On Ukraine’s De-Russification Policies

On Wednesday evening, I participated in a panel on Catholicism and Nationalism at Catholic University of America. During the Q&A period, we were asked about Russia’s nationalistic war as opposed to Ukraine’s struggle for liberty. I sort of challenged the concept. Though it is quite true that the war has triggered a nationalistic response among Russians, Vladimir Putin has denounced “extreme nationalism” when he sees nationalist movements working against his interests, which makes sense as he is the head of a multinational Russian Federation. Ukraine’s struggle to retain its territory and maintain an independent and sovereign government is a classically “nationalist” struggle. And it is accompanied by the kind of anti-liberal nationalist politics that usually troubles critics of nationalism.

As an example, I pointed to the laws instituted this year prohibiting the publication of Russian-language content in Ukraine unless an equivalent Ukrainian language publication is offered as a first option. I heard a big reaction in the crowd. And after the talk I was harried by pro-Ukraine audience members telling me that I had just passed on Kremlin propaganda. How could Ukraine possibly ban Russian? It’s the most common language. How dare you?

I began to worry I had misdescribed the law. In fact, I hadn’t, as evidenced by an article from Radio Free Europe, a news source that the U.S. government funds.

Now, Europe has lots of language laws. France still has laws on the books that circumscribe the use of Breton, a Gaelic language from Brittany, on the radio or in schools. Ireland has laws aimed at preserving what’s left of the Irish language. Hungary famously launched campaigns of “Magyarization” while trying to build its one nation-state. But Ukraine’s cultural-nationalist project is on another order of magnitude. A third of Ukrainians don’t speak Ukrainian as their first language. There’s a massive population of Ukrainian citizens who have no interest in learning Ukrainian. The law is an attempt to coax them into adopting Ukrainian culture or be cut off from public life.

Over a century ago, Irish nationalists envisioned the de-Anglicization of Ireland. But when they dreamed of a Gaelic-speaking Ireland, even ultra-nationalists like Patrick Pearse saw it as a consequence that could come about when English stopped being a lingua franca of global business.

Although the Russian language has fallen in prestige sharply with the destruction of the Soviet Union, it still has tremendous vitality as a lingua franca in the region.

And under the pressure of war, Ukraine has upped the stakes in its cultural politics. From Reuters in June:

Ukraine’s parliament on Sunday voted through two laws which will place severe restrictions on Russian books and music as Kyiv seeks to break many remaining cultural ties between the two countries following Moscow’s invasion.

One law will forbid the printing of books by Russian citizens, unless they renounce their Russian passport and take Ukrainian citizenship. The ban will only apply to those who held Russian citizenship after the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule.

It will also ban the commercial import of books printed in Russia, Belarus, and occupied Ukrainian territory, while also requiring special permission for the import of books in Russian from any other country.

Another law will prohibit the playing of music by post-1991 Russian citizens on media and on public transport, while also increasing quotas on Ukrainian-language speech and music content in TV and radio broadcasts.

Ukraine’s cultural minister took to the pages of the Guardian in December to argue that Russia’s cultural vandalism in the occupied parts of Ukraine deserved an international response, namely a ban on Russian culture.

Boycotting Russian culture is an important step. We’re not talking about cancelling Tchaikovsky, but rather about pausing performances of his works until Russia ceases its bloody invasion. Ukrainian cultural venues have already done this with him and other Russian composers. We’re calling on our allies to do the same. Already, many of the theatres and cultural venues that previously refused to perform Russian music or to cooperate with Russian artists who support the war have since renewed their ties. And Ukrainian culture has so much to offer.

I don’t blame Ukrainians for their reaction. It’s perfectly understandable that in a war for survival, the cultural politics of the most advanced ultranationalists will prevail. But Ukraine’s cultural laws cannot reasonably be described as liberal or cosmopolitan. They are radical. And, if we mean anything we have said about U.S. support of Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, we should encourage the laws’ relaxation or abandonment.


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