Monday, October 19, 2015

The Russian Language Does Not Belong to the Russian State, Shtepa Points Out

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 19 – One of the most memorable passages of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is when one GULAG inmate explains to another that Moscow has decided what time it is regardless of where the sun is located in the sky, prompting the latter to speculate that the Soviet state controls even the movements of heavenly bodies.

            The reaction of some Russians to the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich brings that to mind because many in Moscow at least argued that even though she writes in Russian, she is not a “Russian” writer because of her rejection of Muscovite imperialism.

            The assumption underlying such comments is that the Russian language belongs to the Russian state and should be used only for its purposes, an absurdity which arises out of Muscovite history and one that must be rejected not only by others but by Russians themselves, according to Vadim Shtepa.

            The Russian regionalist writer says that attacks on Alexievich and the Nobel committee “reached a climax reminiscent of Soviet times, akin to the kind of ‘condemnation’ Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn received” because “their works didn’t fit the ideological canons of the time” (

            Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, of course, challenged Soviet doctrine. Alexievich challenges “imperial patriotism,” an as yet unpublic but already “officially imposed” doctrine of the Moscow-centered. Anyone who challenges that by focusing not on imperial glory but “the tragedies of ‘little people’ is thus beyond the pale.

            Still worse from this perspective, Alexievich is “not a citizen of Russia.” Instead, she “was born in Ukraine, lives in Belarus and writes in Russia,” a combination that one might think would make her the embodiment of the unity of the three East Slavic peoples Moscow ideologists are usually delighted to emphasize.

            But not in her case. Instead, “she is accused of ‘Russophobia,’ something that may appear “strange and absurd” until one recognizes that this term “is employed in contemporary propaganda not to refer to a nation but to a state of being.” Thus anyone critical of the Russian state and its policies is a Russophobe whatever language he or she write in.

In this way, he suggests, the Russian state “arrogates to itself the right to speak on behalf of all Russian culture, even though the Russian Federation arose only in 1991 and many literary works in Russian were written abroad, beyond both its historical and geographical borders.” And that has the effect of distorting that culture into “hack propaganda.”

A related misconception is the notion that “the Russian language belongs to the Russian state” and that the Russian state can and must defend it anywhere – albeit this is a highly selective defense depending on political considerations. Thus, Latvia which does a lot for Russian language instruction is attacked, while Turkmenistan which doesn’t.

More generally, Shtepa writes, the Russian language was used historically as “a tool for the expansion of empire,” one used to Russify non-Russians. In the 19th century, the tsars “tried to ban Ukrainian and Belarusian.” This is echoed today in comments by some Moscow propagandists that “Ukrainian was ‘invented by the Austro-Hungarian General Staff.”

Moscow has also retained elements of this forced Russification approach, requiring for example that all languages within Russia must use the Cyrillic alphabet “in order to gain official status. That is, Shtepa says, “a blatant suppression of the laws of linguistics in favor of the interests of imperial unification.”

Not surprisingly this has a negative impact on and is opposed by many non-Russians who have “a natural desire to maintain their own cultural identities.”  But however “paradoxical” it may seem, “Russians have not gained anything from this imperial Russification.” Instead, they have become among the biggest losers.

In his native Karelia, Shtepa points out, Karlian has been almost completely “liquidated,” but so too have been the various dialects hitherto spoken by Russians there. These dialects have been deemed “’incompatible with the norms of the Russian language’” and “Muscovite spelling and pronunciation have been proclaimed the only ‘norms’ recognized by the state.”

No other major world language is so state-centered. Great Britain “doesn’t dictate any single globally binding set of rules for English.” It accepts the diversity of English in the US, Australia, and elsewhere. “Germany doesn’t try to make German its ‘property.” And Latin American nations would be shocked if Spain tried to “impose common linguistic norms.”

Russian must be freed from Russia’s use of it “as a tool of imperial policy,” and indeed, Ukraine could help trigger that. There, “Russian is still associated with Russia,” but only because of Russian propaganda. “To reject Russian as a result would be analogous to American revolutionaries rejecting English because the British army spoke it.”

The awarding of a Nobel prize to a Russian-speaking, non-Russian writer is in fact a recognition of the global role of the Russian language” and highlights the fact that the language belongs to people and not the state, Shtepa says. Indeed, it could lead to the promotion of independent Russian-langauge media outlets in Europe that would triumph over Moscow’s imperial propaganda.

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