Heartland Of Ukrainian Nationalism, Lviv Speaks Russian, For A Day, To Ease East-West Divide

Claire Bigg
 and 
Halyna Tereshchuk
Demonstrators hold banners reading "Lviv speaks Russian language today!" at a rally near the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 26.

Demonstrators hold banners reading "Lviv speaks Russian language today!" at a rally near the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 26.

After keeping much of the world spellbound for months, Ukraine's Euromaidan revolt shows it can still yield surprises.

In the wake of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster, residents in the western city of Lviv -- a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism -- have unexpectedly come out in support of Ukraine's Russian-speakers. Many locals are angry at the newly emboldened parliament for scrapping a Yanukovych-era law that recognizes Russian as an official regional language.

They warn against fuelling tensions in the already bitterly divided country and watch the rise of the ultranationalist Svoboda party -- a key player in the antigovernment protests and the driving force behind the decision to repeal the so-called Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law -- with wariness.

Many Lviv residents have chosen to voice solidarity with Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions by switching to Russian for one day on February 26.

LIVE BLOG: Crisis In Ukraine

Local blogger Volodymyr Behlov, the man behind the initiative, told RFE/RL: "We came up with this scheme to show that issues related to language and ethnicity are not popular right now, not only in the country's east but also in the west, in Lviv -- a city that has always fought for all things Ukrainian. We support serious decisions that will change the government system, but we are against such brash initiatives by our lawmakers."

'Division And Unnecessary Discord'

Flyers have appeared throughout the city calling on residents to "speak in Russian at home, at work, in public transport, with friends -- everywhere" on February 26. "Lviv supports new Verkhovna Rada elections," the flyers read, "not the exploitation of language and national issues."

A group of prominent Lviv luminaries have written an open letter urging Ukraine's interim leaders to refrain from "hasty and ill-considered decisions." Their statement calls on the authorities to use restraint and warns against "the persecution of people because of where they live and in which language they communicate."

The signatories also note that Russians, Poles, Belarusians, Armenians, Georgians, and others stood alongside Ukrainians during the Euromaidan protests that led to Yanukovych's ouster.

A local publisher has chosen to protest the parliament' decision by producing a book in Russian, the first in its 11-year existence. The Old Lion publishing house says the book -- a collection of short stories penned by an author based in the southern city of Odesa, illustrated by an artist from the eastern city of Kharkiv, and printed in Kharkiv -- is intended to symbolize Ukrainian unity.

"The decision to repeal the language law is premature," editor in chief Maryana Savka says. "Instead of healing society, it divides it and sparks unnecessary discord."

The publishing house has sustained some criticism from Lviv's most virulent, pro-Ukrainian nationalists. But director Mykola Sheiko says the initiative has generally met with public support in Lviv. "Of course, there are some people who have called us 'titushky,' traitors, defenders of the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law," he says. "But what's important is that the majority of Lviv residents welcome our decision."

In another unlikely development, Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko, a long-standing Yanukovych foe and prominent opposition figure touted as a strong candidate for the upcoming presidential election, has thrown his weight behind the campaign.

Starting on February 26, his Channel 5 television station will broadcast its daily evening news program in Russian. "No one and nothing can divide us," the channel said in a statement. "We want the truth to be told in all languages."

More from the topic Ukraine
Back to top