Monday, May 27, 2019

Russian Language Can Become a Weapon Against Rather than For Moscow, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 26 – Moscow insists that Russian speakers are part of a Russian world that by definition must be under its control, and not surprisingly some former Soviet republics, including most recently Ukraine, have adopted policies intended to reduce or eliminate the use of Russian by their citizens, Vadim Shtepa says.

            But such policies, however much one can understand the impulses behind them, are counterproductive. On the one hand, they lend support to the mistaken Muscovite notion that languages are the property of any country or government. And on the other, they offend rather than attract those in these countries who use Russian (

            A far better and more effective approach, the editor of Region.Expert argues is to treat Russian as the Latin of the former Soviet empire, a language ever fewer people use because the empire is dying and one Moscow has no right to claim just as the Great Britain or the United States has no right to claim English as somehow uniquely its own.

            And on the other, the West needs to recognize that it can use Russian as a weapon against the Muscovite empire by creating a new television broadcast service in Russian to challenge the notions that Russian belongs to Moscow and that Russian-speakers in Russia and abroad are inevitably Putin supporters.

            The Russian language, he writes, “can be used against the empire. The clearest example is that many Ukrainian soldiers who have fought against Russian aggression are themselves Russian speakers. [In addition,] Belorusian Nobelist Svetlana Aleksiyevich also writes in Russian, but it is impossible to consider her works as ‘pro-Kremlin.’”  

            “It’s possible,” Shtepa continues, “that one of the causes of the relative success of Kremlin propaganda is that Western countries have not created an alternative, a global and popular Russian-language television channel which could advocate democratic values” and “destroy the false stereotype that ‘all Russians are Putinists.’”

            “Language is above all a means of communication and ideologically neutral. For Ukraine, it would be much wiser not to struggle with Russian but to create alongside Ukrainian ones, Russian-language pro-European programs. And then,” the Russian regionalist says, “Kremlin propaganda would be powerless.”

            Almost 70 years ago, the West did create such a Russian-language service, Radio Liberty, which was based precisely on the knowledge and conviction that not all Russians were Stalinist. It played an important role in breaking the Soviet monopoly of information; and many Russian-speakers were encouraged to think their country could be other than what the Kremlin said.

            As someone who is proud to have served at RFE/RL twice, the author of these lines is very proud of that fact.  But I believe that Shtepa is on to something because of a conjunction of technological and political changes that have reduced although hardly eliminated the importance of current RFE/RL broadcasts.

            First, all too many people in the West have unfortunately concluded that since Russia is no longer communist, it is not a problem. In many ways, under Vladimir Putin, Russia is more of a problem than it was in the last decades of Soviet rule; but few want to admit that or act on its implications at least for the long haul.

            Second, some involved with Western broadcasting have wanted to shift to what could be called a strategy of “journalism over everything else.”  High-quality journalism is of course a threat to regimes like Putin’s which are based on lies and half-truths, but it is not enough. There needs to be a clear and forceful message about why democracy is right and dictatorship wrong.

            Third, RFE/RL during the Cold War broadcast via shortwave from abroad. That meant it could broadcast freely and without regard to the ideological convictions of the Kremlin which could jam but not affect editorial policy. Since 1991, reflecting new opportunities and a shift in listener tastes, it has broadcast on FM stations within the Russian Federation.

            The signal of its broadcasts is much easier to hear than it was, but that has come at a price: the host government, in this case the Russian, is in a position to impose many of its values on the station’s broadcasts, directly by closing such broadcasting from within its own borders and indirectly by threatening to do so.

            All too often, it appears, some involved in Western broadcasting fall into the dangerous trap laid by the Kremlin of avoiding certain topics or certain treatments so that they can continue to broadcast on others, putting them on a dangerous and slippery slope in which they restrict themselves lest the Putin regime restrict them.

            Fourth, RFE/RL’s Internet presence, which is produced and disseminated from abroad, is not only impressive but highlights what can be done when journalists committed not only to news but to democracy and freedom are able to do their work freely. Day after day, RFE/RL Internet producers produce stories that challenge the Kremlin dictatorship.

            But the Internet, as widespread as its use now is even in Russia, is not a solution. That is because most Russians like most people elsewhere use the Internet less as an alternative source of news than for entertainment. Consequently, however powerful the Internet offerings of RFE/RL are, they can’t compete on an equal basis with the new player on the block, television.

            And fifth, television is in fact the key.  Putin is re-imposing Stalinism on Russia not by constructing a new GULAG, although he is quite prepared to arrest and even kill people to sustain his repressive and kleptocratic regime, but by using television to mold peoples’ minds, confident that no one is challenging him on that all-important front.

            But Putin could be proved wrong:  there is an available alternative, albeit not an easy or inexpensive one: direct-to-home satellite television which would carry Western television broadcasts to the Russian people in ways that the Putinists would find far more difficult to block and even more difficult to counter.

            As Shtepa points out, the West has the ability to turn the information war against Moscow and to take it on in a place where the Kremlin assumes it is untouchable – Russian-language television. 

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