The Ems Ukaz, or Ems Ukase (Russian: Эмский указ, Emskiy ukaz; Ukrainian: Емський указ, Ems’kyy ukaz), was a secret decree (ukaz) of Tsar Alexander II of Russia issued in 1876, banning the use of the Ukrainian language in print, with the exception of reprinting of old documents. The ukaz also forbade the import of Ukrainian publications and the staging of plays or lectures in Ukrainian. It was named after the city of Bad Ems, Germany, where it was promulgated.
In the 1860s, a decade and a half after the Brotherhood of Sts Cyril and Methodius was broken up in Kiev, and its founder Nikolay Kostomarov and other prominent figures exiled or arrested, Ukrainian intellectuals were gaining further awareness of their cultural background. Hromada cultural associations were started in a number of cities, named after the traditional village assembly, and Sunday schools in the cities and towns (education had been neglected by the Russian Imperial administration). This was partly driven by publication in both Russian and Ukrainian, including journals (such as Kostomarov's Osnova, 1861–62, and Hlibov's Chernyhosvs’kyy Lystok, 1861–63), historical and folkloristic monographs (Kostomarov's biography of Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Kulish's two-volume Zapiski o Yuzhnoy Rusi, ‘Notes on Southern Rus’’, 1856–57), and elementary primers (Kulish's Hramatka, 1857, 1861, Shevchenko's Bukvar Yuzhnoruskiy, 1861). In Osnova, Kostomarov published his influential article "Dve russkiye narodnosti", ‘Two Russian Nationalities’.
Although Ukrainianism had been considered popular and somewhat chic in Russian cultural circles, a debate began at the time over its relation to the ideology of Russian Pan-Slavism—epitomized by a quotation of Pushkin: "will not all the Slavic streams merge into the Russian sea?"—and a rhetoric of criticism emerged. Conservative Russians called the Ukrainian movement a "Polish intrigue", while Polish commentators had been complaining that Ukrainianism had been used as a weapon against Polish culture in right-bank Ukraine.
After the 1861 emancipation of serfs in the Russian Empire, many landowners were unhappy with the loss of their serfs, while peasants were generally displeased with the terms of the emancipation. In this atmosphere of distrust, increasing reports reached the imperial government that Ukrainian leaders were plotting to separate from Russia. The 1863 January Uprising in Poland raised tensions around the issue of ethnic separatism in general even further. Several Ukrainian activists were arrested, Sunday schools and hromadas were closed and their publication activities were suspended.
A new Ukrainian translation by Pylyp Morachevsky of parts of the New Testament was vetted and passed by the Imperial Academy of Sciences, but rejected by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox church, because it was considered politically suspect. In response, Interior Minister Count Pyotr Valuyev issued a decree through an internal document circulated to the censors on 18 July 1863. Valuyev's circular implemented a policy based on his opinion that "the Ukrainian language never existed, does not exist, and shall never exist". It banned publication of secular and religious books (apart from belles-lettres), on the premise that not only is the content of such publications potentially questionable, but their very existence implied the anti-imperial idea that a Ukrainian nation could exist.
In the 1870s, the Kiev Hromada and the South-Western Branch of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society began to publish important works in Kiev, in Russian, about Ukrainian ethnography. Authors included Mykhailo Drahomanov, Volodymyr Antonovych, Ivan Rudchenko, and Pavlo Chubynsky. They held an Archaeological Congress in 1874, and published in the Russian-language paper Kievskiy telegraf.
A member of the Geographic Society, Mikhail Yuzefovich, sent two letters to St Petersburg warning of separatist activity. Tsar Alexander II appointed an Imperial Commission on Ukrainophile Propaganda in the Southern Provinces of Russia, which found evidence of a danger to the state, and recommended extending the scope of the Valuyev decree. While enjoying a spa in Bad Ems, Germany, in May 1876, the Tsar signed what would come to be called the "Ems Ukaz", extending the publication ban to apply to all books and song lyrics in the "Little Russian dialect", and to prohibit the importation of such materials. Public lectures, plays, and song performances in Ukrainian were forbidden, suspect teachers removed from teaching, and presumably dangerous organizations and newspapers shut down.
The ukaz coincided with other actions against Ukrainian culture. Drahomanov and fellow activist Mykola Ziber were sacked from their posts at Kiev's University of St Vladimir, and emigrated along with other cultural leaders such as Fedir Vovk and Serhiy Podolynsky. The situation was exposed by professor Mykhailo Drahomanov at the 1878 Paris International Literary Congress.
In 1881, the new Tsar Alexander III amended the ukaz. Ukrainian lyrics and dictionaries would be allowed, but the Kulishivka Ukrainian alphabet was still prohibited, and such publications would have to employ Russian orthography (disparagingly called the Yaryzhka by some Ukrainians, after the Russian letter yery, ы). Performance of Ukrainian plays and humorous songs could be approved by local authorities, but Ukrainian-only theatres and troupes could not be established.
Many illegal performances and publications were delivered through ingenuity and bribery, but Ukrainian cultural development practically ceased.
After the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Imperial Academy of Sciences recommended that the ukaz's restrictions be lifted. Ukrainian-language newspapers began publication, Prosvita (‘Enlightenment’) educational societies were formed, some university professors lectured in Ukrainian, and the Orthodox bishop of the Podolia vicariate, Parfeniy Levytsky, allowed the language to be used in services and church schools there.
In 1910, concerned about potential revolutionary activity, Interior Minister Pyotr Stolypin restored the ukaz's restrictions and shut down the Prosvita societies and Ukrainian-language publications. Russian-language press and intellectuals launched a campaign against the idea of Ukrainian autonomy or separatism.
Thus, self-aware Ukrainians remained a small intelligentsia in Dnieper Ukraine, out of touch with a much larger rural population who lacked the opportunity for a cultural education. Russian imperial ideology dominated the schools and the army, and the Russian language was the only one used for official business in the urban workplace, government offices, and public services. In the meantime, Ukrainian self-identity would grow in Austro-Hungarian Galicia, out of reach of Russian imperial authorities.
The ukaz was never cancelled, but became void along with all other imperial Russian laws in the February Revolution of 1917–18. After the Revolution, Ukrainian language, education and culture was allowed to flower in the Ukrainian National Republic, the Hetmanate, and under the Ukrainization policies of Soviet Ukraine before 1931.
Text of the ukaz
Excerpts from the Ukaz:
The importation into the Russian Empire, without special permission of the Central Censorship over Printing, of all books and pamphlets in the Little Russian dialect, published abroad, is forbidden,
The printing and publishing in the Empire of original works and translations in this dialect is forbidden with the exception of (a) historical documents and monuments; (b) works of belles-lettres but with the provision that in the documents the orthography of the originals be retained; in works of belles-lettres no deviations from the accepted Russian orthography are permitted and permission for their printing may be given only by the Central Censorship over Printing.All theatrical performances and lectures in the Little Russian dialect, as well as printing of text to musical notes, are forbidden.—
- (Russian)/(Ukrainian) Volodymyr Kozyrsky, Vasyl Shenderovsky, "The spiritual valour of Pylyp Morachevsky (to the bicentenary anniversary of his birth)", Zerkalo Nedeli (the Mirror Weekly), 5-19 August 2006, in Russian, in Ukrainian.
- Radians’kyi knyhar 1930, quoted in Luckyj 1990, pp 24–25. A full version, with five points addressed "for the Ministry of the Interior", five "for the Ministry of Education", and one "for the Third Section [secret police] of His Majesty's Supreme Chancellory" is published in Magocsi 1996, pp 372–3, translated from Savchenko 1970, p 381.
- Drahomanov, Mykhailo, La littérature oukrainienne, proscrite par le gouvernement russe: rapport présenté au Congrès littéraire de Paris (Ukrainian Literature Banned by the Russian Government: Report Presented at the Literary Congress in Paris), Geneva, 1878.
- Luckyj, George S.N. ( 1990). Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine, 1917–1934, revised and updated edition, Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1099-6.
- Magocsi, Paul Robert (1996). A History of Ukraine. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-0830-5.
- I.R., "Ne dozvoliaiu," Radians’kyi knyhar, 8 (April 1930):8
- Savchenko, Fedir (1970). Zaborona ukrayinstva 1876 r., 2nd ed. Munich.