Ukrainian Politics Abroad

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How the Ukrainian Diaspora Sees the Homeland

In September 2013, I moved to New Haven, Connecticut, from my hometown of Horlivka in the Donetsk province of eastern Ukraine. Horlivka is equidistant between Donetsk and Debaltseve, the two cities where the brunt of the fighting has taken place. I grew up speaking mainly Russian, but am also fluent in Ukrainian, which I learned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While in Ukraine, I was an avid supporter of Ukraine’s independence from Russia and an advocate for cultivating stronger ties with the West. I considered myself a Ukrainian patriot in spite of myself.

In New Haven, I was eager to find and connect with local Ukrainians. One link led to another, and I was pleased to discover just how many Ukrainians, both U.S.- and foreign-born, lived within such close proximity—there are around 23,500 Ukrainian immigrants living in Connecticut and 148,700 in New York. That is not surprising, considering that the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, at a population of roughly 961,100, is the second largest outside of the former Soviet Union. There are over 20 million Ukrainians living outside of Ukraine worldwide.

The diaspora is distinctive in several ways. For one, many in the group are preoccupied with historical victimization, a feeling that stemmed from the Soviet ban of Ukrainian in order to accelerate the assimilation of ethnic minorities. One of the oldest Ukrainian American publications, the New Jersey–based paper Svoboda (which means freedom), reprinted an article from The New Republic in May 2014 by Yale professor Timothy Snyder. In the piece, Snyder claimed that no other European country suffered more grief in its history than Ukraine, especially between 1933 to 1945 when Joseph Stalin’s iron rule and later, Nazi occupation made it “the deadliest place on Earth.” He also suggested that Ukraine and Europe had always had strong ties both historically and today. “Ukraine has no history without Europe, but Europe also has no history without Ukraine,” he wrote. “This seems still to be true today.”

Another unifying characteristic among some of the diaspora was an extreme anti-Russia sentiment, in both its Soviet and post-Soviet forms. The clashes and fighting in Ukraine over the last year and a half has in some ways validated and reignited these sentiments, reinvigorating a sense of unity among the Ukrainian diaspora but also fueling radical nationalism.

A final characteristic is that, many Ukrainian American children, whether the first, second, or third generation, have been required by their parents and grandparents to learn Ukrainian and speak only in Ukrainian at home, so as to save the language from extinction. In part, this is because of the Soviet Union’s Russification policy, which left many ethnic Ukrainians believing that the survival of the language was the responsibility of the free Ukrainians living abroad. The language is kept afloat by dozens of Ukrainian language media outlets, as well as organizations dedicated to establishing Ukrainian schools. The Educational Council of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America oversees 35 Ukrainian schools and seeks to ensure “the preservation by the American Ukrainians of the Ukrainian language and the culture of their forefathers.”

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Most of the people living in Ukraine hold somewhat more moderate views of Russia and the Ukrainian language. Despite the Ukrainian diaspora’s anti-Russia zeal, many in Ukraine realize that Ukraine and Russia are inseparable in many ways—especially when it comes to history, culture, and economy. A poll by the Razumkov Center, a Ukrainian think tank, revealed that between 2001 and 2012, the majority of Ukrainians assessed current relations between Ukraine and Russia as “good,” which was the highest possible ranking. Not only was Modern Kiev once the capital of the Kievan Rus’—a ninth-to-thirteenth-century empire covering modern Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia—but Russia supplies Ukraine with about 60 percent of its natural gas, and Ukraine also exports $17.6 billion in goods to Russia. A loss of this market could cost Ukraine nearly half a million jobs.

In terms of language, post-Soviet Ukrainian society is essentially bilingual. There are only slight regional differences as to which language, Ukrainian or Russian, is considered primary: a 2002 survey by the Razumkov Center revealed that of the Ukrainians polled, over 90 percent claimed to speak both languages. (Officially, 67 percent of the country speaks Ukrainian and 24 percent speaks Russian.) Even eastern Ukraine is split when it comes to language. According to Pew, 43 percent of the region consists of Russian-only speakers and 73 percent said that Russian and Ukrainian should both be official state languages. (A majority in western Ukraine said that only the Ukrainian language should have legal standing.)

And most agree that the people of eastern and central Ukraine have the right to speak the language of their ancestors without having their Ukrainian identity and nationality called into question. Ethnic identity and national loyalty is not a zero-sum game. The statistics show that regardless of ethnicity or language, Ukrainians do not express particular loyalty to Russia. The majority of both western (89 percent) and eastern Ukraine (66 percent) expresses no loyalty to or confidence in Russia’s president and even believes that Russia is having a bad influence on Ukraine (87 percent and 58 percent in the western and eastern regions, respectively).

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Further, the Ukrainian language is not under the threat of extinction and has not been for over two decades. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine made meaningful strides toward promoting Ukrainian as its only official language. Although Russian-speaking Ukrainians resisted this policy, over time, school textbooks, as well as national press and television, have almost exclusively used Ukrainian. Even Russian-language television shows were required to feature Ukrainian subtitles (although their mistranslations were often subject to ridicule across the country). Older, less educated people living in rural areas were less likely to learn Ukrainian. But slowly, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians adopted Ukrainian as their second language, and many of their children spoke Ukrainian as their first language. Even former President Viktor Yanukovych made an effort to learn Ukrainian in his late 40s.

The perceived threat to the Ukrainian language among the Ukrainian diaspora was revived in April 2012, when the parliament passed a law giving Russian the status of a regional language in the country’s Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions. This law would keep Ukrainian as the official federal language, but allow the use of Russian in regional courts, schools, and other government institutions.

In the United States, Svoboda published an article on July 13 by one of its editors, Petro Chasto, titled “Black Tuesday, July 3” in which he claimed that the new law was threatening the existence of the Ukrainian language and culture and implying that allowing the official use of regional languages called for a day of mourning. The last time a day in Ukraine was called “black” was when 33 mineworkers were killed in a coalmine explosion in Donetsk on March 4, 2015.

No less dramatically, the Ukrainian community in Australia issued a letter to Yanukovych to block the signing of the law. The letter also demanded that all politicians “that are unable to be Ukrainian politicians in the Ukrainian state…resign immediately.”

In Ukraine, the general reaction to the legislation was much less extreme. Opponents of the bill took to the streets, but mainly in cities in the Western region with only around a thousand in Kiev, down to a few hundred by the fourth day of protests. In the east, there were smaller demonstrations of about 25 to 200 people. Ukrainian scholars speculated that the bill was simply a political weapon—Yanukovich’s main goal in pushing this bill forward was to garner support for his Party of the Regions in the upcoming 2012 parliamentary elections. But in the end, the language law neither mobilized the opposition nor strengthened Yanukovich’s support in the east. At least for the people of the Ukraine, the language was not an issue.

But the mayor of Lviv (the Ukrainian-speaking “cultural capital” in the country’s west) made a public address in Russian, defending Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ right to use their language. Many academics, politicians, and journalists from eastern and western Ukraine engaged for a day in a language swap; many Ukrainian-speaking journalists reported in Russian on national television in support of the new law, and vice versa.

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On February 23, 2014, at the peak of the Maidan revolution, and the second day after Yanukovych fled the country, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill to repeal the 2012 law, making Ukrainian the only official language. The repeal was again political. It sought to unite opposition forces in a country that had dissolved into chaos following Yanukovich’s escape. However, that step provoked a strong reaction in Crimea and in some regions of southern and eastern Ukraine and gave those regions yet another reason to feel marginalized by the new government.

Right-wing Ukrainians were elated by the move. The Azov Battalion, one of the country’s better known ultranationalist organizations, is known for its intolerance. One of its members was quoted by The Telegraph saying, “Personally, I’m a Nazi.” Andreas Umland, a German-born senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, stated in an interview with Hromadske TV, the Ukrainian Internet television station, “Azov is peculiar because of the biological racism of some of its leaders.” The group has even adopted a modified version of the Wolfsangel symbol, which was used by some Nazi units during World War II.  Many of the Battalion’s members (described as “glorious” by Svoboda) are from Belarus, Canada, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Sweden, and are reported to be funded with the help of the Ukrainian diaspora.

The Ukrainian diaspora has, of course, offered tremendous support for the democratic movement in Ukraine: members have organized humanitarian relief programs, placed wounded Ukrainian soldiers in American hospitals, hosted displaced refugees in their homes, and lobbied U.S. President Barack Obama for military assistance to Ukraine, among a host of other activities. Even the 2014 Miss Ukrainian Diaspora beauty pageant, held in Chicago, issued, as its grand prize, a certificate for purchasing body armor for Ukrainian soldiers.

Although the diaspora support for the conflict in Ukraine is commendable, its continued focus on the issue of language is not. Ukraine needs to mend the divides between its various regions and promote a multiethnic and multilingual society. To further that goal, the diaspora should tone down its campaign to protect the Ukrainian language as well as its strong anti-Russian opinions. Ukrainians are already bombarded by the propaganda of two extreme ideologies: one from right-wing Ukrainian nationalists and the other from the Kremlin. This fire doesn’t need more fuel from the diaspora.



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