Friday, January 6, 2017

There’s More than One Russian Language and More than One Russian Nation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 6 – Something that Muscovites may consider an unacceptable violation of “literary norms” in the use of a given word or phrase is often the only correct one “in other countries and regions, where other Russians who speak other Russian languages live,” according to Dmitry Vitushkin.

            Debates about whether one should say “v Ukraine or na Ukraine” or “Belorussiya or Belarus” are endless but ultimately foolish, the Russian regionalist says, because “the Russian language like any other language spoken over a broad area cannot be represented by only one version” (

                Many of the regional variations that the great Russian lexicographer Vladimir Dal assembled have been wiped out by the work of state educational programs and the electronic media, he acknowledges, but “from year to year, the Russian-language space is exploding with new differences.”

                This past year saw a debate break out in St. Petersburg when one United Russian deputy proposed officially banning the word “shaurma” (an Arabic culinary delight) and keeping as legal only the Ingermanland term “shaverma” (which means the same thing). Later he said he was joking but “thousands who supported him on social networks were absolutely serious.”

            Russia’s enormous size as well as the various Russian diasporas have made the increase in diversity within the Russian language world ever greater. Indeed, even when Dal compiled his dictionary, it was less a guide to one language than a translation aid for those who knew one kind of Russian but not another.

            Unfortunately, Vitushkin says, “the contemporary Russian for some reason thinks that he has certain Exclusive Rights to Russian and from the position of the vaunted ‘elder brother,’ he tries to dictate that one must write ‘Moldavia and not ‘Moldova,’ ‘Pribaltika’ and not ‘countries of the Baltic,’ ‘Belorussiya’ and not ‘Belarus.’”

            But in doing so, he continues, this Russian forgets that “the Kremlin did not have, does not have and cannot have any copyright over the Russian language.” 

            Emigres after 1917 kept the old script alive, something that meant there were “at a minimum two Russian languages” at that time.  And since 1991, millions of Russians have either found themselves in new countries or left Russia to go elsewhere, all of whom increasingly speak a language different than what the Moscow gatekeepers prefer.

            Such diversity is typical of many languages regardless of whether they are in one state or don’t have a state, existed in antiquity or are very much alive now. “Russians here are no exception.”

            “The absence of a single standard of Russian is already true in practice and it remains only to fix this at an academic level. And “this is the task of the many-million-strong Russian diaspora outside the Russian Federation and also the authorities of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet states.”

            No one should be surprised or frightened by this. After all, Russian is increasingly diverse across the Russian Federation, even though the Kremlin actively opposes this just as it opposes “any independent activity.” It has tried to suppress the Siberian language and has even managed to block the Siberian language Wikipedia page.

            Worse, the Russian security services have hounded Pomor activist Ivan Moseyev for putting out a collection of stories in the Pomor dialect. His activities were described by Moscow as “espionage.”  And Ingermanland activists, “who have been working on a contemporary Russian version of the Latin script for Ingria,” have experienced similar persecutions.

            Nevertheless, Moscow can’t put this genie back in the bottle. Russians in various parts of the world and in various parts of Russia are speaking different languages and in many cases think of themselves as members of different Russian nations. Moscow’s word for many of them is no longer law. What remains to be done is to support rather than suppress this very human trend.

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