Sunday, July 8, 2012

And Meanwhile in the Ukraine

I haven’t given much thought to the Ukraine recently or, to be honest, ever. I’ve wondered idly why it’s the Ukraine, because I don’t think anyone wants to take the name away, or that there are a Greater Ukraine and a Lesser Ukraine. I’ve been told by people who’ve been there that it’s sort of like Baltimore—pretty in some places, not so pretty in others. One person unkindly called it Yukraine, but this is the same acquaintance who mourned the closing of the McDonalds on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, so I don’t take him too seriously.

But in the Ukraine this week, people are upset over legislation allowing some regions of the country to use the Russian language in courts, schools, and government institutions. I feel for these Ukrainians because it is my contention that a country’s language is its heartbeat, its unifying factor, a source of pride, a necessity, a net, if you will, that encompasses the nation’s history and its future.  

The Ukraine, you might remember, was for decades an SSR, a Socialist Soviet Republic under the heel of Russia.  The largest country entirely in Europe, it broke away from its fellow SSRs in August 1991 and five years later adopted its first post-Soviet constitution. There is little love among Ukrainians for Russians (and vice versa), even though there are multiple trading and political links between the two people and Russian is routinely spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Which is the rub…

Viktor Yanukovych is not a household name here, but he was elected President of the Ukraine largely by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and he does not want to alienate the very people who put him in office. So, according to The Washington Post, he rushed the Russian-language bill through the legislature without giving the opposition much of a chance to fight back.  This led to the type of brouhaha we’re familiar with in First World countries. The Parliament Speaker—out of town during the vote—resigned, calling the vote illegal, even though his very own party endorsed it. Seven lawmakers began a hunger strike. Demonstrators wearing traditional costumes marched in Kiev where they were met by riot police wearing their traditional costumes which included helmets and truncheons. Blood was spilt, including that of Vitali Klitschko, the reigning heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Council. In other word, another fine mess.

What the non-Russian-speaking Ukrainians fear is that the bill will encourage their large neighbor to the north to foster unrest that would eventually lead to a possible Russian incursion. This is not far-fetched. The Ukraine is a wealthy nation and Russia did not like losing its footing there two decades ago. And as any historian will tell you, language is often the lynchpin to civil unrest. Be it in Belgium with Flemish, in England with Welsh, in Spain with Catalan, in France with Briton, Languedoc and Basque, and in a host of other nations in Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Middle East, secessionist firebrands have used language as a principal weapon in their search for autonomy.  In the United States, of course, we see things differently and actually encourage the preservation and spread of languages other than English, which accounts for ATM instruction in six or more tongues, and drivers’ license exams in Farsi and Urdu.

That German in 1795 was almost selected as the official tongue of the new American republic is a legend. What is true is that the same year, a group of German-Americans petitioned Congress to recommend the printing of Federal laws in German as well as in English.  The bill was actually never voted upon, which could lead some to believe that even back then, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to believe in one country, one tongue. Some things are better off dying in committee. It might be wise to let the Ukrainians know.

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