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Ukrainian vs. Russian language: two tongues divide former Soviet republic

Ukraine's state language is Ukrainian. But 1 in 3 citizens of the former Soviet republic is a native Russian language speaker. The result is what locals call the 'Kiev compromise.'

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Supporters of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, just ousted from parliament, protest at another court in Kiev. Ms. Tymoshenko was a booster of a ‘Ukrainian first’ language policy which advocates for Ukranian over the Russian language.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

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They call it the “Kiev compromise,” and it works like this:

Two people meet and one begins talking in his or her preferred language – say, Ukrainian. The other responds in Russian, and the conversation takes off, going back and forth, seemingly without missing a beat. If you didn’t listen closely, you might never guess that there are two distinctly different languages in play.

That compromise, as a stroll down any Kiev (Kyiv) avenue will confirm, is a mundane reality. It holds true across large swaths of central Ukraine. Head west, and Ukrainian gradually becomes the only language you hear. To the east or south, it’s Russian that heavily dominates. Ask any Kievan what he or she thinks about it and you’re liable to get a live-and-let-live sort of shrug, with the answer that they really don’t think about it much at all. It’s just part of getting along.

Not so for politicians, who rate language as one of Ukraine’s most divisive issues. The Constitution cites one state language, Ukrainian, but demographics show that 1 in 3 Ukrainians is a native Russian speaker, and about half say Russian is their first language. Political groups have sprung up to advocate on both sides.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko leaned toward the nationalist point of view, and Russian-speaking groups assailed him angrily for decrees that ordered Ukrainian as the sole language to be used in courts, state service, and academia. Mr. Yushchenko, a fluent speaker of Russian, famously made his point during visits to Moscow by conversing with his Kremlin counterpart only through an interpreter.

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