Staunton, November 14 – Renewed calls by some Ukrainians to shift the alphabet of their national language from one based on Cyrillic characters to a Latin-based script in order to escape from the influence of Moscow and be closer to the West has infuriated Russian nationalists, who say that there is no chance Ukraine will ever take this step.
Last weekend, on the occasion of the Day of Ukrainian Writing and Language, a group of intellectuals and activists in Lviv met to discuss the possibility of shifting from a Cyrillic to a Latin script, an idea with deep roots in that part of Ukraine which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that has gained support in Kyiv in the last two decades.
The idea which was widely discussed in the 1990s and during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko resurfaced again earlier this year during discussions of the status of Russian in Ukraine. But the Lviv session has raised the issue again and in a way that has infuriated many in Moscow.
The participants in the Lviv meeting said they were advocating the shift because “the Cyrillic script divides us from Europe and keeps us closer to Russia,” a “civilizational” argument that echoes those many Bolsheviks used in the 1920s when they introduced Latin scripts on many minority peoples and even called for such a step for Russians and Ukrainians.
But just as when Stalin reversed that pattern in the late 1930s and imposed a Cyrillic script even on those peoples his regime had earlier developed Latin scripts for, suggestions that Ukrainians should take that step to bring them closer to Europe, the latest Ukrainian discussions have sparked an intensely negative reaction among Russian nationalists.
The latter see such civilizational arguments as anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian and thus yet another form of treasonous behavior by a fellow Slavic people that must be opposed and rejected.
Some of the Russian arguments are practical. Psycholinguist Dmitry Petrov argues that “a transition to the Latin script will not make the use of the language easier because in the Latin script there are many fewer letters than in Cyrillic and consequently those using the Latin script would have to come up with letter combinations to fill the gap.”
Moreover, he points out, such a shift would require the training of a new generation of teachers, be very expensive, and almost certainly would reduce literacy for a significant period and perhaps alienate some Ukrainians of the older generation from reading newspapers, magazines, and books altogether.
And he and others note that several Orthodox peoples have even joined the European Union without giving up their own national scripts, so that even the argument that Ukraine needs to adopt the script of the West to do so is without foundation.
Others are ideological: Ukrainians should reject this idea because the Bolsheviks supported it, something that should be in and of itself enough to see it would be a mistake. Early party leaders like Bukharin and Lunacharsky pushed it to as a way to end the backwardness of Russia and promote the revolutionary struggle.
They won the day in the 1920s for the non-Russian languages – by the early 1930s, 17 Muslim nationalities had been given a Latin script in place of a Perso-Arabic one, and by 1936, a total of 68 languages in the USSR had been given Latin scripts. Efforts to change Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian, however, were put off, largely because of cost.
(In 1936, however, Stalin reversed course and declared that “the enemies of Soviet power and the VKP(b) have sought to use Latinization in order to split the toilers of these republics and oblasts from the common family of the USSR. Covering themselves with talk about ‘the international character’ of Latin scripts, they are oriented toward the bourgeois culture of Western Europe in opposition to the developing culture, national in form and socialist in content,” in the Soviet Union.)
Current Russian objections to the Latin script for Ukrainians – or for anyone else in the former Soviet space, for that matter – echo those of Stalin but go beyond the Soviet dictator’s arguments to what might be called a historiosophic plane.
According to Russian nationalists, the difference between Cyrillic and Latin scripts traces its origin to the differences between the Latin Catholic West and the Cyrillic Orthodox East. In the former, holy texts were kept in Latin even as nations developed their vernacular languages. In the latter, the national languages were developed by the church and thus must be retained to defend against the Catholic West.
In the words of one Russian critic of the Lviv meeting, anyone who considers what its participants are pushing will have “the impression that he or she has fallen back into the distant 1930s. The very same arguments in favor – ‘approaching the civilized West.’ And the very same enemies – ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ and Orthodoxy.”