A Language of Revolution? Ukrainian Identity, Nationalism in Wake of Language Law

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.

Lviv, Ukraine (Photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame); Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2012 (Photo: Kremlin via Creative Commons)

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who now lives in exile in Russia, introduced a law that allows cities and regions of Ukraine to elevate Russian, or any other minority language, to the status of an official language if at least 10% of its population speaks it as a native tongue. This move was presented as an expansion of the rights of ethnic minorities living in Ukraine. However, given the Soviet-era monolingual language laws and policies towards culture and nationalism, many Ukrainians feared that this new law sought to resurrect old ways and undermine the Ukrainian language in official state capacity.

The new language law was met with immense controversy, intense opposition by citizens and even brawling in the Ukrainian parliament. Two days after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the new government took steps to repeal the law. However, it remained on the books until 2018 as both the interim government and newly elected president, concerned over potential political fallout, did not want to alienate Russian speakers in the Ukrainian community. During that time, Russian was utilized as the official regional language in six oblasts for administrative office work and documents; Hungarian, Moldovan, and Romanian languages were also utilized as official regional languages in several municipalities. The law posited new questions on Ukrainian cultural identity and prompted heated debates on nationalism.

Over nearly the past decade since the law was first introduced, “there seems to have been a shift from an ethnic to a more civic definition of Ukrainian identity,” according to Kevin Richardson ’20, a recent graduate of the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame and grant recipient from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. Many political scientists and theorists expect Eastern Ukrainians to identify as Russian, especially due to the fact that they speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and many are ethnically Russian. However, Richardson's researched indicated, perhaps surprisingly, that many Eastern Ukrainians “expressed a strong civic Ukrainian identity.”

To ground his research, Richardson developed an innovative framework by employing Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities. The theory claims that a culturally constructed community is made possible by the perception of those people that imagine themselves as a part of that community. In turn, Richardson’s definition of Ukrainian identity includes those people that imagine themselves as belonging to the modern Ukrainian nation through their perceived mutual understanding of language and history as it pertains to their individual sense.

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."

Lviv, Ukraine (Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

To collect insights from as diverse and culturally representative a group as possible, Richardson intentionally interviewed Ukrainian citizens from an array of backgrounds, geographic regions, and fields. His participants included blue-collar workers, academics, human rights activists, civil society leaders, internally displaced persons, sociologists, historians, a journalist, lawyers, and political analysts. Interviews were conducted over a period of twenty-five days in Kyiv and Lviv, taking place in cafes and office spaces in English, Ukrainian, or a mixture of the two.

Ethnographic methods and participant observation (e.g., the interviews) were the primary tools for collecting research data during Richardson’s trip. Much of the data Richardson collected on his trip clarified hypotheses he developed through initial research at Notre Dame.

“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.

Back at Notre Dame, as a second-year Master of Global Affairs student, Richardson authored a thesis as his final project. His firsthand experience working in Ukraine as a Peace Corps youth development volunteer informed his research interests on how Ukrainian identity shifts amid revolutions, the increased politicization of language, and foreign violations of Ukrainian sovereignty. In addition to a successful research experience, Richardson also felt his time in Ukraine opened doors for his future.

“Many of my interviewees thought my perspective and research could help in their own fields of work and even suggested that I find a job working in Ukraine,” Richardson remarks.

Committed to the student research experience at Notre Dame, the Nanovic Institute offers a comprehensive suite of grant programs designed to support students and advance their research goals. For students like Kevin Richardson, the Institute also serves as his intellectual home.

“Beyond the funding for my research, the Nanovic Institute [was a] most welcoming and encouraging space for me as I finished my program,” says Richardson. “There is always a smiling face, a person that knows my name, someone to ask me how my research is going, and, best of all, a place where I have found faculty that have contributed to and supported my own personal, academic, and professional growth.”

Writer: Connor Bran