Neither Ukrainianization, Nor Russification: The Path Towards a National Healing

Written by Uilson Jones

Ever since the inception of Ukrainian statehood, there has been a heavily polarizing debate on the conflicting policies of Ukrainianization and Russification. The essence of this debate fundamentally stems from the idea of Ukrainian independence and the building of a Ukrainian nation-state in the context of a largely divided country as a result of centuries of Russian imperialism. The current war of aggression waged against Ukraine is the culmination of such contradictions within the country. However, that is not to say that Russian ultranationalism and Vladimir Putin’s quest to bring Russia back to its former glory following its national humiliation are not major factors in the war. 

Ukrainization as a Response to Russification

Ukrainization can be simply defined as “adopt[ing] or impos[ing] Ukrainian culture, language or ethnic identity” on those that live within the territory of Ukraine. Likewise, the quote above can be used to define Russification by replacing Ukrainian culture with Russian culture. Ukraine’s highly troubled history with its eastern neighbour, which was characterised by cultural genocide and intense exploitation, naturally reinforced nationalism and the will of  a ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’. Moreover, it can become an almost obsessive endeavor to homogenize the country so that everyone speaks Ukrainian, follows Ukrainian practices and wholeheartedly rejects the Russian language. 

The argument goes as follows. Ukrainian language, culture and way of life was forcefully suppressed under the Russian Empire through its brutal policy of Russification. This was an extremely violent project aimed at eliminating Ukrainian character and identity. Thus, once achieving independence it is natural for some (or many) to think that the state must correct the mistakes of the past by imposing the Ukrainian language on the eastern and southern territories of Ukraine which speak Russian as a result of centuries of oppression. The implicit assumption here is that Russian-speaking Ukrainians need to forsake the language that they have spoken for centuries and wholeheartedly embrace Ukrainian as a result of its national awakening. Such a policy could have disastrous effects on the national unity of the country and plays directly into Kremlin propaganda by conveying enmity towards Russian-speakers.

A Relatively New Nation-State

The aim of such a project then is the construction of a Ukrainian nation-state. A nation-state can be characterized as “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogenous people inhabit a sovereign state”, with a particular emphasis on “a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities”. The ideal of the nation-state is traced back to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The toppling of the monarchy led to the French embracing the concept of nationalism with the ideals of statehood. The combination of such concepts led to the rise of the French nation-state. 

In academic circles, the French Revolution is often viewed as a highly progressive application of enlightenment values of independence and sovereignty. This is all fine and dandy, however, what is harder to acknowledge is how France achieved such enlightenment values. The consolidation of sovereignty and particularly the quest for homogeneity of nationality and culture was brought about through the brutal repression of minorities and the trampling of cultures. Professor at the University of the Balearic Islands Jaume Corbera stated:

When in the mid-19th century, primary school was made compulsory all across the State, it was also made clear that only French will be taught, and the teachers will severely punish any pupil speaking in patois. The aim of the French educational system will consequently not be the dignity of the pupils’ natural humanity, developing their culture and teaching them to write their language, but rather to humiliate them and morally degrade them for the simple fact of being what tradition and their nature made them. […] No liberty, no equality, no fraternity: just cultural extermination, this is the real motto of the French Republic.

Because of Ukraine’s historical trajectory, the building of a Ukrainian nation-state only became a possibility in the last three decades. The dogmatic application of age-old ideas in regard to the construction of such a state must be avoided, lest Ukraine wants to be viewed similar to France, the destroyer of cultures. 

Transcending the Divide

In order to avoid the needless brutality that accompanies the construction of a rigid nation-state such as the French example, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the mechanisms by which one can build a truly united state. A united state is not one in which the dominant culture/language wins out over the minority cultures/languages, but one that is accepting of the free development of culture. The free development of culture does not imply an unimpeded battle between cultures which sees one rise at the expense of another. Rather, it implies protection for national minorities and the freedom to decide which language you speak and the customs you follow whether it be at home, in school, on the streets, etc.

Thus, viewing the forced imposition of Ukrainian language and culture as a progressive ideal as it corrects the mistakes of the past is unwarranted. There is an overused saying, which can be applicable in this situation: ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. In other words, the brutal and unjust application of Russification in the past does not necessitate the forceful imposition of Ukrainianization upon the peoples of eastern and southern territories. Ukrainianization should be a choice as opposed to an ultimatum. There can be no question about the impossibility of transcending the East/West divide in Ukraine without a mutual understanding and respect for language and culture. Treating foreign languages and cultures with contempt can only lead to growing dissatisfaction from the affected groups, whether that stems from Russia or Ukraine. 

Nationalism as the Opium of the Masses

The role nationalism has played in aggravating and intensifying the contradictions between Eastern and Western Ukraine is far from insignificant. Russian nationalism and its proponents stop at nothing to instigate dissent in the East and in doing so, destroy the bridge connecting Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The response of the Ukrainian state must not be Ukrainian nationalism that aims to correct the mistakes of the past by forcefully imposing culture due to an outdated belief that people from Country A must speak Language A. On the contrary, there must develop a mutual understanding that a Ukrainian state is not weakened by the existence of minority languages and cultures. 

The Ukrainian state must at all costs avoid playing into what Kremlin propaganda tells Russian speakers in the East – that Ukraine is contemptful of their language and practices. Because fundamentally, Russian-speaking Ukrainians and even ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine would overwhelmingly benefit from the ousting of Russia and its humiliating defeat in the face of its imperial ambitions. Nationalism cannot be a progressive force in the bridging of the divide between peoples, it only accentuates it.

Following this line of reasoning, there can only be one conclusion: let the free development of cultures blossom! 

Edited by Joanna Sowińska , artwork by Teresa Valle