Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Criminalization of Russian Life Reflected in Russian Language, Editor Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 9 – The increasing criminalization of Russian consciousness is not only reflected in the Russian language, and that linguistic change opens the way for “the reproduction of a harsh way of life and [still more] brutal language, according to the editor in chief of “Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye.”

            In an interview with “Moskovsky novosti” last week, Irina Prokhorova says that this is not surprising given that “over the course of almost a century,” so many Russians spent time “in concentration camps and jails,” but it is a vicious circle that must be broken if Russian society is to move in a better direction (mn.ru/society_edu/20130705/350785031.html).

            Unfortunately, she says, most of the proposals for curing the Russian language of its criminalization by banning curse words and the like are unlikely to cure the situation but only make things worse by calling attention to such words and distracting attention from the broader underlying problem, the criminalization of society and its political leaders.

            Russia is suffering from a deep social crisis, one which has finally provoked questions among many people concerning the kind of society Russians are building, Prokhorova says. “Is it a state where the individual is the chief value where all the course and government organs work for the defense of the individual rom force and from government arbitrariness?”

            Or alternatively, she continues, “is it a state where the individual is only a means for achieving the ambitions of the ruling elite?”

            These questions have an impact on the language people use, the editor points out. “Now many talk not about the patriot but about the citizen. And this is appropriate because the word ‘patriot’ was long ago usurped by the totalitarian ideology.  Patriotism is understood as the absolutely obedient sacrifice of the personality, its life and worth in favor of the state or more precisely the ruling clique.”

            “From that perspective,” Prokhorova says, “if you attempt to stand up against social injustice, you are not a patriot but a traitor to the motherland. In such an ethical system, there is a complete lack of distinction between ‘regime’ and ‘motherland;” indeed, they are mistakenly equated one with the other.”

            “But,” the editor argues, “a citizen is an individual who loves not the current powers that be but his country, and who considers himself to have the right to struggle for a more just and humane life in it.  And this is a completely different system of values.”

            Another word that Prokhorova says she hates to hear but that is now widely used is “spirituality.” That is because it is so widely abused.  “In imperial Russia there was the Uvarov triad of ‘Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Nationality,’ and in Soviet times it was recode as ‘class-party-ideology.’” In both case, this term became an “ideological construct which allowed illegality and repressions to flourish.”

            When politicians use “spirituality” now, it is clear, Prokhorova says, that they are “ultra-conservatives” and fall into the same pattern as in the past.  But often when ordinary people use it, they do so without reflecting on its meaning and on the ways that the term itself can be employed for ends they would not approve of.

             The way forward is not to ban words or books but rather to be conscious of what words mean and how they can be used, the editor continues.  Language is a complex and open system that cannot be subject to any Procrustean bed without other dangers arising.  And people must be especially conscious of the words the powers that be use.

            Is it acceptable for a leader to use criminal language as President Vladimir Putin frequently has – to say things like “’drown in an outhouse’” – and nonetheless have any hope for improvement?
            Banning words or even entire books won’t cure the situation, she says. Instead, “one must explain, educate and raise the cultural level of our citizens. We have a very strong criminalization of consciousness, and this is reflected in language.” That must change, Prokhorov concludes, if the language, society and its leaders are to change as well.

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