Will new language legislation destroy the Ukraine?

Ukrainian churches send protest letter to State President

July 12, 2012

MOSCOW

Following a shoving match between members of the Ukrainian parliament on July 3, the heads of nine religious communities responded with a letter to President Viktor Yanukovich the next day. It was signed by two Pentecostals as well as Baptist Vyacheslav Nesteruk, President of the largest Baptist union, and one of his predecessors. Grigory Komendant is today President of the Ukrainian Bible Society.

In the letter they demanded of Yanukovich that he cancel his plans for installing Russian as the country’s secondary official language. “We feel called to inform you that the present route will lead us into the abyss, to national unrest and the demise of our governmental system,” they wrote. “We are convinced this route „deepens social division, strengthens political resistance and undermines the foundations of the Ukrainian state.“

The President’s followers spot the seed of division in precisely the opposite camp: those who demand the retention of Ukrainian as the country’s sole official language. Baptists and Pentecostals were nearly unanimous in their support of the now-imprisoned, former president Yulia Timoshenko.

For obvious reasons, Filaret, Patriarch of the autonomous, remote-from-Moscow “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” stood at the top of the list of signers. Noticeable is the lack of Charismatic churches. The confessionalist “Ukrainian Lutheran Church,” which is allied with America’s Wisconsin Synod, signed. But the larger, Odessa-based “German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of the Ukraine” did not.

The politics of language

Foreign observers have no easy time following the logic of this protest note. How can the partial acceptance of Russian as a secondary, official tongue (also the only one understood by all 46 million Ukrainians) split the country? Will the new legislation do anything more than give both fractions a portion of what they are demanding? The supporters of Ukrainian believe their language must replace Russian as the all-embracing national tongue. But according to at least one survey, 53% of the populace continues to prefer Russian.

If Russian were dropped as the cross-tribal and cross-national idiom, only the remote language of English would remain as a possible “lingua franca.” Some are willing to pay the price. There are Ukrainians who insist on answering questions stated in Russian in their broken English. The states of the former USSR do need a lingua franca ― it will in any case never be Ukrainian.

A Baptist member of the Belarusian opposition explained the issue on her own terms: “We reject

Kievan Rus.” This refers to the concept of a particularly close affinity between the three Eastern Slavic nations stemming from the early medieval period. “We Belarusians are no more Russian than are the Poles.” Here language serves as the guarantor of an independent national identity. This again leads to astonished reactions among Westerners who have noticed that Australians, New Zealanders, British, Canadians and US-Americans are very much capable of retaining a distinct national identity despite a common tongue.

Foreign tourists weak on Russian ― or even just the Cyrillic alphabet ― are left out in the cold in Belarus and Ukraine. Belarusian maps are published in Russian and therefore do not coincide with the names one will find on street and public signs. City maps call a major tube station in Minsk “Oktyabrskaya“ (October). Yet if one arrives at that station on the train in person, the signs on the platform will read “Kastrychnitskaya“ ― in Cyrillic letters, of course.

Ukrainian Railways’ webpage can presently only be understood by speakers of Ukrainian. The same is true for the webpage of the Ukrainian Baptist Union (see “ecbua.info”). At least for now, being understood outside of Ukraine is not a priority.

Even natives can feel overpowered by the demands being placed on them. Will a respectful, politically-correct Ukrainian from Belarus need to be conversant in all three Eastern Slavic tongues? Ukrainians from Kazakhstan or Latvia are confronted with the same issue. Those needing to flee the Babylonian confusion escape to Russia for recovery ― or at least as far as its Internet.

But in Belarus (“Belorussya” in Russian) the linguistic state of emergency is unique. According to most reports, Belarusian is declining, limited mostly to farmers and the dissident, urban intelligentsia. Barely 10% of the populace regularly speak Belarusian. In Belarus, the unique national idiom has no chance of becoming the country’s sole official language as is the case in Ukraine.

In the face of linguistic upheaval, the unfazed Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church proceeds down its well-trodden path and continues to celebrate Kievan Rus and the Russian language without bothering to halt even at the borders of the three Baltic states. The Protestant communities outside of Russia proper cannot demonstrate that kind of courage ― depending on politics, it could also be called obstinance.

On the other hand, the continuing popularity of the “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” can be attributed to its retention of Russian. This is where, for example, the Russian minority from the Baltics still feels cozy. This loose gathering of unions can be defined as successor to the once-mighty “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” scuttled soon after 1991.

The historical heritage

The real issue behind this unresolved controversy involves the interpretation of the Soviet and Russian heritage. The violence directed at Russian football (soccer) fans in Warsaw on the occasion of the European championship match on June 12 made obvious to all that Russians are now also on the receiving end of ethnic hatred. An advertisement in Moscow’s metro a year ago stated: “Visit Lithuania! The people love us and are waiting for us.” The placard makers were joking, of course.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the three Baltic states have been celebrating the military struggle against the Red Army during and after World War II. These have been above all national units belonging to Germany’s “Waffen-SS” as well as the “forest brethren.” The second grouping kept the partisan, underground battle against the Soviet army alive until around 1957 – death totals hit roughly 50.000. Their struggle had been nourished by the hope for Western military intervention.

To the horror not only of Russians and Jews, Archbishop Jānis Vanags has for the past 10 years been holding a memorial service in Riga’s Lutheran cathedral every year on March 16 honoring the veterans of the Latvian “Waffen-SS.” This year, he offered a reconciling hand to the other side.

He stated in his sermon that one must, in the name of reconciliation, also recognize the antifascist struggle under Red Army auspices. “It is perhaps necessary for us Latvians to view the aged bearers of war medals who commemorate their victory on May 9 with greater understanding. Perhaps they did not fight for Stalin and his empire, but only against those who had brought such untold suffering on them and their families.”

Addressing the veterans present, Vanags added: “Those fighting under German flags . . . did not struggle for the glory and victory of Greater Germany und against Europe. They struggled so that the greatest evil of all, the red Bolsheviki and their Chekist murderers, would not again invade Latvia.”

Yet these sentences do not cover the motivation of all who fought the Red Army: Latvian units were also involved in the nearly total extermination of Baltic Judaism. This complicity was mentioned in the Archbishop’s homily. He stated that it is very important to the survivors of the Holocaust that “the crimes directed at their families are not justified and forgotten.”

How can Christians foster the cause of reconciliation? Vanags wants to concede to both sides the right to rationalize their deeds. But does not the Biblical model see remorse and repentance as the real road to lasting peace?

William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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