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Ukraine is Winning on the Linguistic Battle Front

Many Ukrainians are persuaded that their language is dying out. Many Russians and Russian speakers believe Ukrainian is incapable of serving as a means of sophisticated communication among educated urban dwellers.

Both are wrong. In fact, the Ukrainian language may be doing far better than its supporters and detractors suspect.

Forget the statistics, which are useful but cannot capture what is really taking place on the ground. Instead, take a look at the remarkable growth of the YE chain of bookstores in Ukraine.

YE—written Є in Ukrainian—means “it is” or “there is,” a boldly self-assertive claim that the Ukrainian language, despite the insistence of Russian chauvinists since tsarist times that “it never was, is not, or will be,” in fact IS.

YE is unique in that it specializes in Ukrainian-language books. A few shelves might offer some Russian- and English-language products, but easily 95 percent of all the books YE sells are in Ukrainian. In most of Ukraine’s bookstores, the proportion is likely to be tilted in favor of Russian-language books, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

For years, detractors of Ukrainian argued that bookstores were acting rationally, on the grounds that there was no demand for Ukrainian-language books. Indeed, how could there be demand for a peasant tongue and dialect of Russian? YE, the brainchild of Ukrainian journalist Yuri Makarov and Austria’s ECEM Media GmBH, decisively proved them wrong. (ECEM also publishes the thriving Ukrainian- and English-language weekly, Ukrainian Week.)

YE’s first bookstore opened on December 21, 2007 in Kyiv, behind the Opera House. Today, just 8 ½ years later, YE boasts 20 bookstores: seven in Kyiv, two apiece in Lviv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro (the former Dnipropetrovsk), and one apiece in Ivano-Frankivsk, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Volodymyr-Volynsky, Rivne, Lutsk, and Khmelnytsky.

The geographic distribution is significant. Seven stores are located in western Ukraine (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Volodymyr-Volynsky, Rivne, Lutsk), where one expects demand for Ukrainian-language product to be highest. But nine are in central Ukraine (Kyiv city, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytsky). And—most impressive—four are in eastern Ukraine (Kharkiv, Dnipro), where, according to legend, no one cares to use Ukrainian. The seven in capital city Kyiv are also striking, as the language one hears on its streets is overwhelmingly Russian.

Clearly, Ukrainian-language books sell and can sell. Moreover, they sell even during times of extreme economic distress: YE opened several bookstores in the last two years, at just the time that Ukraine’s GDP was contracting by about a fifth.

The message should be obvious: Ukrainians very much want to read books in their own language. Unsurprisingly, a large, and growing, number of publishers have emerged in recent years to meet that demand.

The implications of YE’s success are clear. For starters, Ukrainians want the Ukrainian language and demand for Ukrainian-language products is high, perhaps even being what economists call “inelastic,” remaining high despite rising costs and growing economic distress. Moreover, although demand is higher in the west, it’s highest in Kyiv and quite respectable in the east.

But the most important implication is this: If Ukrainians want Ukrainian-language books, is it plausible to think that they do not want Ukrainian-language newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and film?

YE’s success proves that Ukraine is, despite the indifference of its ruling elites, the hostility of Russian nationalists, and the opposition of Russia, experiencing a grassroots, creeping Ukrainization. That’s the most effective kind of linguistic change: from below. It takes time, and it annoys linguistic purists and radicals, but its major advantage is that it sticks.

And creeping Ukrainization heralds Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare: Ukraine’s eventual separation from Russia, not just politically and economically, both also linguistically and culturally.

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