"I would learn Russian if only..." How the Russian authorities turned the Ukrainian language into “second class”

In Ukrainian schools, teachers of the Russian language and literature were considered a privileged caste. Even higher than history teachers. History was considered mainly an ideological discipline at school. "Historians" also taught the course "Fundamentals of the state and law". They were, traditionally, leaders of Communist party cells at schools.

Translated by Dmitry Lytov & Mike Lytov

Читати українською

Many Ukrainians who graduated from Soviet schools remember Russian language and literature teachers: they dressed better than others, were more relaxed and even, one might say, "free-thinking", as long as it did not concern Ukrainian identity. Only the teachers of Russian had the unspoken right during the lesson to deviate from the plan and talk about irrelevant topics, but only in the key of dominance of all Russians over Ukrainians. My Russian literature teacher, for example, loved to reason about the inferiority and awkwardness of classical Ukrainian literature. The latter was all about the village and the villagers, while the great Russian literature featured aristocrats, balls and palaces... Oh yes, Rodion Raskolnikov killed an old lady with an ax, but it all happened in the scenery of the imperial capital Petersburg, not on a shabby farm.

If our Ukrainian teacher, dear Raisa Oleksandrivna, would suddenly allow herself such statements about Russian classics, I wonder how quickly she would be kicked out of school and blacklisted by the ministry of education?

Ukrainian teachers were generally afraid to deviate even a step away from the official regulations, because it would result in quite unpleasant accusations of "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism". My impression may be subjective, but the way I saw the unspoken Soviet school hierarchy, the Ukrainian teachers were only superior to those of labor training, and in Russian schools they were even lower.

Once our Russian teacher visited Lviv and spent the entire lesson sharing her impressions, instead of talking about the mandatory and boring unlucky lover Onegin or the poor dog Moo-Moo. If you thought that she talked about the beauty of the city and its amazing sights, then you assumed wrong. Her main impression from the trip was the tombstone on the grave of the editor-in-chief of the Vilna Ukraina newspaper (“The Free Ukraine”, an official Communist newspaper of the city and the region), which she saw in the famous Lychakiv cemetery.

"What kind of "Free Ukraine" can there be in our time?” she was furious. “This is undisguised Banderism! There can be no “free Ukraine” in the USSR!"

She spent the next 30 minutes lecturing us about the crimes of supporters of Stepan Bandera, then Symon Petliura and back into the ages until the “traitor” Mazepa also got his share of criticism.

The golden age of the Russifiers

On November 2, 1978, the Council of Ministers of Soviet Ukraine adopted a resolution "On measures to further improve the study and teaching of the Russian language in the Ukrainian SSR." As a result, expenditures on the promotion of the Russian language, on the technical support of Russian language classrooms, departments in universities, extending the number and quality of teachers, studying the Russian language in Ukrainian schools from the first grade, etc., were significantly increased. If you are interested in the details, you can find them here — the document is published on the legislation archive on the website of the Verkhovna Rada.

A few years later, on May 26, 1983, the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopted a joint resolution "On additional measures to study the Russian language in general education schools and other educational institutions of the Union republics." Two weeks later, a similar document was jointly adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR, and the Ministry of Education of the Ukrainian SSR approved "Additional measures to improve the study of the Russian language in comprehensive schools, pedagogical educational institutions, preschool and extra-curricular institutions of the republic."

In particular, this document provided: "Effective 1984, to increase by 15% the salary rates of teachers of preparatory and grades I-III who conduct classes on the Russian language, teachers of the Russian language and literature of grades IV-X (XI) of secondary schools and boarding schools, teachers of the Russian language and literature of all types and titles of professional and secondary special educational institutions with a non-Russian language of instruction, located in rural areas and in urban-type settlements."

Effective 1984, to increase by 15% the salary rates of teachers... who conduct classes

Translated from bureaucratic to human: villages and small district centers, which have not yet been sufficiently Russified, should be Russified as soon as possible, and Russifying teachers should receive additional payment for this.

It was also planned to increase expenses for the publication of educational, methodical and fiction literature in Russian and a number of organizational measures.

As if it was not enough, incentives were provided even for students of pedagogical faculties. In particular, annual expenses in the amount of 357,000 Soviet rubles were planned for the payment of increased scholarships to students in the specialty "Russian language and literature".

There is information that additional payments were received by Russian teachers not only in remote villages of Ukraine, but also in large cities.

It is noteworthy that the practice of surcharges was not invented by the Communists, “progressive” by definition, but was borrowed from the experience of the “reactionary” imperial Russia. Such payments to Russifying teachers were actively practiced at least at the beginning of the 20th century.

In particular, the famous film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko shares in his letter to Yaryna Koval, a resident of Glukhiv, his memories of studying in her native town:

"I remember Glukhiv and my romantic youth...the teacher's institute. It appears now before my eyes quite vividly, white, clean, with ubiquitous roses and garden paths sprinkled with yellow sand... We were trained as teachers - the future leaders of the region’s Russification. Later on, some bonuses were added to the salary of those working in the Kyiv, Podilsk and Volyn regions, some eighteen rubles a month - for the Russification of those lands."

18 silver rubles was a considerable sum in imperial Russia. In particular, as of 1913, a pound (a little less than half a kilogram) of the highest quality boneless sirloin only cost 20-22 kopecks (translator’s note: which makes 18 imperial rubles roughly equal to 900 US dollars).

In 1988, the author became a student at the Maxim Gorky Pedagogical Institute in Kyiv. Currently, it is the National Pedagogical University named after M.P. Drahomanov. At that time, a radical educational reform was taking place in the USSR, and teachers' salaries were almost doubled.

Accordingly, competition among applicants to pedagogical institutes was high; after all, a graduate of a polytechnical school could barely expect a salary of 120 Soviet rubles monthly, while a fresh teacher would receive from 180 to 220, quite a decent amount for that time (Translator’s note: during the last decade of the USSR, the Soviet ruble cost much lower than its imperial counterpart, and was not freely convertible, which makes a direct comparison quite tricky; a sirloin was harder to get, but a lot of other goods were more affordable; however, teachers had a lot of other bonuses and privileges back then, including the shorter waiting lines for free apartments from the government). And last but not least, teaching meant the three magic words: June, July and August (the combined vacation and “prep” period).

The faculties of history were the most wanted among the applicants. It was not because of a great love for history. This specialization was "ideological", and graduates had good prospects for a career in the Young Communist League, the Party, trade unions or Soviet bodies. Not to forget the KGB, which also recruited personnel there. In second place was the department of Russian language and literature of the Faculty of Philology, for the obvious reason of the bonuses already discussed above.

Meanwhile, the competition for Ukrainian philology was only barely higher than for the department of general technical disciplines, where labor teachers were trained. The latter was considered a place for losers.

A "thaw" but not for the language

But the Russians dealt the biggest blow to the Ukrainian school earlier, during the short-lived “thaw” (liberalization) under Nikita Khrushchev. On December 24, 1958, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted the law "On strengthening the connection between school and life and on the further development of the education system in the USSR." However, the language issue was not raised in the all-Union law. It was more about the importance of labor education and the acquisition of working professions by students during their studies at school.

The All-Union law had to be implemented in respective acts of the Union republics. In April 1959, the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR adopted the Law "On strengthening the connection between school and life and on the further development of the public education system in the Ukrainian SSR". It almost completely repeated the all-Union one, but also had certain peculiarities. In particular, Article 9 reads:

"Education in Ukrainian PCP schools is carried out in the students' native language. Parents decide which language to send their children to school in (highlighted by TEXTY)."

Almost immediately, the number of Ukrainian schools began to rapidly decrease. This was facilitated by purposeful administrative measures and the general language situation in the USSR. At that time, Russian already dominated higher education and social life. Accordingly, graduates of Ukrainian-speaking schools were obviously in a less competitive position compared to graduates of Russian-speaking schools. And the connection between the mastery of the official language and the possibilities of material or symbolic success was quite visible.

The promotion of elitism and the demonstration of the dominant role of Russians and everything Russian is clearly visible on Soviet propaganda posters dedicated to the "friendship of peoples". The characters symbolizing the union republics usually wear ethnic costumes, which was often far from reality. Meanwhile, the guy who embodies Russia wears a suit and tie. Quite often, ethnic characters carry gifts symbolizing the republic: an Estonian - fish, an Uzbek - cotton, a Tajik - a melon, a Georgian - grapes, etc. And the Russian (in a tie) is either not holding anything in his hands, or is holding a notebook, like a colonial administrator.

The characters symbolizing the union republics usually wear ethnic costumes, while, the guy who embodies Russia wears a suit and tie.

One more fact is important. Russified Uzbeks, Armenians, Jews, Georgians and others were still considered "a different sort", while Russified Ukrainians and Belarusians easily passed into the ranks of full-fledged Russians. That is, they became representatives of the ruling nation.

In large cities, almost everyone who consciously and persistently communicated in Ukrainian was considered either a Ukrainian teacher or a suspicious person. "People in civilian clothes" often had friendly conversations with such people on the topic "Why did you name your son Taras, it's a nationalist name?".

Soviet propaganda posters about "friendship of peoples"
Soviet propaganda posters about "friendship of peoples"

The reverse process began somewhere from the beginning of the 2000s, when fluency in Ukrainian became a bonus both in employment and in business or the career of a civil servant and politician.

At the time of the adoption of the "Law on strengthening the connection between school and life" in the Ukrainian SSR, there were 25,400 Ukrainian-language schools and only 4,049 Russian-language schools, that is, six times less. But in reality, everything was not so rosy. Ukrainian schools had 3.5 million students, while Russian schools had 1.5 million. That is, the difference in students was only a little more than twice as much. This numerical phenomenon can be easily explained. Small rural schools remained mainly Ukrainian-speaking. On the other hand, large schools in economically prolific cities were completely Russian-speaking.

For example, in the city of Stalino (Donetsk) 98% of students studied in Russian schools, in Kharkiv - 87%, in Odesa - 87%,

Even in the capital Kyiv, almost two-thirds of students studied in Russian. After giving parents the right to choose the language of instruction, the number of Russian schools began to grow rapidly.

the Ukrainian schools of the "first capital of the Ukrainian SSR" were only located in the working-class suburbs, they were openly considered "lower class". The downtown schools were all Russian.

Speaking of Kharkiv... My mom recalls that back in her childhood, the Ukrainian schools of the "first capital of the Ukrainian SSR" were only located in the working-class suburbs, they were openly considered "lower class". The downtown schools were all Russian.

The accelerated suppression of Ukrainian schools was also facilitated by adoption of a new party program at the XXII Congress of the CPSU (1961 p.), where "the party solemnly proclaims: the current generation of Soviet people will live under Communism!"

The way to the shining era of Communism required a steady erasure of ethnic differences, especially linguistic ones, and a gradual rapprochement of the nations and nationalities of the USSR and their merging into a single "Soviet people."

However, there was nothing new in this. Back in 1930, speaking at the 16th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolsheviks), Joseph Stalin called: "Create conditions for their [ethnic groups of the USSR] merger into one common culture with a single common language."

Although the party program stated that this process would be long and gradual, many party functionaries immediately wanted to spur, as Mayakovsky once wrote, "the mare of history" and report on their contribution to the approaching victory of Communism.

"A selective language course" of Brezhnev's time

Another key point in the Russification of schools was the adoption of the "Fundamentals of the Legislation of the USSR and the Union Republics on Public Education", approved by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on July 19, 1973. In particular, this document enshrined the freedom to choose the language of instruction already at the all-Union level:

"Students of general education schools are given the opportunity to study in their native language or the language of another nation of the USSR. Parents or persons replacing them have the right to choose for their children a school with the appropriate language of instruction."

The key phrase here is: "…are given the opportunity".

Whether to use this opportunity or not is secondary. If they want to use it - well, what can we do about it? But if they don’t, that's great!

If the "Fundamentals of Legislation" only declared the fundamental possibility of choosing to study in one's native language, then the command of the Russian language as a means of international communication was prescribed rather rigidly, it was already demanded.

And the icing on the cake is the new (Brezhnev’s) Constitution of the USSR. Whereas Stalin’s Constitution of 1936 guaranteed "education in schools in the mother tongue" (Article 121), the Constitution of 1977 only promised "the possibility of education in the mother tongue" (Article 45).

Again, we only had an opportunity to take advantage of it. But not necessarily.

At a time when it seemed that the Ukrainian language had already been completely pushed to the margins of life, as a child I got into “Moloda Hvardiia” ("The Young Guard") pioneer camp, the most prestigious children’s vacation camp of Soviet Ukraine (not counting Artek in Crimea, which was of all-Union importance). It was September 1980, and the pioneers were going to study at the camp school. If the aforementioned Russian teacher humiliated only Ukrainian literature, then the Russian teacher there liked to make fun of the "language of villagers" itself. She claimed that the language was rustic, stupid and weak: "Just compare: "Potemkinskaya lestnitsa" (Potemkin’s stairs in Russian) and "Potemkins’ka drabyna” (Potemkin’s ladder in Ukrainian)," he joked. "Isn’t it funny!? Ha ha ha! Or how will Ukrainians translate Pushkin’s verse “Shall I be pierced with an arrow?”They’ll translate it as “Will I be poked with a crowbar?” Ha ha ha!”

(Translator’s note: if the joke does not make sense to you, don’t worry about it; it’s not the difficulty of translation, it’s really something hard to explain. Perhaps you can imagine, with your perfect English, listening to someone speaking the Caribbean or Indian dialects of English, which is still kind of “English too” and kind of comprehensible, but… then you will understand the attitude of some Russian teachers to Ukrainian and Belarussian, still “brotherly” but otherwise apparently incorrect and redundant in their eyes).

the Russian teacher there liked to make fun of the "language of villagers" itself

Considering that the Young Guard camp was a structure of the Central Committee of the Young Communist League of Ukraine, and the staff was closely supervised by the KGB, the topics of the jokes should have been approved in advance.

Not to forget that the Young Guard itself was a powerful Russification tool. Just imagine. Some of the children come here from remote villages. And here they see the sea, the sun, interesting excursions, life is an ongoing party... And most importantly, everything is in Russian. Which develops a reflex, like that of Pavlov's dogs, that the Russian language and the bright parties go together...

From "internationalism" to the "older brother"

The ostensible internationalism was one of the main pillars of Soviet ideology until the bankruptcy of the Communist regime and the collapse of the USSR. In fact, the international-cosmopolitan ideology was professed only in the first decade of Bolshevik rule.

The situation began to change in 1925, when the 14th Congress of the Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolsheviks) adopted the course towards building socialism in a single country. An important fact is that the congress began its work as a forum of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and ended up rebranding to the All-Union one... The formation of a separate party in the RSFSR was then declared "a huge damage", since "in fact, it would mean the existence of two central governing bodies, because the specific weight of the Russian part in the party of union significance is self-evident."

It actually meant equalization of the Soviet Union to Russia. While the ethnic republics continued implementing "indigenization" for another decade (in Ukraine it was "Ukrainization"), the very logic of the process has already brought the "older brother" to the front.

The Russian-Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who always had a keen sense of the political situation, promptly noticed the trend. In 1927, he wrote the poem "To Our Youth", a quote from which later decorated every school class of Russian language and literature.

Let me remind you that in this work the proletarian poet is indignant that "the Kazan Academy corresponds in French with that of Tiflis", and calls out: "Comrades, young men, look at Moscow, sharpen your ears to Russian! Even if I were a Black man of old age, I would abandon my bad mood and laziness, and I would learn Russian only because Lenin spoke it."

A frame from an educational film featuring the monument to Lenin, which stood in Kyiv near Besarabka marketplace. The campaign of “toppling the Lenins” began with its demolition in 2014.
A frame from an educational film featuring the monument to Lenin, which stood in Kyiv near Besarabka marketplace. The campaign of “toppling the Lenins” began with its demolition in 2014.

It is noteworthy that Soviet propaganda called the republics of the USSR "sisters", while the Russian people were their "older brother". That is, the subordinate "feminine" element against the dominant "masculine".

In the end, "indigenization" was successfully curtailed, the Ukrainian renaissance later became known to historians as the "one that was shot down", and the Ukrainianization was replaced by a not very gentle Russification.

Later, "Soviet internationalism" became synonymous with Russian imperialism.

The Ukrainization process was halted in 1932-1933. The final point on "indigenization" (which was never officially canceled) was put in 1938 with adoption of the joint resolution of the Council of People's Commissars (the Soviet Government) and the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Ukraine (b) "On compulsory study of the Russian language in schools of the ethnic republics and regions", according to which In the 1938/39 academic year, compulsory study of the Russian language was introduced in all schools of the USSR.

In the Ukrainian SSR, this was followed with Resolution # 331 of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian SSR "On Supplementing the Resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars and the Central Committee of the CP(b)U" dated April 20, 1938 "On Compulsory Study of the Russian Language in Non-Russian Schools of Ukraine". According to this document, the study of the Russian language was to begin already from the 2nd grade.

I started reading at the age of 6. By the end of the first grade, I read quite fluently in Ukrainian and Russian. On my first summer vacation, I even read a book about Winnie the Pooh (in the Russian adaptation). Taking into account the annual summer visits to my grandmother in the Russian-speaking Kharkiv, I was the only one in class who spoke Russian fluently.

September 1974. The first lesson of the Russian language for second-graders. I feel like the king's best man and the smartest - because I can read Russian fluently, and I even know Lermontov's "Borodino" by heart. At that time, I liked not only the warlike content of this work, but above all the numerous illustrations with guns, lancers, soldiers in shakos with bayonets at the ready and other military stuff that boys love so much.

The teacher, the same one who was later outraged by "Free Ukraine", began her first lesson with a story about the importance of the Russian language, which is absolutely indispensable in life, and then began ... a dictation. At the next lesson, she returned my notebook marked with a fat “2”. I should be kind of pleased as all the others got “1"s (Translator’s note: the Soviet marks 2 and 1 are roughly equivalent to D and F in the Canadian and US systems).

For me, such a "pedagogical technique" is still a mystery. How can the teacher give bad marks for knowledge that she has not even tried to provide before? Especially to children who have just turned 7-8 years old?

I suspect that “our dear teacher" wanted to show the students their lack of knowledge of the "great Russian language"...

The trauma of this experience is evidenced by the fact that the author of these lines managed to get many other bad marks during his 10 years of school, but it is this one that he remembers even after half a century.

But let's go back to the 1930s

In 1938, the Central Committee of the CP(b)U adopted a resolution "On the reorganization of national schools in Ukraine." They meant schools of national minorities, of which there were many at that time. At the beginning of the 1930s, there were 3,564 "ethnic" schools in Ukraine. With Russian language of instruction – 1539, Jewish (Yiddish, not Hebrew) – 786, German – 628, Polish – 381, Bulgarian – 100, Moldavian – 16, Tatar – 8. There were even two schools where exotic Assyrian was taught. According to this resolution, all this international diversity was promptly reorganized into either Russian or general Ukrainian schools.

During the time of "Father of the nation Stalin", teachers of Russian language and literature in Ukraine did not get any special treatment. Their only visible privilege was that, unlike their colleagues, they couldn’t really be arrested for Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism, and were only sent to GULAGs from time to time for espionage in favor of remote states, like Japan.

It began at the time of Tsar Peter

Moscow started the process of Russification of Ukraine back in 1689, when the Orthodox Church Convention in Moscow recognized as "non-Orthodox" the works of a number of Ukrainian scholars: Archimandrite Ioannikiy (Galyatovsky), Abbot Anthony Radyvylovsky, Archbishop Lazar (Luka Baranovych), Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and many others.

The Trebnyk (a prayer book) by Petro Mohyla, in particular, was labeled as "full of insidious Latin teaching", while all other works of Ukrainian scholars were considered "…newly invented, and do not agree with each other, and although many of them are called sweet names, but all, even the best, contain the depressing poison of Latin ingenuity and innovation."

Accordingly, all this filth written in the old Ukrainian "bookish" language had to be removed and destroyed...

However, the emphasis was mainly not on the language, but on the content.

The language was mentioned when the Senate decree of 1720 forbade the printing of church books in the annexed Ukrainian territories in the Old Ukrainian language, and allowed only Russian: "so that there would be no differences and special dialect in them"... Then it went on further and further. We will not give the entire list - it is regularly mentioned in almost all publications discussing the destruction of the Ukrainian language by Russian authorities.

And finally

While in the 1930s, the authorities had to send Russian language teachers from the territory of Russia, later, using the fruits of the assimilation of previous generations, the candidates to continue the process were trained already on the ground.

Everyone has probably heard the aphorism attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "The enemy goes where the teacher and the priest lose." This quote has been circulating social media for a good decade. The Iron Chancellor didn't actually say that, but the point is valid.

It can be continued: "If the enslaver wants to establish himself in a certain territory, he brings his enemy teacher and his enemy priest to it."

We see a vivid illustration of this in the last 8 years. Unfortunately, it was the Russified teachers, together with the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, who found themselves in the first ranks of collaborators and traitors. In particular, the pseudo-referendums of 2014 in the territories occupied by the Russians were most often held precisely with the assistance of educators. But already in 2022, the majority of teachers, especially young ones, either actively resisted or simply avoided collaboration. Which cannot help but make me smile.

ukrainian language russian language school history eng Ukraine

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