after Ukraine emerged as an independent state from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the first instinct of practically everyone in the nation's capital, even though they understand Ukrainian, is to speak Russian.

This used to be true even of Ukraine's President, Leonid Kuchma, who could barely speak Ukrainian when he came to power in 1994. A former director of the world's largest missile plant in Dnipropetrovsk, he owed his election victory largely to voters in the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine.

Now, however, things have changed. Ukrainian is the dominant language of state television and official business in Ukraine, and Mr Kuchma, who is fully committed to maintaining Ukraine's independence, has made a point of mastering Ukrainian. He still speaks the language with an accent, but it is revealing that, as time has passed, opinion polls have indicated that the geographical basis of Mr Kuchma's public support has shifted from the Russian-speaking east to the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west.

The president has a nose for the way things are going. When interviewed recently by a Western journalist, Mr Kuchma made it plain that if television cameras were going to be switched on he would insist that the conversation be conducted in Ukrainian. When it was agreed that the cameras would be kept off, he was happy to express his views in Russian.

Encouraging the use of Ukrainian in education, the media and public life is seen by the authorities as an important way of consolidating Ukrainian nationhood and promoting the loyalty of citizens to the state. The heartland of the Ukrainian national identity is western Ukraine, in places such as Lviv (once a very Polish city, known as Lwow), but overall about 40 per cent of Ukraine's 52 million people use Russian as their first language.

The identity of Kiev, or Kyiv in Ukrainian, is a particularly difficult matter to sort out. As the centre of the first Russian state, which emerged in the ninth century, Kiev occupies an important place in the Russian national consciousness. Many prominent Russians, such as Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the classic novel The Master and Margarita, were born in Kiev.

Yet it is now the capital of an independent Ukrainian state, and many public figures and writers feel it their duty to stress the city's non- Russian identity. One historian, Viktor Kirkevich, has gone so far as to suggest that communism was a Russian import imposed on Kiev: "A great number of outstanding people were born in Kiev, but not a single leader of the Bolshevik party, and not a single representative of the organs of repression."

Just to drive the point home, the authorities have renamed dozens of Kiev's roads, parks and metro stations. Lenin Street now bears the name of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, a 17th-century Ukrainian national hero.