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15 October 2015

Russian, but not "Russian"

The Russian language: a means of global communication or a tool of the empire?

The Noble Prize for literature awarded to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich evoked a storm of negative emotions among her Russian peers who support official Kremlin policy. Critical assessments sometimes reached a climax reminiscent of Soviet times, akin to the ‘condemnation’ of former Noble laureates – Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn – whose works did not fit the generally accepted ideological canons of the time, either.

In Russia today, such a canon (non-public, yet officially imposed) is imperial patriotism. As Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Medinsky, professes: Russian history should be wholesome and politicized in the interests of the state. Therefore, authors who describe the tragedies of ‘little people’ instead of praising patriotic pride, appear unreliable. And Svetlana Alexievich, whose books are indeed formulated upon piercing dialogues with victims of the Great Power’s history, is broadly dismissed as persona non grata under the conditions of such a cultural policy.

Moreover, she is not a citizen of Russia – and this creates a thus far unknown aura of discontent around the new Noble laureate. Alexievich was born in Ukraine, lives in Belarus and writes in Russian: One would have thought she is the living personification of the affinity of the three East-Slavic peoples Russian patriots are so eager to speak of. However, this author is far from welcome.  On the contrary, she is accused of Russophobia’. This accusation is rather strange and absurd given that most of the interlocutors which feature in Alexievich’s books are Russians whose lives are described respectfully and compassionately. But everything falls into place when we note that the term ‘Russophobia’ is used in contemporary propaganda not to refer to a nation, but to a state of being. A writer who adopts a critical attitude towards Russian state policy is labelled a ‘Russophobe’.

Thus, today’s Russian state practically arrogates the right to speak on behalf of the entirety of Russian culture, even though the Russian Federation emerged as late as 1991 and many literary works in Russian were written abroad – both beyond its historical and geographical borders. When culture becomes dependent on the state, it becomes internally distorted - it becomes a pure propaganda hack and produces imperial and warlike slogans such as ‘the Russian world’ (Russkiy mir).

Writers of this ‘Russian world’ like Zakhar Prilepin frighten Europe with ‘Russian submarines’. However, Svetlana Alexievich has an entirely different attitude to this phenomenon: ‘The good Russian world, the humanitarian Russian world, the world everyone still worships - literature, ballet, great music – yes, I like this world. However, I do not like the world of Beria, Stalin, Putin and Shoigu – this is not my world’.

This contrast closely resembles the difference between the two ‘Russian worlds’ as identified by Vladislav Inozemtsev at one time. The first, according to him, is comprised of open-minded moderinizers who easily integrate into global society. In contrast, ‘Russian world II’ remains a conservative bearer of imperialist misconceptions.

One such misconception is the belief that the Russian language belongs to Russia as a state. It is symptomatic that the annexation of Crimea was carried out under the slogan of ‘saving the Russian-speaking population’ although Russian speakers were under no threat. Russia turns the Russian language into a tool for foreign-policy influence. ‘The World Congress of Russian Press’ held in the summer and attended by representatives of foreign Russian-language media loyal to the Kremlin was very symptomatic. During the Congress, the issues of ‘developing the global Russian-language space’ and the ‘strengthening of the international position of Russia’ were spoke of as practically one and the same.

Still, this ‘protection of the Russian language’ abroad appears very selective and is directly dependent on the interests of the state. For example, officials in Russia constantly accuse the Baltic states of ‘Russophobia’ due to the fact that Russian does not have official language status there. These countries are EU member states and members of NATO and are therefore portrayed in a hostile way in Russian propaganda. However, similar criticism is not addressed at the Asian republics of the former USSR although Russian is not an official language there, either. They are regarded as Russian allies and this is why Moscow simply turns a blind eye to the far more dismal situations of Russian-speaking populations in these countries. Only a single school which uses Russian as the language of instruction remains in Turkmenistan – but Russian TV channels simply ignore this fact in contrast to the spectacular campaigns aimed at supporting Russian speaking schools in Latvia.

Historically, the Russian language was, for a long time, a tool for the expansion of empire and many peoples were subjected to forced Russification. In the 19th century, tsarist officials tried to ban Ukrainian and Belarusian. Echoes of those campaigns still ring out in the present day as some Russian conspiracists claim in earnest that Ukrainian was ‘invented’ by the General Staff of the Austrian army. State policy has also retained elements of forced Russification. For example, according to the ‘Law on the Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation’ all these languages are required to use the Cyrillic script in order to gain official status. In the case of the country stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, home to dozens of peoples from different language groups, it would appear to be a blatant suppression of the laws of linguistics in the interests of imperial unification.

Clearly, such a language policy used to, and still, prompts resistance in different peoples based on their natural desire to preserve their own cultural identities. However, paradoxically, Russians themselves have not gained anything from this imperial Russification – quite contrarily. Let me point to the example of Karelia. On the one hand, the Karelian language has practically been liquidated in this republic: it does not have official status and has survived only in a handful of villages just as the cultural identity of the indigenous Russian population of Zaonezhye was destroyed in the Soviet and post-Soviet days. Local dialects that old Russian epics, bylinas, were once written in were withdrawn from use and regarded as ‘incompatible with the norms of the Russian language’. Muscovite spelling and pronunciation were proclaimed to be the only ‘norms’ recognized by the state, binding throughout the whole of Russia.

This artificial unification is dramatically different from the lively diversity observed in other major languages of the world. The UK does not in any way dictate any single globally binding rules for English; they can be typical of the USA as well as Australia or New Zealand. Besides, there is also Euro-English – a somewhat simplified language which allows a variety of European nations to easily understand each other. Germany does not make attempts to declare the German language its ‘property’ but gives Austrians and German-speaking Swiss the right to set their own standards. Citizens of various Latin American countries would definitely be taken aback to hear that Madrid is attempting to impose uniform linguistic norms…

Russian also requires liberation from its function as the tool of imperial policy. Russia will cease to hold the self-appointed ‘copyright’ for this language if institutes of the Russian language, developing their own norms based on local dialects, emerge in the different countries concerned.

This may become an unexpected and triumphant move for today’s Ukraine in the information war waged against it by Russia. In Ukraine, Russian is still associated with Russia, although it is a false association which emerged as a result of Russian mass propaganda. To reject Russian because of this propaganda would be akin to American freedom fighters denouncing English on the grounds that the army of the British Empire spoke it. Instead, Russian can simply be a convenient communication means for the post-Soviet space. For example, Mikheil Saakashvili, the Odessa governor, speaks Russian and yet, no one is likely to suspect him of pursuing pro-Russian policy. 

The awarding of the Noble prize to a Russian-speaking, non-Russian writer is in fact recognition of the global role of the Russian language which belongs to people and not to states. This success could promote the establishment of a number of independent and popular Russian-language media outlets in Europe which could triumph over the imperial propaganda of contemporary Russian society through free thinking.

Russian is recognized as one of the six global UN languages not because Russia is a ‘nuclear superpower’, as proponents of the confrontation with the surrounding world claim. Spanish and Arabic are also global languages; people in a multitude of countries which do not have nuclear weapons speak these languages. The global status of a language depends not solely on the number of its speakers but also on its cultural attractiveness to other nations. Therefore, those who are turning Russian into a tool of an aggressive empire themselves limit its future global prospects. 

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