Ukrainian stripped of official language status in Russian proxy Donbas “republic”
The self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ has announced that Ukrainian will no longer be a ‘state language’ in the pseudo republic, and has claimed that this status will be held by Russian alone The move is explained as being in recognition of “the integration processes between ‘DPR’ and the Russian Federation”, and makes a nonsense of western-supported plans for reintegration of the so-called ‘republics’ with the rest of Ukraine.
It was reported on 6 March that the self-styled ‘DPR parliament had voted to change the ‘constitution’, stripping Ukrainian of its state language status. It was claimed that the bill “is aimed at the defence and support of the Russian language as state language of the Donetsk people’s republic”. It awaits only the signature of the so-called head of ‘DPR’ to come into force. Amendments to a real constitution are not made in such a way, but this is a meaningless document of a pseudo ‘republic’ which even Russia has stopped short of formally recognizing.
The report cites an official as claiming that this ‘law’ does not violate the right of citizens to use Ukrainian in private conversation or in education. Such assertions are effectively meaningless. In December, ‘DPR’ leader Denis Pushilin first proposed stripping Ukrainian of its official status, and introduced ‘a bill’ proposing to make only the study of Russian compulsory in schools, with Ukrainian optional, “depending on the wishes of parents and the capacity of the educational organization”.
It seems unlikely that any but the most daring of parents will insist on education in Ukrainian since such a ‘pro-Ukrainian’ position could well get them arrested as spying for the Ukrainian Security Service or Armed Forces. The same very probably applies to speaking Ukrainian in everyday communication.
Ukrainian teachers are known to have been retrained to teach Russian and the number of hours assigned to Ukrainian was cut back in 2014. With the Ukrainian textbooks used nationwide almost certainly rejected on political grounds, the ‘authorities’ can also claim that a school is unable to teach Ukrainian because they don’t have textbooks. A lot of the other textbooks are illegally provided by Russia.
The mantra-like repetition by ‘DPR leaders’ that they are “defending” the Russian language stems from Russia’s narrative about the war in Donbas being “in defence of Russian speakers”. Russia has constantly pushed the line that Russian speakers faced persecution and restrictions in Crimea and Donbas, Unless you consider it ‘persecution’ that citizens of a country learn the state language of that country, this was never the case. In both Crimea and Donbas, Russian was commonly and completely freely used in both private and official communication.
It was the Ukrainian language that immediately came under attack as soon as Russia took actual or effective control, as well as Ukrainian history and culture. It was reported by the generally Kremlin-loyal ‘Vzglyad’ newspaper back in June 2017 that ‘DPR’ had totally gone over to Russian-language classes. It was claimed, of course, that the teaching of Ukrainian for one hour a week, if at all, in occupied Crimea or Donbas was due to lack of demand.
A study carried out by Dmitry Durnev in September 2019 pointed out that, although Ukrainian was still (then) given as the second ‘state language’ after Russian in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’, no official proceedings were carried out in Ukrainian. After a transitional phase from 2014 to 2016, all Ukrainian schools and classes were already in Russian.
Durnev spoke with several teachers, including some who are currently teaching in Donbas schools. All agreed to speak with him only on strict condition that their names were concealed, and voices on recordings distorted.
Tatyana is now a former teacher of junior classes, and has left Donetsk, but she still insisted on total anonymity and voice distortion, as she does visit occupied territory. She says that they were able to finish the fourth grade still in Ukrainian, however after that, there was no choice, they simply had to go over to Russian. Older teachers of Ukrainian Language and Literature in senior classes simply lost their jobs. Other teachers of all subjects were given the option of retraining to teach in Russian. In 2015, they received textbooks with the syllabus now according to ‘School of Russia’ The only exception is Nature Studies, where instead of learning about nature in Russia, they study the nature in Donbas. The one hour a week the children have of Ukrainian is divided in half between language and reading literature. Tatyana mentions that there are five hours of Russian language, but this, of course, is in addition to all the classes taking place in Russian. An additional compulsory subject, entitled ‘civic awareness and spirituality of Donbas’ has been introduced. She adds that ‘patriotism’ is also given a huge amount of attention, with the first lesson of the school year entitled ‘Five years of DPR – we grow together with the republic’. “We were told that if it’s impossible to replace some topic about Ukraine by Donetsk or Donbas, then we should change it to any other about our own area”.
Durnev says that in both unrecognized ‘republics’, a system of education has been created since 2014 that is based on the Russian grading system and on the Russian textbooks which Russia transported to occupied Donbas in its so-called ‘humanitarian convoys’. The said convoys are illegal, and there are grounds, including boasts from the militants themselves, for believing that they have often carried weapons. Given the acute need for all kinds of basic items, it is also typical that they should have instead brought books aimed at strengthening its grasp and influence over Donbas.
Students can later travel to Rostov-on-Don (across the uncontrolled border into Russia) and take Russian matriculation exams. There are special quotas for students from Donbas to enter Russian universities. What is significantly harder is for these young Ukrainians to pass the Ukrainian school-leaving exams and compete for a place in Ukrainian universities. There are concessions for young students from Donbas, but they will need to have separately studied Ukrainian to an adequate level, getting additional tuition in both the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history.
Another teacher, still working in Donetsk, told Durnev that the situation now reminds her of 1984 when she had first begun teaching. In the Russian-controlled ‘republic’, there is the same amount of Russian in secondary schools as during Soviet times (6-7 hours a week of Russian language and literature).
Durney says that, while there is very little commercial advertising in Donetsk, you can find political agitation about the ‘republic’ everywhere. A recent study also found that disinformation about Ukraine in the so-called ‘republics’, with most of the favourites for fake news the same as in the Russian state-controlled media. If in 2017, 11% of content constituted disinformation, in April 2019 21% of ‘news’ about Ukraine was of dubious accuracy or outright fakes or disinformation.
Such a high level of disinformation is of major concern given that the vast majority of people in these areas have no access to Ukrainian media. One of the first things that happened as soon as the Russian and pro-Russian militants seized control of an area in 2014 was that Ukrainian television channels were taken off air, with Russian or militant channels using the frequencies. A large number of Ukrainian Internet sites, especially the ones like News of Donbas that report honestly on events in the ‘republics’ are blocked. This means that the population in occupied Donbas are receiving information from channels that are overtly propagandist and anti-Ukrainian, while children are growing up on the aggressor state’s textbooks and dangerous fiction about essentially fake ‘republics’.