My old university friend Bill Szuch, now producer of the UkeTube channel, has posted online a few snippets of a lecture at Chautauqua by historian Timothy Snyder. I think it is fair to say that Snyder and I have very different views of the conflict in Ukraine. He has acquired a reputation as one of the more outspoken supporters of the Maidan revolution and as a fierce opponent of ‘Russian aggression’. He says a lot of silly things, in my opinion, but in this segment he outdoes himself. For according to Snyder, Ukraine ‘is the one country in Europe which is actually a bilingual political society’, and ‘There is no other bilingual capital in Europe’ other than Kiev.
The first statement will come as something of a surprise to the Swiss, who have a trilingual political society, with German, French, and Italian all having equal status at the level of the federal government (Romansh has a somewhat lower status). It will also surprise the good citizens of Luxembourg who likewise speak three languages (German, French, and Luxembourgish), and those of Malta (where 100% of the population speaks Maltese, 88% of the population speaks English, and 66% speaks Italian), as well as those of Belgium (French, Flemish, and German, although the first two dominate).
As for capital cities, the inhabitants of the City of Luxembourg might be excused for being a little offended by Snyder’s denial of their multilingual status. The same is true for Riga (somewhere between 30 and 50% Russian-speaking depending on which statistics you look at, and with a Russian-speaking mayor), and Tallinn (a little under 40% Russian-speaking). And if you want to bring capital cities of national autonomous regions into the picture, then Barcelona, a city in which almost everybody is fluent in both Catalan and Spanish, surely counts too.
Snyder remarks that in Kiev you can order a coffee in Ukrainian and be answered in Ukrainian, or order it in Russian and be answered in Russian. I’ve never actually tried ordering coffee in Flemish in Brussels (80% French-speaking and 20% Flemish speaking), but I doubt that you would encounter too many problems. Moreover, Brussels is officially bilingual. All signs and public services are in both languages. The same is true of the city of my youth – Cardiff (89% English-speaking, 11% Welsh-speaking). To be fair, if you tried asking for a ‘mwg o goffi’ in Cardiff city centre, the barista would quite probably stare at you in an odd way. But out on the streets you’ll find all the signs are in Welsh. The city is quite energetically bilingual.
Back when we were students, Bill introduced me to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s Politics of Recognition. A lot of political strife is not about material objectives, but about a desire for official recognition of one’s self-perceived identity. Contrary to Snyder’s assertion, bilingual or multilingual political societies are actually quite common in Europe, as indeed they are elsewhere in the world (Canada and Kazakhstan come immediately to mind). Moreover, those countries enjoy a major advantage over Ukraine in that the various languages of political society are officially recognized and protected by law. This is not the case in Ukraine. ‘Multinational societies can break up,’ writes Taylor,’ in large part because of a lack of (perceived) recognition of the equal worth of one group by another.’ Ukraine is a case in point.