Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
Critics, including Western diplomats in Kyiv, are blasting Lviv Oblast’s moratorium on all Russian-language books, films, and songs, which was passed by 57 of 84 regional councillors as bigoted and misguided.
According to the motion, a copy of which was published on the council’s website, the moratorium aims to “overcome the consequences of prolonged linguistic Russification” and will remain in place “until the [Russian] occupation of Ukrainian territories comes to an end.”
Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, who was raised as a Plastun, responded by calling it “just plain dumb.”
“The Lviv oblast ban as formulated is narrow-minded, discriminatory and #justplaindumb. And I say this as a diasporic native speaker of Ukrainian, and consistent advocate of affirmative action for cultural products in that language — but also #diversity,” he tweeted.
Judith Gough, the British ambassador to Kyiv, joined Waschuk in decrying the move, which she suggested was intolerant. “I couldn’t agree more. C’mon Lviv oblast, you’re better than this… (And I say this as a fan/student of both the Ukrainian and Russian languages) #tolerance #diversity.”
The Washington Post’s columnist Anne Applebaum, who has proven to be very incisive when it comes to commenting on Ukrainian affairs, also criticized this action. She said it was both foolish and unnecessary.
“These petty, discriminatory measures are an expression of frustration with a war that doesn’t end. They are also pointless, because a more profound, tectonic shift is already underway. Thanks to the war, and to their anger at its perpetrators, Ukrainians themselves are choosing to speak Ukrainian — more say they do every year,” she wrote in a September 23 column.
The critics are correct. For one thing, this ban is unenforceable. As Applebaum pointed out, Russian books were readily available at shops, at street stalls and at the city’s annual Book Forum last month.
That is not to say that there is no need for affirmative measures to counter the centuries of enforced Russification Ukraine had to endure under first tsarist, then Soviet oppression. But is has to be done in an intelligent way.
One of the better methods is the quota of Ukrainian-language content which has been imposed on television and radio stations. This is perfectly correct. Airwaves fall under state regulations and the state has every right to demand a certain level of local content in order, not only to preserve its language and culture, but also to provide an outlet for local talent, which can then develop and flourish. Canada too imposes such quotas on content. Both Canada and Ukraine are similar in that both neighbour on much larger countries who can dominate our cultural markets by sheer volume and size.
Another sphere where affirmative action is definitely needed is education. Last year, President Petro Poroshenko signed into law a bill passed by the Verkhovna Rada requiring Ukrainian to become the principal language of instruction after Grade 5. The language of instruction in the first four grades still may be in a minority language. By grade five, however, only two or more subjects can be taught in any of the languages of the European Union. That rules out Russian, but includes Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian. The legislation foresees a two-year transition period before fully taking effect in 2020.
What is remarkable about this law is its modesty. It is extremely generous to minorities. As former Justice Minister Serhiy Holovaty argues there is nothing in the legislation to bar minority communities from studying in their languages, or, in fact, opening their own schools – providing they fund them on their own.
Nevertheless, it is considered controversial and has been criticized by Hungary, Poland, Romania and Russia, as infringing upon the rights of their ethnic compatriots who live in Ukraine.
This is total nonsense. In just about every other country in the world, children are expected to learn the language of the country they are living in right from kindergarten. And that’s the way it should be in Ukraine. What’s more, it reeks of hypocrisy as every one of these countries has an abysmal historical record, when it comes to their treatment of Ukrainians and suppression of the Ukrainian language, Russia being the worst offender.
As far as we’re concerned, this law does not go far enough. The language of instruction should be Ukrainian right from the beginning – at least for half the day. Here we can look to Canada as a model with the bilingual programs that are in effect in the Prairie provinces and to some extent in Ontario’s Catholic schools. In Ukraine, such a program would both guarantee minority linguistic rights, and ensure that future generations become fluent in Ukrainian.
It is not at all unreasonable to expect people who choose to live in Ukraine to learn Ukrainian. If someone lives in England, they are expected to learn English. If they live in France, they are expected to learn French. If they live in Germany, they are expected to learn German. And so on. So why should Ukraine be any different?
And it is not at all unreasonable to expect the government to take affirmative action to overcome the centuries of linguistic suppression that the country suffered under various occupiers. Certainly, there are many positive measures that can be taken. But Lviv Oblast’s ban on all things Russian is not one of them. Ambassador Waschuk put it most succinctly. It’s just plain dumb.