As the world watches Russia invade Ukraine, it is important to ask how things got here.
I was born and spent most of my childhood in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. Lined with giant boulevards, monuments, cathedrals and parks connected by cobbled streets, the city was founded over 1,500 years ago.
The context of violence between Russia and Ukraine is essential to the escalation of the war. A point of attention that must be examined is the culture and, by extension, the language.
During the time of the Soviet Union, all fifteen Soviet republics spoke a single language, Russian. Russian was my own mother tongue and the only one I speak from my native country. Although each territory has its own ethnic language, as Professor David F. Marshall of the University of North Dakota Institute of Linguistics has pointed out, to achieve “the goal of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to create a non-ethnic Soviet people”, Russian was used exclusively in schools, courts, businesses and all forms of media. However, adds Marshall, this “policy spawned a generation of cultural entrepreneurs, (who had) strong resistance to Russification and integration became a major long-term problem for the Soviet Union.”
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine needed to regain its national identity, said Harvard Ukrainian Studies doctoral student Dominique Arel. One of the central elements of this was the language. The country abruptly switched to Ukrainian as its official language, officially enshrined in Ukraine’s 1996 constitution, making the Russian community in Ukraine a minority overnight. Since then, the issue of Russian-Ukrainian language clashes has become highly politicized in Ukraine and Russia, according to Arel.
“Language acts as an identity marker,” Arel said. “Ukraine, however, stands out as a case where a lasting political consensus has yet to occur on fundamental aspects of language policy, namely the political status of the two main languages fighting for public space. [Ukrainian and Russian].” To solve this problem, Arel said, the government could put in place regulations to encourage the use of the socially disadvantaged language, in this case Ukrainian.
On August 8, 2012, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made such an attempt by passing a new language policy law, the Brookings Institute reported, which stated that if 10% of a population’s native language is a minority (Russian), it will become the official language of this region. The Brookings Institute noted that 24% of Ukrainians, living mainly in the east and south of the country, declared Russian as their mother tongue, dividing the country according to linguistic criteria.
On November 20, 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainians protested Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a long-negotiated trade deal between Ukraine and the European Union. This was seen as a missed opportunity to align with the EU. The protests escalated into deadly violence when Yanukovych’s police attempted to quell the demonstration.
After three months of fighting, the Ukrainian parliament ousted Yanukovych from his presidential position on February 22, 2014. President Vladimir Putin then proclaimed that the Maidan movement, later known as the Revolution of Dignity, was a Western movement, especially American. , conspiracy.
The Dignity Revolution marked a turning point for Russia to appropriate the vulnerability at the core of Ukrainian identity.
Positioning himself as the protector of the Russian-speaking population, Putin took control of Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, on March 18, 2014. Appearing on his state television that evening, Putin said that in 1991, “millions of [Crimean] people went to bed in one country and woke up in different countries, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in the former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the largest, if not the largest largest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.
Crimea is part of the Russian Federation to this day. At the heart of their membership is their Russian-speaking majority, a weak link that Putin exploited to expand the Russian Empire.
Less than a month later, in April 2014, Russian-backed separatist rebels seized government buildings in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Proclaiming the region a “people’s republic”, the separatists voted to become independent from Ukraine and part of Russia.
According to now declassified US State Department diplomatic cables, Putin did not agree to the separatists’ motion, but continued to provide them with weapons and ground support with what have been called “little green men”. “. These soldiers, dressed in green military insignia and trained in modern warfare, had no country identification markers. They weren’t Ukrainians, but they refused to openly identify as Russians, giving Putin plausible denial that they were acting on Russia’s behalf.
On April 24, 2019, Putin signed a decree simplifying procedures for residents of eastern districts of Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship, which was then embroiled in a six-year Russian-backed military conflict. The decree said Russia had “humanitarian goals” of preserving “the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen, defined by universally accepted principles and norms of international law.”
Many residents of eastern Ukraine, exhausted by years of conflict, have been pressured to obtain Russian citizenship in the promise of eventual stability.
In a statement by EU leaders, leaders of European Union member states also said that Russian passports issued to Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Donbass would not be recognized as they were seen as “an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty”.
Over the next two years, the Russian Interior Ministry said more than 527,000 people from eastern Ukraine were granted Russian citizenship. This brings us to the present moment when this chain of decisions prepared the ground on which Ukraine stands today.
On Thursday, February 23, 2022, Putin gave a speech on Russian state television officially acknowledging the separatist claims of the Donbass region. Citing the need to protect Russian citizens living in Ukraine, Putin invaded the country with brutal force. Sending missiles throughout the Ukrainian region, Putin warned that foreign countries should not interfere in the armed assault or risk “consequences that you have never seen in history”.
The head of the UN Refugee Agency in Kyiv told NPR that they are preparing for a flow of more than five million refugees fleeing Ukraine and crossing into Europe. Ukraine’s National Border Guard Service announced on Thursday evening that “all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country” and must enlist in the army. In a joint statement, Ukrainian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Valeriy Zaluzhniy and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced on Ukrainian state television that assault weapons and ammunition were being distributed to civilians.
Relegated to helplessly watching these events unfold from the safety of my Los Angeles home, I feel ashamed that things could have gone this far. Jonatan Vseviov, Secretary General of the Estonian Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to Estonia, put the situation in Ukraine into a context for which I find it hard to find better words: “The military operation that has now been unleashed against Ukraine has no precedent in this regard. [European] continent since 1945. This is a major catastrophe, not just a theoretical problem in a distant land. It doesn’t just change Europe, it changes world history – what we see before our eyes today,” will change our ways of life across the world.
Dismantling a nation’s language, that identity which often unifies a society, ruins a nation’s culture and erodes its sense of self-determination. Witnessing the tragic situation in Ukraine reminds me how fragile stability and integrity are in the places where we live. How to deal with brutality, sometimes the only thing to do is talk.