KYIV – Oles Doniy, 45, has been among the most active defenders of independent Ukraine politically and culturally. He served as a national deputy between 2007 and 2014, but his main achievements were beyond the walls of Ukraine’s Parliament.
He was a leader of the student hunger strike of 1990 and the “Revolution on the Granite” that led to Ukraine’s independence. He launched the Ostannia Barykada (Last Barricade) artists’ association in 2006, organizing a series of festivals and publishing books and pop music albums.
Mr. Doniy also helped launch the All-Ukrainian Committee to Defend the Ukrainian Language in 2012 after the Verkhovna Rada approved the language bill – sponsored by then-deputies Serhii Kivalov, who was re-elected, and Vadim Kolesnichenko, who gave up his Ukrainian citizenship – that removed safeguards for the Ukrainian language. He currently chairs the Center for Political Values Research in Kyiv.
He was interviewed by this correspondent on March 20.
In the West, Russian lobbyists and sympathizers spread the notion that the cancellation in February 2014 of the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law was one the factors that led to the revolt in the Donbas. I even heard how so-called American experts of the post-Soviet sphere alleged this. Is that the case?
In order to understand that that’s not true, we need to recall that Luhansk and Donetsk were not the first occupied territories. The first occupied territory was Crimea, where preparation for the occupation began long before voting for this law in 2012. There was the command from the Kremlin to occupy Crimea, regardless of the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law’s cancellation.
It’s another argument that Russian propaganda used the cancelling of this law in the Donbas as one of the scare tactics to hyperpolarize the situation and assert, as in Crimea several years ago, that everyone will be forced to speak Ukrainian in all situations. The propaganda had nothing to do with the essence of the law’s cancellation. But the propaganda took advantage of the situation. The cancellation could have been stretched over a longer period of time so as not to give additional arguments for Russian propaganda. I understood this, but the parliamentary session hall didn’t.
In my personal view, Ukrainianization as an idea that can be implemented is dead. It’s not possible. We see many arguments now as to why it can’t be implemented. They are that Russian-speaking soldiers are dying on the front, so what right do we have to discuss Ukrainianization. Or that Russian-speakers are serving in the Presidential Administration, helping in the war effort. We can’t possibly offend them. Even mentioning Ukrainianization has become politically incorrect. What do you think?
I have the opposite view. Yes, this position is being advanced by part of the government. When I tried to raise the issue of financing our free Ukrainian language courses, the vice prime minister for humanitarian affairs [Viacheslav Kyrylenko] told me now is not the time for that. But I don’t agree that Ukrainianization has died. Quite the opposite. We are engaged in the same Ukrainianization campaigns as 10, 15 years ago.
Two years ago, we organized free Ukrainian-language courses in 17 cities of Ukraine. We’ve had to close them in Sevastopol and Donetsk after the occupation. But we’ve organized new Ukrainian language courses in Druzhkivka, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which are the freed territories of the Donetsk Oblast. That’s Ukrainianization. We don’t pay our teachers, who teach for free. The only thing I spend money on is transporting poets and teachers who lecture.
Is Ukrainianization possible on the state level?
It’s possible. It’s happening gradually. Society has a better attitude toward the Ukrainian language than even a year or two ago, which will affect government structures. They will have to take that into account, even if they don’t want to. The government can stall a bill on banning Russian military films and television series, which it tried to undermine. And if it allows the bill to pass, then only in castrated form. But it can’t do all this publicly. [Parliamentary Chair Volodymyr] Groisman had to put the bill up for another vote and he will have to sign it, which means the gradual reduction of Russian programs on the Ukrainian market will lead to the growth of Ukrainian-language programs.
But I understand that just means romantic Russian programs will replace the military ones…
Through mass media and social networks, we are pressuring oligarchs who own the media and national deputies. They will be forced to invest more in Ukrainian production. And they will be forced to buy less Russian entertainment.
As it stands, the Ukrainian language is not protected and Ukrainian-speaking people are not protected by the state. Do you agree?
Yes, that’s true. We haven’t stopped the wave of Russification, which means that where there is the Russian language, there will be attempts sooner or later to establish the Russkii Mir (Russian World). Even those who have a patriotic position, if they foster a Russian-speaking environment, that means their children could become supporters of the Russkii Mir.
Even when they insist that speaking Russian doesn’t mean having a Russian worldview.
That’s true, but there’s the theory of large percentages. There was research that the conflict in the Orange Revolution was not simply based on regions, but based on regions where the percentage of the ethnic Russian population was higher than 14 percent. All regions where the percentage of ethnic Russians was less than 14 percent voted for [Viktor] Yushchenko. Everywhere it was higher than 14 percent, the region voted for [Viktor] Yanukovych.
In ethnology, there is the concept of a city-building ethnicity and city-altering. If the percentage is more than 1 percent, the ethnic group is visible in the city. If it’s higher than 10 percent, it alters the development of a city. According to statistics, the ethnic Russian population is wealthier, with larger average incomes, and is more educated. Accordingly, the population is drawn to those groups that are wealthier and more educated. Where the Russian population is more than 14 percent, it can alter the development of an entire oblast.
Moreover, the Russian population is more urban, while the Ukrainian population is more rural. The process of Russification becomes greater, and the Russian worldview is a lot stronger. So the fight for cities, using the language fight, is an issue of the survival of the Ukrainian nation. “Russian patriots,” which in our case means Russian chauvinists, are far larger among Russian speakers than among Ukrainian speakers.
Is it worth achieving such a level of Ukrainianization that a Ukrainian speaker doesn’t need to know or speak Russian in order to have a normal job and life in Kyiv? If not, then what needs to be achieved for Ukrainian speakers in Kyiv?
I don’t speak Russian – not only in Kyiv, but not in any region in Ukraine – for more than 20 years now. Situations of rejecting Ukrainian are rare, isolated incidents nowadays. Changes are possible, but they depend on being principled. Ukrainians are an exceptionally tolerant nation. The desire to tolerate one’s fellow communicator led to the majority of Ukrainian speakers being ashamed of their Ukrainian and switching to Russian on behalf of Russian speakers as the more educated. More self-respect is needed.
But what about on a legal basis?
There are laws that are not being enforced. If there is self-respect on a personal level, then there will be more demands towards the state. Based on the law, every state official must have a command of the Ukrainian language. But in the Verkhovna Rada, where the majority are patriots and we rejoiced that there aren’t any Communists and only a few Party of Regions deputies, the issue wasn’t even raised of the illegality of appointing foreigners to government who don’t have knowledge of Ukrainian. They are violators of the law.
But if people don’t have self-respect, they don’t even have the notion that they should require officials to enforce the law. If they don’t have linguistic self-respect, then they won’t demand it from government officials.
If these examples are “isolated,” then how come I’ve seen how people from Halychyna and from rural central Ukraine villages switch to Russian in office settings?
That’s precisely what I said about self-respect. Psychological complexes of insecurity and inferiority still exist. People think Russian speakers are more educated, and ethnic Russians do have higher levels of wealth and education. That’s why Ukrainian speakers believe a person speaking Russian is a “velykyi pan” [i.e., of higher social standing].
So it exists now, and will for another 10, 20, 30 years?
It could be even longer. When I grew up, only 1 percent of Kyiv was Ukrainian-speaking. Now it’s 20, 25 percent, maybe even a third of the city. But that took 25 years.
But perhaps we’ve reached a barrier at 25 percent and there won’t be further progress.
That won’t happen because we don’t have a situation like Belgium, where there are three distinct ethnic groups: the Flemish, the Walloons and a small German population. Here we have a transition group with transition mentality. They can be assimilated in either the direction of Ukrainian or Russian. For example, the family of one of my grandmothers, a Kozachka from Novoazovsk in the Donetsk Oblast, considered themselves Kozaks and didn’t intermix with Ukrainians and Russians. They were a transitional group. They can be fought for. Another grandmother was from Crimea. In her passport, she was reported as Russian, but when asked whether she was Russian, she said, “No.” Ukrainian? “No.” She said she’s a “khokhlushka.” These are transitional groups. [“Khokhol” and “khokhlushka” are derogatory terms for Ukrainians.]
So you believe Russian-speaking Kyivans are a transitional group?
Yes. They will be speaking Ukrainian in 50 years. I am a native Kyivan who learned Ukrainian on my own and I don’t speak Russian at all.
Yes, but people of lesser intellect nowadays don’t want to learn or speak Ukrainian.
We are in a situation in which a large part of the population is drawn on its own to Ukrainian. I now hear preschoolers who speak Ukrainian, which never used to be the case. The problem is they start speaking Russian among each other once they reach school. But all preschool education in Kyiv is Ukrainian. The child’s foundation is set in Ukrainian, but he or she must be fought over afterwards.
There are people who argue that Ukrainianization is a threat to the state.
That’s a method of fighting against Ukraine. What results from such liberal arguments? I researched this. What did the Party of Regions do when they were elected to local councils? In each oblast and city, they passed programs to support the Russian language exclusively. For Donetsk, for Zaporizhia, for Sevastopol. They were compensated one million hrv by the Orange government, Yushchenko and [Yulia] Tymoshenko. So they promoted the idea that Ukrainianization is not needed and, nor is expanding the use of Ukrainian on the state level, and what they truly did at the lower levels was invest enormous finances for expanding the Russian language. And that’s aside from what Russia invested.
The Ukrainian budget financed expansion of the Russian language and culture. It was a very well-developed program, consisting of creating libraries, virtual libraries, study abroad in St. Petersburg, contests and many thoroughly written points. They got money from the Ukrainian budget for this.
If we don’t do something similar, then this expansion of Russian language and culture will lead to the consequences in Crimea and Donbas, which were the result of the Russification that occurred. If we don’t challenge this expansion of Russian language and culture, they will repeat this scenario in 10 or 20 years in other oblasts. The single system of defense is expanding Ukrainian, which is what we’re doing. We sent poets to Sloviansk and Druzhkivka [in the Donetsk Oblast], where we get enormous audiences.
But there are people who believe that Ukrainian independence doesn’t depend on the condition of the Ukrainian language.
Those ideas are supported by ultra-liberalism.
There are a lot of people who support that.
That’s true, but there were many people who told me growing up, “Why aren’t you speaking Russian? You’re supposed to speak the language of the elder person addressing you.” If I listened to these people, I would have never learned Ukrainian because all the elders around me spoke Russian. So I had no one to speak Ukrainian with.
Now there’s a popular theme that all languages should have equal status. It’s a damaging idea that will lead to the state’s ruin.