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Linguistic divisions in Ukraine

January 31, 2014

I can’t claim to know anything about ongoing events in Ukraine, but I’m interested in whether they should be understood as a conflict between Ukrainian speakers in the West who want EU membership and Russian speakers in the East who want close ties with Russia. Peter Pomerantsev (via LH) thinks that theory is worse than an oversimplification, and Alexei K. also thinks the East/West divide is becoming “less and less relevant.”  William Risch’s on-the-spot updates at Sean’s Russia Blog describe opponents of the government taunting the police in both Russian and Ukrainian. On the other hand, in that same post he talks to riot police from Donetsk who blame everything on Euromaidan protesters dominated by “people from ‘Lvov’ (Lviv).”

Here’s the beginning of Pomerantsev’s post:

Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs include an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.

The whole piece is informative and I recommend it, but I am not convinced by the point about Klitschko’s Ukrainian and Yanukovich’s Russian. Political parties and movements often find leaders who express their positions while sharing culturally salient traits with their opponents. Southern Protestant white men tended to vote Republican in the U.S. in the late twentieth century, and the careers of Democratic politicians Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Edwards do not disprove this fact but flow from it. Likewise the fact that Hamid Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun does not prove that North/South, Pashtun/non-Pashtun divisions are irrelevant in Afghanistan. That said, people better informed than I am seem to be pushing back on the “Ukrainian West versus Russian East” reading of the protests.

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