Tomasz Kamusella: Russian: A Pragmatic Proposal

Russian: A Pragmatic Proposal

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

Weaponizing Language Policy

On 24 February 2022, Russian tanks, warplanes and troops flooded northern, eastern and southern Ukraine. They were convinced their victory would be swift, because Ukraine did not and could not exist. In unison, the Russian government, legislature and elites – with the overwhelming support of Russian public opinion – subscribed to the Russian president’s ‘historical justification’ of this unprovoked and genocidal in its scale and results invasion. An important element of this justification is the claim that the Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians ‘naturally’ constitute a single people (nation). That they have spoken and written the same language since the middle ages. Hence, no Ukrainian language exists. At most, it is a dialect of Russian, while at worst – an artificial creation of (never explicitly identified, thus, mythical) anti-Russian Austrians and Poles.

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In defence of democracy and the Helsinki Final Act’s principles of stability and peace in Europe, the West has come to succor of Ukraine’s brave defenders with shipments of weapons, logistics and financial aid. But is this sufficient? Because language policies are rarely employed in the West for doing actual politics, the current measures taken against Russia by the US, EU and NATO still fail to take into consideration the ethnolinguistic foundation of the Kremlin’s neoimperial ideology of Russkii mir (Russian world or Pax Russica). This needs to change fast, so that the West’s response matches and surpasses the level of the Russian menace.

 

Kremlin’s Spurious Claims

On 12 July 2021, in preparation for the ongoing war, the Russian president published on his office’s website a rambling essay, titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.’ For all the world to see, apart from the Russian original,[1] this text is also available in English[2] and Ukrainian.[3] Given Moscow’s strenuous denials of the existence of the state of Ukraine, the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian language, it is surprising that a Ukrainian translation of this essay is on offer, too. Perhaps, the Kremlin sees it as a mere ‘adaptation’ into a ‘southwestern dialect’ of Russian. ‘

Indeed, a rare concession it is that purportedly shows the Russian governing elite’s ‘pure intentions.’ Such ‘dialectal adaptations’ will not occur in the predicted postwar future after the ‘ensured’ Russian victory.[4] There will be no need, because courtesy of concentration and death camps, subsequently all Russians in Ukraine that now are unaware of their own Russianness will have acquired a proper command of standard Russian.[5],[6] Dialects, including Ukrainian, will be finally consigned to the heap of history.

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The Russian President proposes that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have always been a single Orthodox nation united through their single language, that is, Russian, or in the pre-modern period, its earlier version is nowadays known as ‘Early Russian.’[7] All of the three groups (peoples?) together have always constituted ‘a single people of the same shared single faith and language.’[8] Yet, nuances are not alien to Mr Putin. He proposes that the literate elites of the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians used a single written language, while the speech of peasantry tended to differentiate. But according to the Russian president these differences in speech were and are negligible.[9] He is not blind to the use of the Ukrainian говор govor (sub-dialect, speech variety) of Russian in the Ukrainian sub-branch of All-Russian literature, especially in folk-inspired poetry. But, as the Russian president emphasizes, even the supposedly classical ‘Ukrainian’ writers stuck to standard Russian in their prose.[10]

Mr Putin concludes that the Russian government and ruling elite ‘respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous.’[11] Note the absence of the definite article in the official English translation in front of the word ‘Ukrainians,’[12] denoting that in Moscow’s opinion they do not constitute a nation in their own right. Hence, there should be no state for them, just a ‘country’ within enlarged Russia. As explicitly stressed in the Kremlin’s official plan of implementation for Mr Putin’s historiographic musings, no polity by the name of ‘Ukraine’ will be allowed after Russia’s victory.[13] After all, the Russian ‘special military operation’ had to be commenced because the existence of Ukraine ‘inherently endangered’ Russia.[14] So, Mr Putin’s self-proclaimed ‘respect’ for the Ukrainians’ security, state, language and culture will be achieved only through destroying the Ukrainian state, nation, language and culture.[15] For that matter, the actualization of this lofty goal will be ensured with the use of a full-scale system of occupation and repression, which would remain in place for at least a quarter of a century.[16]

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Pragmatism

Oxymorons, outright lies and logical contradictions are typical of the Soviet and present-day Russian imperial propaganda’s newspeak. Shrugging at it without listening is fraught with danger. At a given time of their choice, the Kremlin may act upon this or that unbelievable intention to the West’s total surprise. In this manner, Moscow gets the upper hand, making up for its tiny economy, malfunctioning logistics and substandard technology. Yet, the West is able to and should cut on such situational strategic advantages that the Russian Federation amply enjoys. This also includes language politics.

First of all, in their services for Russian citizens, Western embassies and consulates should provide all information and communicate with such customers exclusively in the medium of Ukrainian. Second, the same treatment needs to be extended to Russian citizens already residing or seeking asylum in Western countries. Third, any permitted cooperation with Russian entities or individual Russian citizens ought to be channelled only through Ukrainian or in the official language of a given Western state. What is more, any opposition Russian-language mass media (radio and television stations, periodicals and websites) and organization re-established or founded across the West should provide all their content also in Ukrainian. The very same measures must be applied to citizens of Belarus, which participates in Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Although in this case, the option of Belarusian language may be offered, because the Belarusian usurper, who spuriously titles himself ‘president,’ actively suppresses Belarusian language and culture.

As a result, each single Russian or Belarusian citizen who decides to travel to, through or to engage in any contact with the West will be compelled to learn about the war and suffer at least some administrative and cognitive discomfort. It is nothing really in comparison to the fate of millions of Ukrainian refugees; tens of millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat, water supply, food or healthcare; tens of thousands of killed, massacred, tortured to death, or horribly maimed Ukrainians, alongside many more Ukrainians suffering at the death or disability of their dearest.

On a brighter side, this sternly observed requirement of any Western services for and contacts with Russian and Belarusian citizens provided exclusively in the medium of Ukrainian, willy-nilly, will push persons concerned to start reading in this language and learn more about Ukrainian literature and culture. In many cases, this necessity will chip at the ethnolinguistic monolith of the Russian world imperial ideology, which dispenses with and forbids any critical thinking and individual initiative.

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Potential protestations of Russian citizens that Ukrainian is not Russian and that they do not understand a text in Ukrainian would be given short shrift. Mr Putin’s theses on Ukrainian language, culture and statehood would be handed to such applicants. Should they agree with the Russian president’s war and ideology, they must believe that in essence Ukrainian is identical with Russian. But if the applicants in question condemn and disagree with the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine and all things Ukrainian, it needs to be pointed to them that it is their personal obligation to learn and support the Ukrainians under Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked attack. Furthermore, this linguistic requirement constitutes a significant aid for Russian citizens to mentally free themselves from the domination of Moscow’s Russian world propaganda and ideology.

November 2022

[1] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[2] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[3] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66182

[4] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843

[5] https://ria.ru/20220403/ukraina-1781469605.html

[6] https://ccl.org.ua/en/news/ria-novosti-has-clarified-russias-plans-vis-a-vis-ukraine-and-the-rest-of-the-free-world-in-a-program-like-article-what-russia-should-do-with-ukraine-2/

[7] ‘И русские, и украинцы, и белорусы – наследники Древней Руси, являвшейся крупнейшим государством Европы. Славянские и другие племена на громадном пространстве – от Ладоги, Новгорода, Пскова до Киева и Чернигова – были объединены одним языком (сейчас мы называем его древнерусским)’ (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

[8] ‘Они искали поддержки у людей одного языка и, конечно, одной веры’ (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

[9] ‘письменный язык у них совершенно одинаков, а разговорный – хоть и отличается, но незначительно’ (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

[10] Конечно, за многие века раздробленности, жизни в разных государствах возникли региональные языковые особенности, го́воры. Язык литературный обогащался за счёт народного. Огромную роль здесь сыграли Иван Котляревский, Григорий Сковорода, Тарас Шевченко. Их произведения являются нашим общим литературным и культурным достоянием. Стихи Тараса Шевченко созданы на украинском языке, а проза – в основном на русском (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

[11] ‘Мы с уважением относимся к украинскому языку и традициям. К стремлению украинцев видеть своё государство свободным, безопасным, благополучным’ (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

[12] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[13] ‘Название “Украина”, по-видимому, не может быть сохранено в качестве титула никакого полностью денацифицированного государственного образования’ (https://ria.ru/20220403/ukraina-1781469605.html).

[14] ‘Но Россия не может чувствовать себя в безопасности, развиваться, существовать с постоянной угрозой, исходящей с территории современной Украины’ (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843).

[15] ‘Денацификация неизбежно будет являться и деукраинизацией’ (https://ria.ru/20220403/ukraina-1781469605.html).

[16] ‘создание постоянно действующих органов денацификации на период 25 лет’ (https://ria.ru/20220403/ukraina-1781469605.html).

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