For centuries, Russian imperialists enacted cultural assimilation through political propaganda and government orders. Ukrainians who lived through the Soviet era can speak firsthand to the effectiveness of these tools of control and suppression and the pervasiveness of this “Russification.” Though a question lingers — when Ukrainians share their stories, what language do they use? One residual element of this social subjugation was how Russian was promulgated as USSR’s official language in an effort to render native and ethnic languages obsolete in official capacity throughout the nation-state. It became not uncommon for citizens to be scolded by fellow countrymen if caught speaking a language other than the “mother tongue.”
In August 1991, the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine was signed, laying the legal groundwork for Ukraine to become an independent state after seventy years under the shadow of the Soviet Union. Twenty-one years later, in 2012, a new bill presented to Ukrainian Parliament stoked national fears that imposing Russian figures continued to loom.
Richardson endeavors to fill a gap in current research on the roles that identity, language, and development play in emerging countries and how they interact with one another. By bridging insights gleaned from interviews with key Ukrainian community leaders and survey and focus group data collected by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the National Academy of Sciences Section of Social Sciences and Humanities in Lviv, he was able to discern how the 2012 language law shaped collective Ukrainian identity.
Considering the fervor surrounding the law by politicians and policymakers alike, do most Ukrainians harbor similar feelings?
“[Ukrainians] didn’t recall what exactly it did or why they thought it was particularly bad,” says Richardson.
Ukraine offers particular insight as a case study into the connections between language and national identity due to its history, culture, and geopolitical positioning between Western Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. “While in Ukraine, I had many interesting conversations throughout the country with regards to patriotism, language, and the complexity surrounding what it means to be Ukrainian.”
“There is arguably no more important issue in Europe today than the construction of a Ukrainian identity that will satisfy the desires of both the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking populations,” says A. James McAdams, William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs and director of the Nanovic Institute from 2002 to 2018. McAdams advised Richardson on his graduate thesis and served as a faculty advisor for his Nanovic grant proposal. “I was particularly impressed with Kevin's success in capturing the nuances and challenges of this undertaking through both primary research and interviews in Ukraine."
“Ukrainians do not directly link language to their [ethnic] identity. Language has been and continues to be used as a political tool by the government and political parties to purposely incite divides and frictions between regions and ethnicities of Ukraine.” Richardson says. “There has also been a [moderate] shift towards a more civic understanding of Ukrainian identity and citizenship.”
Further insights Richardson gained were that language serves as a source of community security. Stereotypes of criminality and the image of minorities are bolstered by attitudes towards language. Attitudes on language also help guide public opinion, shape decisions towards Ukraine’s ethnic minorities, and drive rampant oversimplification of complex issues using the East vs. West narrative.