Thursday, March 27, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Chukchis Sue Dictionary Compilers for Denigrating References to Their Nation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 27 – The Chukchis, a numerically small nation in the extreme far northeast of the Russian Federation on the Bering Straits, have long been the object of Russian humor. Some “Chukchi jokes,” as they are known, focus on the absurdities or problems of Soviet or Russian life, but others make fun of the Chukchis and present them as backward or worse.

            Now, at a time of heightened ethnic sensitivities and when Russian officials are moving against anyone they deem to be russophobic, some Chukchis are taking an unusual step to fight back: they are suing the compilers of a 1998 Russian dictionary for slandering their nation (

            Aleksandr Lambin, who represents the plaintiffs as president of the Foundation for the Defense of the Constitutional Rights of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of Russia, says that dictionary compilers have a responsibility not to enshrine negative stereotypes in the definitions they provide lest they suggest to user that such stereotypes are justified.

            It is infuriating that the scholars who prepare dictionaries do not understand that they are not simply reporting what people say and write but are implying intentionally or not that popular usage of negative characterizations of people of different ethnic groups is so widespread that it is acceptable.

            The case will be held in a Zamoskvoretsky court tomorrow, with the plaintiffs seeking not only an apology but the removal of the dictionary from all libraries until corrections are made In addition, they seek financial compensation for the “moral harm” that such definitions of their nation has inflicted, but they insist that “this is not the main thing.”

            Russian officials and experts on the other side are as dismissive of this case as they often are of the Chukchis and other numerically small groups.   Mikhail Gorbanevsky, the head of the Guild of Linguistic Experts for Documentation and Information Disputes, says that bringing suit against the compilers of a dictionary is “an act of stupidity.”

            Dictionary compilers are supposed to gather information on how a language is actually used, he says, and if people use words a certain way, that must be reflected in the definitions provided.  At the same time, he acknowledges that dictionaries for school children should take into consideration moral issues.

            According to Gorbanevsky, slighting references to one or another ethnic group are common not only in the Russian Federation but around the world.  But he points out that “it is unknown who was the first to use the name of the representatives of one of the peoples of the North in denigrating manner” and that “alas, one can’t sue someone who is unknown.”

            It is highly unlikely that the Chukchis will win this case; indeed, it may be that the case itself will become the subject of yet another of the hundreds of Russian “Chukchi jokes.”  But the willingness of the Chukchis to bring this case is a reflection not only of the spirit of the times but an indication that the Chukchis are increasingly angry about how Russians treat them.

            The case thus bears watching, even if one again the Russians win and the Chukchis lose.


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