Friday, February 1, 2019

The Great and Powerful Russian Language Isn’t as Uniform as Putin Imagines

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – One of the myths Vladimir Putin promotes and that many in Russia and elsewhere uncritically accept is that there is a single Russian language that everyone who calls himself a Russian speaks. In fact, as a Belarusian commentator points out, that is simply not the case.

            The “standard” Russian Putin and his regime insist on in the schools and in the central media is not the language many people beyond the ring road speak. Instead, there are many Russians, which some Russian scholars acknowledge as “dialects” but which in fact, Belarusian commentator Ales Mikus says, are proto-languages or even more.

            In a commentary in Belarusian that has now been translated into Russian for the Region.Expert portal, Mikus points to the language people living around Smolensk used to speak and in some measure still do (  and

                He provides materials from three books prepared by a late 19th century Russian ethnographer, Vladimir Dobrovolsky, who collected materials about the Smolensk language and suggests that those words, if revived and promoted, could serve as the basis of a regional language within the Russian nation.

            Mikus says that this is an especially worthy project because Smolensk means far more to its residents and to Belarusians than it does to Russians.  Smolensk was where the Belarusian SSR was proclaimed a century ago this month. More than that, it was one of the most important cities of the Grand Principality of Lithuania, rather than of Muscovy.

            Now, unfortunately, he says, “even the name Smolensk is something that Muscovites and we following them do not understand. They think it comes from the Russian word for “tar” (smol), but in fact apparently it comes from the Baltic word for “bee” (kimal), as even some Russian investigators have acknowledged.   

            This can and should be recalled, the commentator continues; and “possibly, the Smolensk language will become one of the projects for the future cultural decentralization of Russia,” something from which the people of Smolensk and other regions would clearly benefit however much the imperial center can be counted on to oppose.

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