War on Ukraine Will Provincialize Russian
University of St Andrews
On 24 February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine. The unprovoked and unjustified full-scale invasion of peaceful Ukraine shocked the world. The date will be remembered for long as the beginning of a new historical period in Europe. Now all the West’s lazy assumptions about Moscow must be set aside. The Kremlin observes only these principles of international relations that suit the Russian government. It does not matter that this or that rule has been crucial for decades in underpinning the established political order in Europe and across the globe. Moscow may choose to brush it aside at its pleasure. No one can be sure that from one moment to another a sitting Russian dictator would not take an arbitrary decision to everyone’s disadvantage, including Russia’s.
In this situation of heightened volatility, the West must change tack accordingly. First of all, the urgent need is to rethink how the European Union, Nato and the West in general should assist Ukraine in its unequal struggle against the unprincipled Russian goliath. After all the Ukrainians are fighting for the sake of democracy, Europe and the West. But to be able to assist Ukraine, the West needs to comprehend the ‘logic’ of Moscow’s actions. Otherwise, the West and its international organizations will remain blind, unable to predict Russia’s next move or responses. Yes, the Kremlin’s ideology of Russkii Mir is neoimperial in its character, including the time and again repeated goal of re-conquering some post-Soviet states, especially in Europe, with an eye to rebuilding a Russian empire. Until 2022, such ideas were dismissed as the Kremlin’s toothless rhetoric and macho posturing. Not any more.
The Russian-language name of Moscow’s now obtaining ideology can be variously translated into English as the ‘Russian world,’ or even Pax Rossica. In both cases, the military undertone is easily detectable, if one makes sure to listen carefully. Between 2007 and 2022, the Kremlin maintained that the eponymous Russkii Mir Foundation was none other than a Russian counterpart of the British Council. That this foundation’s exclusive agenda was to spread the knowledge of Russian language and culture around the world. Now, it became obvious that the organization and its branches scattered across Europe and around the globe are an instrument of Russia’s hybrid warfare, like China’s Confucius Institutes.
Under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule of 23 years and counting, the Russian language has been made into a tool and justification of Russia’s offensive actions against neighboring states. During this time Moscow embraced ethnolinguistic nationalism that originally had become the norm of doing politics in Central Europe following the Great War. On the one hand, Russia’s 37 official regional (republican) languages, are neglected and effectively replaced with Russian. Infamously, in 2002, the Duma (Russian Parliament) proclaimed that only Cyrillic may be employed for writing and printing in these languages, even if an ethnic group (nation) would want to use a different alphabet for this purpose.
Yet, on the other hand, the Kremlin cries foul in the case of the Russian-speaking communities in the post-Soviet countries, when they are expected to master a given state’s official language. The Russian authorities fall back on the European concept of minority linguistic rights, forgetting that Russian is both a world language and an imperial language. Hence, it is illogical to portray Russian as a minority language. Likewise, no one has any doubts in Europe and elsewhere that due to the similar character, English cannot be seen a minority language, either. That it would be contradictory to define communities of English-speakers in France or Czechia as some ‘national minorities.’
The case of double standards is clear. Russia arrogates to itself the right to impose on the post-Soviet states with substantial Russian-speaking communities. At the same time, the Kremlin sees no problem with breaching the constitutional obligations in respect of the use and protection of the Russian Federation’s official regional (republican) languages. In 2018 the teaching of these languages ceased to be obligatory for children living in Russia’s autonomous republics. Two years later, in 2020, the changed Russian Constitution made Russian into the federation’s sole state language. In addition, ethnic Russians (or Slavophone Orthodox Christians) were elevated to the status of Russia’s ‘state-forming nation’ (государствообразующий народ gosudarstvoobrazuiushchii narod), or Übermensche to employ the appropriate nazi German term. Now, with Ukraine under Russian attack, the Duma is on the cusp of accepting a consolidating law in the sphere of language and identity politics. It will recognize all the world’s Russian-speakers as Russians (соотечественники sootechestvenniki ‘compatriots’). As a result, this law will encourage and justify Moscow’s forays abroad to ‘secure’ the ‘inalienable’ national rights of Russians residing outside the Russian Federation. Simultaneously, the legislation will reduce Russia’s own non-Russian-speakers to second-category citizens, or Untermensche.
The sociopolitical logic of the Russkii mir ideology is divisive at home and abroad in line with the old imperial principle of divide et impera, or divide and rule. Russian neoimperialism is firmly anchored in language politics. To make Russia great again is above all to ensure that everyone speaks Russian in the Russian Federation, and that as many post-Soviet countries as possible can be compelled to adopt Russian as a co-official language. In the near future, at least in the Slavic-speaking post-Soviet countries of Belarus and Ukraine, Moscow’s pressure could plausibly lead to the replacement the national languages with Russian. The plan has worked well in the case of Belarus, where the national language of Belarusian is now regularly spoken by a mere tenth of the Belarusians, while less than 1 per cent of administrative acts are issued in this language.
The same approach had worked similarly in Ukraine until the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Afterward, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine, the position of Ukrainian as the country’s sole state language (державна мова derzhavna mova) was firmly reasserted with the 2019 language law. In line with this law, by January 2022 all print newspapers and periodicals in Ukraine had switched to publishing in Ukrainian, much to the Kremlin’s displeasure. Hence, the aforementioned consolidating law deliberated in the Duma also aspires to broaden the definition of Russia’s state forming nation by adding to it Belarusians and Ukrainians. The Duma ‘justifies’ this broadening by claiming that both Slavic nations ‘are connected to the Russians through the shared historical fate and culture’ (общность исторической судьбы и культуры obshchnost’ istoricheskoi sud’by i kul’tury). In this manner, the 19th-century tsarist theory has been revived that the Belarusians and Ukrainians are mere branches of the single ‘Great Russian’ nation. Therefore, the languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian are deemed to be mere ‘peasant dialects’ of the Russian language. In this manner of thinking, the Belarusians and Ukrainians can speak their languages at home and with neighbors, but all public life, education, administration and politics should be conducted exclusively through the medium of Russian in Belarus and Ukraine.
Curiously, Russian is the only postcolonial language of worldwide communication, in the case of which the former imperial metropolis usurps for itself the sole right of ownership. Such an approach is unthinkable in the context of English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. No sane person would propose in Britain that the Scots and Australians do not exist, because they all speak Britain’s official language of English. Hence, all Britain’s inhabitants must be members of the English nation, and the same should hold true in the case of the English-speaking citizens of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ghana or Zimbabwe. In such an ethnolinguistic view as a basis of neoimperialism, all of them would have to be members of the same English nation. Yet, in the observed sociopolitical reality the shared Portuguese language does not make Brazilians into Portuguese. Similarly, speaking the same French language does not transform Congolese or Belgians into Frenchmen.
The ethnolinguistic logic of Russia’s neoimperialism is alien to Western Europe’s former colonial metropolises and the postcolonial countries that are historically and culturally connected to them. Perhaps, this is so due to the fact that the process of the decolonization of the Russian-Soviet empire has not been concluded yet. The Russian elite believe that their country is (or at least should be) much larger than the current Russian Federation. The Russian world ideology targets all the post-Soviet states and tsarist Russia’s western borderlands. The latter coincide at least with Finland and Poland. Some fantasists even take directly on the US, because they want to reclaim Alaska for resurgent Russia.
The Kremlin’s propaganda and legislative efforts aspire to show that the ethnolinguistically defined Russian nation occupies an area much larger that today’s Russian Federation. This disjunction – as created by Moscow’s relentless propaganda and internet trolling – produces a political tension and the feeling of injustice among the Russians, which in turn ‘justifies’ the Kremlin’s expansionist policies. This recently stoked-up irredentism is the fuel that makes Russian neoimperialism highly popular among the Russians at home and Russian-speakers outside Russia. The method is eerily like nazi Germany’s concept of Lebensraum, or living space. Under the nazi regime, Berlin used to claim that the German nation was suffocating in too small a state, which ‘justified’ Germany’s conquest of Central Europe as the German Volk’s ‘natural’ living space.
Ukrainian in the cross-hairs
Yet, in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin claims that the Ukrainians are nazis, because by reaffirming the use of Ukrainian language in Ukraine they ‘discriminate’ against Russian and Russians in this country. Let us not forget that three million Ukrainians (including at least one million in the Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation) live in the Russian Federation. They cannot and do not expect to use Ukrainian in school, office or work. But Russia does not care to observe the principle of reciprocity that is a well-established norm in today’s international relations. In the imperial fashion, the Kremlin pursues its domestic and foreign goals as it wishes. However, under the current dictatorial regime in Russia, language politics has been made into the linchpin of the neoimperial ideology and the politics of its implementation on the ground. Moscow has turned language into a main weapon of hybrid warfare.
As the current Russian war on Ukraine exemplifies, the Kremlin intends to execute the unification of Ukraine with Russia by literally destroying Ukrainian language, nation, culture and history. In July 2021, the Kremlin’s official website posted Putin’s rambling essay, in which the Russian dictator ‘proved’ that Ukraine is part of Russia, while the Ukrainians are Russians who under the West’s noxious influence forgot about their true identity. The current war is Russia’s neoimperial effort to impose this political project on Ukraine with its 40 million inhabitants and make the West accept it. In order to justify the war, Putin presents it as a mere ‘special war operation’ (специальная военная операция spetsialnaia voennaia operatsiia) to denazify Ukraine. The Russian president openly denigrates the Ukrainian government and elite as a ‘nazis and drug addicts.’
Who are Moscow’s imaginary ‘nazis’ in Ukraine? As the Russian propagandists explain, they are Ukrainians who do not believe they are Russians, and who oppose the Russian army’s valiant ‘liberation’ to make them into Russians. What should happen to such recalcitrant ‘Russians,’ who wrongheadedly believe they are some Ukrainians? The Ukrainian leadership, all the Ukrainian army soldiers and the Ukrainian elite of culture should be ‘liquidated,’ that is, blacklisted, tracked down and killed. Rank-and-file Ukrainians who fail to see light and refuse to become loyal Russians should be thrown into concentration camps for reeducation through forced labor. The name of Ukraine must be erased, and the country will be made into another Russian province. To effect these changes a Russian denazification (that is, occupation) regime is to remain in place for at least 25 years. During that time, no reconstruction of destroyed Ukraine would be allowed, making deukrainized Ukraine into a desperately backward and re-ruralized land. It is not a quote from a dystopian novel, but the Kremlin’s official program for postwar Ukraine, as published on 3 April 2022 by Russia’s official news agency RIA.
Hence, the denazification of Ukraine is, first of all, deukrainization, which then is to be followed by russification. The aforementioned document portrays this process and Russia’s planned annexation of Ukraine as ‘decolonization’ of this country, now suffering under the West’s imperial (colonial) rule. In Russian propaganda, the meanings of the highly charged political terms as ‘nazis,’ ‘denazification,’ or ‘imperialism’ are mendaciously subverted, arbitrarily changed, and manipulated. The rhetoric of big lie works. After the liquidation of free mass media news outlets of any significance, Russian propaganda wins public opinion across the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, four-fifths of the Russians now support Putin and their president’s war of ‘liberation’ on ‘nazi Ukraine.’
All goes according to the plan in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian troops. The libraries are ‘cleansed’ of Ukrainian books that are summarily destroyed, usually burned. The same fate is meted out to Ukrainian archives, museums, churches, or monuments. The Ukrainian past must vanish. In order to prevent the transmission of Ukrainian from one generation to another, schools and hospitals are widely bombed. In the Ukrainian territories firmly under Russian occupation, schools reopen. Obviously, Russian fully replaced there Ukrainian as the medium of instruction. Furthermore, school subjects of Ukrainian history, literature and language were scrapped. And last but not least, those who oppose the Russian occupation are imprisoned, tortured, raped and summarily executed by shooting. Some just spoke Ukrainian. It is also a crime, because under Russian rule, Russian is the sole official language. When a Ukrainian city desired by the Kremlin is defended too obstinately, the Russian troops just raze it to the ground with indiscriminate shelling, burying thousands alive, as it already happened in the case of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, or Mariupol.
The promised Russkii mir, or ‘Russian peace,’ has finally come. Meanwhile, Moscow denies all crimes against civilians, bizarrely accusing the Ukrainians that it is them, who shell their own people and stage mass killings to discredit ‘peace-loving’ Russia. The propaganda follows the same tack developed in 2015 after the invading Russian troops in eastern Ukraine downed the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Among other explanations, Russian propaganda proposed that it was Kyiv and the West who staged this disaster with the use of predeceased cadavers. Now bizarre of this type is not beyond highest state officials in the Russian Federation. For instance, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova eerily but seriously proposes that Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine is over soup. Apparently, the casus belli amounts to the ‘fact’ that the Ukrainians refused to share the recipe of borscht with Russia. This ‘proves’ that they are nazis, which left the Kremlin with no choice but to attack Ukraine.
What does the future hold for Ukraine and the Russian language? Impossible to say. But judging by the West’s mobilization in support of Ukraine and against Russia, a good chance is that eventually the Ukrainians will manage to fend off the invaders. Afterward, Ukraine will be a drastically different country. Then the possibility of a Ukrainian Russian will be over. If Russian does not become a pluricentric language on the model of English, French or Spanish, its days as a world language are numbered. Postcolonial countries that emerged in the process of decolonization from Western Europe’s overseas empires are relaxed about designating the former colonial language in the function of official language. Neither this fact, nor the significant presence of speakers of such an erstwhile colonial language of European provenance do not give the former imperial power any rights over the independent postcolonial state.
In Ghana or Canada English-speakers do not identify and are not identified as members of the English nation. On this basis Britain cannot legally embark on a war to ‘re-unify’ these countries with the foggy ‘motherland.’ Likewise, London has no say on how to write and speak English correctly in Ghana or Canada. The prerogative is left to the Ghanaians and Canadians themselves, who typically delegate this task to specialists at the countries’ universities, newspapers, or publishing houses.
The Kremlin’s ideology of Russkii mir stands in complete contrast to this laidback hands-off approach. Moscow, in a neoimperial fashion, sees the Russian language as belonging only to Russia. This claim of exclusive ownership allows the Russian government and elite to abrogate the right to control how the language should be correctly written and spoken. Any efforts on part of the post-Soviet states to develop their own country-specific varieties of Russian are dismissed by Moscow as a form of ‘discrimination’ against such a country’s Russian-speakers. The Kremlin protests even more vociferously, when Russian-speakers are encouraged to acquire the official language of their post-Soviet country of residence.
The Russian government sees it as an unjustified blow to the ‘holy’ ethnolinguistic-cum-territorial ‘unity’ of the Russian empire as it should be, that is, at least extending as far as the territory of the former Soviet Union. For now, the Kremlin sticks to a program minimum, aiming at ‘bringing back’ into Russia the post-Soviet areas inhabited by considerable Russophone communities. Unsurprisingly, this prospect puts any targeted post-Soviet state on high alert, nullifying any discussion on an Estonian, Latvian, or Ukrainian variety of Russian. Instead, Russia’s offensive rhetoric is countered with the policies that encourage the wider use of a given post-Soviet country’s state language to the eventual exclusion of Russian from public – and even private – sphere.
Prior to the war, many Ukrainians spoke Russian, but identified as ethnic Ukrainians. Language was just an instrument of communication, not a passport or proof of one’s identity. After all an Austrian or Swiss who speaks German is not a German. Yet, during the Second World War, Hitler and his nazi elite had different ideas in this regard. Their ambition was like Putin’s to ‘gather’ all German-speakers in a single big Germany. The Kremlin’s neoimperial program of the Russian world entails exactly the same in relation to the globe’s Russian-speakers. Many Russophone Ukrainians saw it only as empty rhetoric until 2014. But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and attack on eastern Ukraine, many, especially intellectuals and politicians felt the pressure, and took the decision to switch from Russian to Ukrainian, at least in writing and public life.
Following the Russian invasion in 2022, nowadays, rank-and-file Russophone Ukrainians make a concentrated effort to switch to speaking and writing exclusively in Ukrainian. It has become a mass phenomenon. They do not want to play the role of Putin’s ‘compatriots.’ They do not want to give a ‘reason’ to the Kremlin for ‘having to liberate’ them. They prefer not to become ‘beneficiaries’ of the Russkii mir, only to be hunted down and persecuted for a Ukrainian word that carelessly slips their lips. They want to avoid the fate of being deported to Russia’s Siberia and other far-flung corners, where the Russian occupants have already dispatched almost half a million Ukrainians. On the way Russian guards confiscated their Ukrainian passports, which will make any return to Ukraine much harder.
It is no mystery that the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live like Europeans, Westerners. Their attachment is to democracy and liberalism, not to Putin’s dictatorial Russkii mir that is a cross between Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union and the vaguely remembered autocratic Russia of tsars. Therefore, in 2019, the membership in the EU and Nato, as the country’s strategic goals were enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution.
The Kremlin’s impulse is to continue with the imperial project for propping up the huge empty territory of Russia and make its inhabitants accept impoverishment, corruption and arbitrary governance as a norm that must be suffered. The social contract between the neo-tsar and the population works. The grandeur of Russia, or a country others now fear and loath, is a sufficient reward for most Russians. Yet, the Kremlin continues to be anxious. What if the Russians see that life is much better in democratic and liberal Ukraine that has become a member of the EU and Nato?
Decline of Russian
This apprehension and imperial delusions put Russia in the rut of many Third Reich policies, as mentioned above. Also in the sphere of language politics. Until World War II, German was an international language of science, scholarship, economy, engineering and commerce. What changed this course was Hitler’s identification of all German-speakers as Germans, and his insistence on ‘gathering’ them and their ‘small states’ where they lived in a single Greater German Empire. This ‘Greater’ empire was actually proclaimed in 1943. Meanwhile, it also became known as the German Volk’s ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) that still had to be cleansed of non-German-speakers, be them Slavs or ‘racially inferior Untermenschen.
Despite its racist rhetoric the actual nazi policies of supporting and strengthening Germanness mostly entailed the spread of the use and monocentric control of German language and culture. As a result, German became an ideologized language in everyday conversations, education, administration, economy and culture. The big lie of the nazi ideology became its founding stone, like the Russkii mir in the case of today’s Russian. Perhaps, as in the case of wartime German, also some émigré writers and thinkers may save the relative openness and unideologized versatility of Russian. But those who dare to protest are few and apart, and rarely of considerable fame in today’s Russia.
But it will not be enough to preserve the position of Russian as a worldwide lingua franca of communication, culture and research. The loss in World War II drastically parred down the geographical area in which German was employed as a language of everyday communication and administration to postwar Austria and Germany. Moreover, the language’s functions as a lingua franca were taken over by English, because Britain and the United States won the war in the West, and to a degree by Russian, since the Soviet Union defeated nazi Germany in Eastern and Central Europe. What is more, after 1950, practically no German-speakers remained outside postwar Austria and Germany. Between 1945 and 1950, millions of Germans and German-speakers were expelled from postwar Central and Eastern Europe to Germany and Austria.
But earlier it was the Germans and Austrians themselves who singled out Central Europe’s fellow Jews for extermination in the Holocaust. The vast majority of these Jews spoke Yiddish, or in other words ‘Jewish German’ (jüddisch Deutsch). Out of all Germanic languages German is closest to Yiddish, though the latter language’s Hebrew script makes it appear significantly different from the former. For all practical reasons Yiddish and German are kindred varieties of the same Yiddish-German language. Yet, it was Yiddish-speakers who due to their significant presence across Central and Eastern Europe, in both Americas and South Africa made German into a world language. As a rule of thumb, Yiddish-speakers knew Latin letters and could read and write in German, too. Christian German-speakers never cared to reciprocate, and to this day are unable to read Yiddish. Hence, the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews simultaneously liquidated the use of Yiddish-German in Europe and convinced Yiddish-speakers to distance themselves from German elsewhere in the world. This ensured that their descendants switched mainly to speaking and writing in English.
Unthinkingly, the Kremlin repeats the same ideological pattern and follows similar language policis, which is sure to reduce Russian language and belittle Russian culture. Mendaciously, the Russian government dubs its victims in Ukraine as ‘nazis,’ while the Kremlin itself is busy pursuing nazi-style policies of mass killings and war crimes with an eye to denationalizing (‘de-nazifying’) the Ukrainians. Ostensibly, these policies are followed to ensure an improved position of Russian and to broaden the language’s use across the post-Soviet countries and beyond. But Moscow also wants to employ such a widespread use of Russian as an ‘argument’ for claiming these countries’ inhabitants as Russians or potential Russians, before actually invading.
In reaction to this imperial grand scheme of the Russkii mir, the targeted countries are sure to abandon Russian language and culture. Most Russophones in these post-Soviet countries will certainly to make an effort to abandon this language in favor of a given state language. After the period of Russia’s neoimperial wars, the country will not only be thoroughly isolated from the world and the global economy, but on top of that its population will be exhausted and impoverished. The projection of Russian influence through hard military means or the soft power of mass and social media will become impossible. Russian language and culture will be contained to Russia only. Future Russians seeking contacts and opportunities abroad most probably will be compelled to acquire English, or Chinese, if post-Putin Russia falls into China’s sphere of influence. The monocentric Russian will become another provincial language spoken and written in just a single country, namely the finally decolonized but still happily autocratic Russia.
 In Russian legislation the languages recognized as official in Russia’s autonomous republics are labelled as государственные языки в республиках Российской Федерации gosudarstvennye iazyki v respublikakh Rossiiskoi Federatsii ‘state languages in the republics of the Russian Federation.’ (Cf https://www.idelreal.org/a/29377714.html)
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