Ukraine's war of the words

Every nation has its bugbears. Ukraine has two: the forced famine orchestrated during Stalin's rule, which killed between four million and seven million people; and the Ukrainian language. Under the Russian empire, it was frequently banned: Catherine the Great put a stop to the use of Ukrainian at one of eastern Europe's most ancient universities, The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Then Peter I banned the printing of books in Ukrainian. Later the Russian Orthodox church took Ukrainian language manuals out of schools. Alexander II forbade the import of books in Ukrainian; Alexander III banned the use of Ukrainian in official institutions.

The list of bans goes on, and it is clear why Ukrainians consider the article in the constitution that makes Ukrainian the country's sole official language their most important achievement since independence. It also goes some way to explaining why on Wednesday hundreds of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest against a new law boosting the use of Russian in the country.

Waging a war over a few words might strike some as extreme, especially if you consider that the two languages are closely related, and overlap by about 30% – roughly equivalent to the difference between German and Dutch. But in Ukraine linguistics is a political issue. The Russification of the country that began under the tsars continued under the Soviet regime – more subtly, without open bans. As a result, a little over 50% of Ukraine's population use the state language in their everyday lives. Russian is spoken mainly in the east of the country, where Russians were sent to work in the mines in the 1930s, and the Crimea.

Most anti-Russian feelings in the west of Ukraine can be traced back to historical anti-Soviet feeling. These sentiments have morphed into a general antipathy towards the Russian Federation, which continues to tempt Ukraine into a union of one sort or anotherwhere the economic and political capital would be Moscow.

To this end Russia always supports the political parties in Ukraine which advocate closer ties with Moscow. This is why, just before the Orange revolution in 2004, Vladimir Putin openly backed Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was promising to make Russian the second state language and strengthen economic and political ties with Russia. The previous president, Leonid Kuchma, had also promised to make Russian the second state language, but once elected he soon realised how popular such a policy would be and quietly put it to one side.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions, originally representing the east and south of the country, has done everything possible to gain control of the Ukrainian-speaking regions of central and western Ukraine. Local councils have been "strengthened" with imported administrators, heads of judiciaries and tax officers from the east. Needless to say, this has not endeared the Party of Regions to those areas.

Things came to a boil on Tuesday when the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed a law that raises the status of the Russian language to that of an official "regional language". The reaction in the west was immediate and busloads of protesters, who continue to pour into Kiev, clashed with police reinforced to prevent a repetition of the protests that led to the Orange revolution.

Acting on instructions from the president's administration, Kiev's court banned all forms of protest from 3 to 9 July, to facilitate the legalisation of the parliamentary decision – namely, the signing of the law by the speaker and the president. The opposition has mounted a round-the-clock protest on European Square and in spite of attempts by police to clear the area, the protest continues. And while it is unlikely that we will witness a new Orange revolution, there probably won't be a signed and sealed language law either: in a dramatic twist, the speaker and one of his deputies have handed in their resignation, thus blocking the passing of the bill.

But the politicisation of language in Ukraine will continue. In the future, intellectuals will have to publicly state their position on the matter: there will be pressure to either out yourself as a pro-Russian supporter of the president, or a pro-Ukrainian supporter of the opposition. As it happens, I have always written my novels in Russian, my mother tongue. This means that for the past 15 years I have been under pressure to start writing in Ukrainian. I have refused, even though I am happy with Ukrainian as the sole national language – I just find it easier to write in my mother tongue. For now, I have no desire to become a soldier in this war of words.

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist and author of Death and the Penguin.

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