In Ukraine, language politics is so contentious that politicians will go to almost any lengths to deny that the issue even exists. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko once dismissed regional divisions between Eastern and Western Ukraine as “children’s fairytales.” More recently, opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko told a German news magazine that people in the East and South of Ukraine “are only superficially concerned about language, history and national identity.”
Ukrainian politicians commonly say that the language issue only comes up during election campaigns, but then these same politicians have also come to blows in the parliament over this issue. This suggests that deep-seated and unresolved concerns lie at the heart of the language issue. To appreciate these we need to look at who actually uses which language, and the different cultural and political agendas behind one’s choice of language.
First, though, we need a bit of essential history. By most accounts the Ukrainian language developed more or less simultaneously alongside Russian and other Eastern Slavic languages, becoming distinct from the rest around the 14th century. After the union between Russia and Ukraine in the mid-17th century, Russian gradually became dominant in cities, while Ukrainian was more widely spoken in rural areas.