Is the current crisis in Ukraine caused by the ethno-linguistic conflict between Russians and Ukrainians, especially in Crimea? This 23-year-old bilingual post-Soviet nation seems to be divided between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking people, right? This kind of talk not only benefits Putin’s geopolitical stake in Ukraine but also belittles a role of the EuroMaidan revolution in a democratization of Ukraine.
Western mass media feeds Putin’s propaganda unintentionally by relying on the native language data from the 2001 census. The census failed to ask if the individuals had more than one native language. The truth is quite simple. Many Ukrainians are bilingual. In 2002 the Razumkov Center’s survey showed that at least 90% of Ukrainians spoke both Ukrainian and Russian. The people of Ukraine also speak Polish, Romanian, Turkish, and so on.
The media has repeatedly shown a map by dividing Ukraine into South-East Russian speakers and North-West Ukrainian speakers. The source of this map is the 2001 census. It is important to remember that, when the census was conducted, every Ukrainian was asked to identify his “mother tongue.” As a result, around 68% of Ukrainians answered “Ukrainian” and about 30% of Ukrainians answered “Russian.” According to the census, 78% and 17% of Ukrainians are ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, respectively. It is no wonder that the number of Russian native speakers is almost twice as much as the number of ethnic Russians. At that time, 90% of the population were born and raised in the Soviet Ukraine where Russian was the primary language. Ukraine only gained its independence in 1991. At the time of the census, at most a 9-year-old kid could have grown up in independent Ukraine where the primary language was switched from Russian to Ukrainian.
Can linguistic preferences explain the results of the 2010 presidential election? The media often compare it to the native language data. Once again, the majority of Ukrainian voters are bilingual. Both the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are also fluent in Russian and Ukrainian. They ran against each other in the second round of the 2010 presidential election. As a result, the linguistic division within Ukraine does not hold up when you look at the election results. In Luhansk province where Russian native speakers represented around 69% of the population, Yanukovych received 89% of votes. Only his home base, Donetsk province, gave Yanukovych 90% of the votes though that province had only 75% of Russian native speakers. Even “the rebellious” Crimea did not have so much trust in Yanukovych. Nonetheless, it came very close to the perfect ratio between the votes and the Russian native speakers. Crimea with 77% of Russian native speakers gave the ousted president 78% of the votes. None of these provinces had enough Russian native speakers to account for all the votes. One only can conclude that the missing votes for Yanukovych came from Ukrainian native speakers.
Once again, the simple truth is that the majority of Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian. Most of them speak Russian at work, and use Ukrainian at home. Citizens living in urban areas primarily speak Russian and those in the rural areas speak primarily Ukrainian or mixed Russian-Ukrainian. Russification was implemented heavily in urban areas during the Soviet era. It is a form of cultural assimilation process during which non-Russian communities are forced to give up their culture and language in favor of the Russian one. Most urban areas are located in the eastern part of Ukraine which then explains the composition of the census 2001 language map showing this area to be predominantly Russian speakers. These areas include Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea with 90%, 86%, and 63% urbanization rate. There are 38% of ethnic Russians and 75% of Russian native speakers in Donetsk province. In Luhansk province, ethnic Russians and Russian native speakers represent 39% and 69%, respectively. Crimea is home to 58% of ethnic Russians and 77% of Russian native speakers. In Sevastopol, a base for the Russian navy and home to retired Russian navy officers, the choice of the mother tongue is very homogenous. The census data show that 72% of ethnic Russians and 91% of Russian native speakers live in Sevastopol. The South-Eastern provinces, especially their urban centers, are Russified. Urban centers prefer Russian and rural areas choose Ukrainian as their everyday language.
The truth is simple. The majority of Ukrainians are bilingual. Nevertheless, the notion that there is a strong division between Russian and Ukrainian speakers has been blown out of proportion by the media and is feeding into the Russian propaganda. No matter what language a citizen of Ukraine considers his mother tongue, he is still Ukrainian. And all Ukrainians across the world are united against dictatorship and foreign aggression.
The Language Map, 2001 (Source: CNN)