Thursday, November 21, 2019

Problems with Russian have Arisen Because Kremlin is Using It to Restore Empire, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 18 – Almost all empires have had a lingua franca be they ancient or modern, Vadim Shtepa Says.  That does not lead to their degradation. What does undermine them, however, is when languages are used not so much to maintain an existing empire but instead to promote its revival.

            That is what has been happening with Russian in Putin’s country, the Tallinn-based regionalist says. Russian truly in recent years has become “foul” as Gasan Guseynov of the Moscow Higher School of Economics said and has been castigated for pointing out (

            “The Russian language today filed and distorted with bureaucratic expressions and propaganda memes is really horrific,” far removed from “a natural, living language characteristic of a normal country,” Shtepa says.  And he gives several devastating examples of what he has in mind. 

            “Do you know that today in Russia there are no cities and villages? They have been replaced by bureaucratic slang: now they are called ‘municipal formations’ and ‘rural settlements.’ And certain Russian abbreviations sound wilder than even those of Soviet times. MUDOD is not a curse but ‘a municipal education of supplementary education.’  Poor children.”

            The Russian regionalist continues: “Of course, a language reflects its era. And therefore, today’s Russia is not the language of ‘Pushkin and Dostoyevsky’” but of criminals, the police, and television talk show hosts.  But it is not just individual words that have been affected; it is the capacity for rational thought and discussion.

            A good example of this is the following: “An individual may love Russian culture and the Russian language, but if he is critical of Kremlin policy, he will be called ‘a Russophobe.’ Putin curses ‘troglodyte Russophobes’ but in fact he himself has driven Russian thought and language into an old imperial cave from which it appeared to have escaped 30 years ago.”

            “The little propagandistic word ‘Russophobe’ most often does not have any relationship to real ‘hostility to Russians.’”  Instead, it is simply today’s version of “’anti-Soviet,’” a term that also had nothing to do with hostility to the people living under the Kremlin. Indeed, it often unwittingly often called attention to exactly the opposite.

            There is no real problem for language by being the language of an empire, Shtepa suggests. Problems for languages begin instead when the powers that be use language as part of their drive to revive an empire that has died. That happened with German under Hitler and is taking place with Russian under Putin.

            How will Russian be able to return to normal? He asks rhetorically. “Many hope tha thtis will occur with the replacement of those in charge in the Moscow Kremlin … But I as a regionalist believe that the complete de-imperialization of the Russian language will occur only when it acquires a multitude of local versions not forced into a single “imperial ‘norm.’”

            That has been happening in the former British empire, where ex-British colonies are speaking their own versions of English and it doesn’t occur to anyone in London to try to insist on some “’single set of rules’” that the former center of empire might come up with and that many without reflection accept.

            Shtepa gives as an example the case of the Russian editorial staff at Tallinn’s Postimees. There, he notes, the editors routinely “correct” the use of “in” rather than “on” Ukraine, citing “the norms of the Russian language.” But those norms are political: Putin used “in” as recently as 2001. Only now, he again wants to sight Ukraine and uses “on.”

            There is another language problem with unfortunate consequences, the Russian regionalist says. “In many languages, including in Estonian, there does not exist a difference between russkiye [ethnic Russian] and rossiyskiye [non-ethnic Russian].”  That often leads to confusion of Russian culture and language, on the one hand, and Russian officialdom, on the other.

            “It would be very useful to introduce such a distinction as the one that now exists between English and British. But it is possible that in the course of the regional differentiation of Russian, this distinction will appear and be confirmed. Why must the language’s ‘norms’ be developed only in Moscow?”

            Shtepa points to “the very interesting article of Polish philologist Tomasz Kamusella” who calls for the creation of “an Estonian Russian language’ not on the basis of ‘Moscow rules’ but on the contrary, on the basis of local norms, idioms and dialects” (

            Were that to happen, he suggests, then “already the next generation of Estonian Russians will think in approximately this way: ‘What is the Duma? It is Russia’s Riigikogur.’ Perhaps such a prospect may elicit a smile, but it would be an extremely effective cure from that ‘foul’ imperial language the Russian media are now imposing.”

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