Staunton, Nov. 15 – Soviet and Russian officials have often promoted dialects in non-Russian languages to divide otherwise united peoples and make it easier for Moscow to rule them. But these same officials don’t want to acknowledge an important reality: the Russian language contains many regional subgroups and so some Russians nowcan’t understand others.
Given the centrality of language in the definition of nation and nationality in Russian and Soviet thinking, it is no surprise that Moscow has been concerned when regional groups like the Siberians or proto-national groups like the Cossacks have worked to develop their own distinctive languages (windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2008/05/window-on-eurasia-activists-work-to.html, windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2010/09/window-on-eurasia-push-for-siberian.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/06/cossacks-must-revive-their-national.html).
But Moscow faces a bigger problem than that. Many regions with less developed ethno-national identities are developing distinctive dialects. Even Ryazan which is quite close to the Russian capital now has a dialect that is quite different from what the Russian government defines as standard, that is to say, Muscovite, Russian (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/11/even-ryazan-russians-near-moscow-have.html).
The AdMe portal has offered a collection of more than 60 words used in some regions but not others and that it suggests anyone who wants to travel from one region to another needs to learn if he or she wants to understand and be understood (adme.ru/svoboda-narodnoe-tvorchestvo/posmotrite-na-slova-kotorye-v-odnom-regione-govoryat-vse-a-na-drugom-konce-strany-nikto-ne-ponimaet-2513254/).
Three things are striking about the AdMe list. First, almost every predominantly ethnic Russian oblast and kray has a sufficiently developed dialect to make understanding by outsiders difficult. Second, many of the dialectal words are substitutes for key nouns and verbs. And third, those who don’t know these words are outsiders whatever their supposedly shared ethnicity.
Andrey Sherbakov, a philologist at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute, says that regionalisms in Russia are today so far advanced that people in Moscow can more or less quickly say where another Russian arriving in the capital is from as longtime Muscovites and people from elsewhere use different words for the same things (kp.ru/daily/27471/4677869/).
The scholar makes a sharp distinction between dialects and regionalisms. The latter are historical forms, typically found in rural areas, which gradually lose out to standard Russian as people become more urban and educated. Regionalisms in contrast are words that are spread even among the educated within a particular region.
According to Shcherbakov, regionalisms tend to have a shelf life of a generation or so before disappearing or being replaced by new regionalisms. As one generation grows up, it doesn’t transmit these words in most cases to the next which instead adopts its own regionalisms. The power of regions to produce such linguistic diversity, however, continues unabated despite modernization.
The Moscow researcher’s acknowledge is a rare example of a scholar in the center admitting what is a fact of life: regional identities and the language people in the regions speak are both powerful and have a self-renewing quality which the centralizing and homogenizing policies of the center have proven more or less powerless to break.