Ukraine wages war on Russian language
Tuesday November 7, 2000
Ian Traynor in Lviv
Orest Dzhmyl fully understands the language he was forced to learn in a Soviet primary school. But the 20-year-old maths student will not speak a word of it.
Slumped in front of a television in a hall decked with the paraphernalia of Ukrainian nationalism, he and his three skinhead mates explain their loathing for the language of Pushkin and recall with relish the day the local Russians got their comeuppance in Lviv.
"I've not really got anything against Russians. Some of them are my friends. But they've got to realise this is not Russia, this is Ukraine, and I love my country."
"If the Russians don't like it here, they should leave."
Mr Dzhmyl is a foot soldier on the frontline of Ukraine's linguistic war. In a country where Ukrainian - banned by Russian tsars and communists - is now the official tongue but the majority still speak Russian, language is an incendiary issue.
One evening in the summer, Mr Dzhmyl and fellow members of the Patriots of Ukraine, the militaristic youth wing of the extremist Social National party, went on the rampage in Lviv, trashing cafes and bars frequented by young Russians.
Since then "Muscovites Out" graffiti have been daubed across Lviv, and Russian Orthodox churches have been vandalised.
"You don't hear so much Russian spoken on the streets now," he grins.
"Anti-Russian hysteria," complains Roman Manyakin, an ethnic Russian political scientist from the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
"Those nationalists are Nazis preaching a gospel of ethnic intolerance."
"It's depressing," says Inna Pidluska, a political analyst in Kiev. "And the government is turning a blind eye."
Independent Ukraine is struggling to shake off centuries of Russification. As any student of 19th-century European nationalism knows, language is central to nation building. Ukraine is discovering that the principle remains axiomatic in the 21st century.
Around 20% of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians, yet more than 60% of the population of 51m speak Russian.
"Any real native of Kiev speaks Russian," says a Ukrainian man born and bred in the city. "We learned Russian at school, we speak Russian at home, and I can't be bothered learning Ukrainian now. I'm too old for that."
Mr Dzhmyl spends his weekends marching in a white shirt and black tie under 8ft Ukrainian banners or doing paramilitary training in the hills outside Lviv.
"The Russians are our biggest problem," says his leader, Andri Parubi, 27. "We're training young people for service in the army and developing their patriotic spirit."
Since independence in 1991, the Ukrainian government has switched lessons in thousands of schools from Russian to Ukrainian. But while Kiev may be banking on schooling to revive the mother tongue, this is not enough for the authorities in Lviv, the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism, which is Lvov to the Russians, Lemberg to the Viennese, and Lwow to the Poles.
The Lviv city council has been trying to ban Russian-language pop music in bars and cafes and to close down a Russian-language radio station, and linguistic vigilantes have been cruising shops and kiosks, bullying retailers into dumping Russian literature, newspapers and CDs.
It's a tall order. Russian-language newspapers still outnumber Ukrainian 10 to one across the country. At a second-hand book stall there are only tomes in Russian. In an art gallery bookshop, Russian predominates.
"We specialise in philosophy and those books haven't been translated into Ukrainian," explains the shop assistant. "We do have a Ukrainian version of Kant's Critique of Reason if you're interested."
Another Lviv bookseller says the local authority is trying either to ban Russian publications or to slap on punitive taxes. But Ms Pidluska in Kiev says the reason for the domination of Russian is simple.
"Nobody will put any money into publishing books in Ukrainian."
Lviv's language war was ignited by the death of a popular local folk-singer, Igor Bilozir. At an outdoor cafe one evening in May, he and a friend were playing his Ukrainian ballads while a group of Russian youths at the next table were singing songs in Russian.
The Russians warned Bilozir to stop singing in Ukrainian. He refused. They came to blows. The fighting spilled along the street and the 45-year-old slumped to the ground after a blow to the head. He died three weeks later in hospital, becoming for Ukrainian nationalists an instant martyr.
"He was killed because he sang songs in his own language," says Mr Parubi. Russian newspapers turned things around and said the dispute was over the right to use the Russian language.
More than 100,000 people in Lviv turned out for Bilozir's funeral. The next day the Patriots of Ukraine went on the rampage.
Two ethnic Russian youths were arrested on suspicion of murder. One was released inexplicably on bail and left the country, the other is the son of the local deputy police chief. Expectations of a fair trial are low.
A black cross, flowers and a picture of the songwriter mark the spot where he died. "Igor Bilozir. Murdered here by Russian-speaking thugs," reads the inscription across the road from the local McDonald's.
"Do you like McDonald's?" asks Orest Dzhmyl. "I don't. I like our national food. Borshch. It's not Russian, it's Ukrainian."