The bilingual Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, who writes exclusively in Ukrainian, says that Russia “for the first time in its history has lost the monopoly on its own language,” a development that many in Russia find hard to accept and that even more in Ukraine see as a factor in the development of their country.
Aleksei Tsvetkov, a poet and essayist writing in Russian, notes that “more than once” he has heard others say the same thing and that Zhadan’s observation is important both in explaining Vladimir Putin’s anger and the implications for Russia of a truly independent Ukraine.
According to Tsvetkov, the issue of “who owns the Russian language” has always been resolved in Russia by silent acquiescence, with most Russians passively assuming that “the language belonged to the empire and that anyone who uses does so … as it were by a license extended to him from the center.”
Most empires, the Russian poet continues, are “in principle multi-lingual; but Russia in this sense is different from the majority of others” because while it has tolerated non-Russian languages on the further periphery of its holdings, it has not done so in the metropolitan center in which Russians believe Ukrainians fit.
Indeed, he argues, “the strategy of conscious Russification” which took off in the last third of the nineteenth century “over a comparatively short time achieved unique results: in the contemporary Russian language, local dialects practically disappeared;” and hence those who spoke what Russians viewed as variants of Russian were opposed.
“The relation of the average resident of the Russian metropolitan center to his language was formed by two main factors: a feeling of the center from which in the view of this resident this language was legitimately running the language and the absence of independent [cases] of the use of this language outside [Russia’s] borders.”
According to Tsvetkov, “such a situation was conceived as completely natural while in fact it was an exception” to the rules that have governed linguistic development in imperial and especially post-imperial spaces where people still speak a variant of the language of the former center but do not feel constrained by its approach.
“British, American, Indian and other variants can be called dialects only with difficulty. The linguist Max Weinreich once joked that a language unlike a dialect had its own army and fleet.” But in fact, this is simply English’s “decentralization,” which has happened with other imperial languages and is now happening with Russian.
In post-imperial countries where the population has its own language, the Russian poet continues, it often happens that the imposition or promotion of that language is at the center of nation building. Russian paradoxically is doing this even as Russia has not entirely given up its imperial past.
Russia’s “status as a nation state is still doubtful as it has not recovered to this day from its imperial sleep,” Tsvetkov says; but at the same time, he points out, Russia is pursuing “a purely nationalistic language policy” and seeking to impose it at home and abroad by force.
With the rise of Ukraine where many citizens speak Russian and Russian diasporas further afield, Russia is now being forced to confront a situation in which it doesn’t have a state monopoly on the language however much Putin would like to maintain that archaic form.
And this loss in control means, Tsvetkov says, that “judging from everything Russia will be forced to come to terms with the fact that it no longer has the right to dictate to the entire world” how Russian is used or spoken, regardless of what the Kremlin now thinks.
Note from the Editor: Ukraine’s Russian diaspora is the largest and most concentrated group of the Russian diaspora. If we extend the logic of Zhadan and Tsvetkov’s analysis, we could conclude that after the deep rejection of Moscow’s neo-imperialist ideology triggered by Putin’s anschluss of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas, this Russian diaspora will dominate the development of the language it uses and shape it according to its needs and tastes. Practically it would mean that eventually there will be two Russian languages, displacing Moscow’s position as the world’s standard bearer of the language:
- The Muscovite one, which for many centuries has been imposed on the population of the evolving Russian empire intended on self-preservation and expansion and in the process killing many native languages of the subjugated peoples;
- The Southern Russian, spoken in Ukraine by the Russian diaspora and the Ukrainian victims of the imperial and soviet Russification policies that lasted nearly four centuries. To a large degree, this language will be shaped by the influence of Ukrainian language and Ukrainian state policies of European integration.
- Under Russian occupation, Crimean Tatar language rights exist ‘only on paper,’ Turkish rights activists say
- By supporting Chechen across Russia, Grozny challenges Moscow’s language policy — and with Moscow’s money
- Russia’s actions in occupied Crimea show how Moscow plans to destroy non-Russian languages in Russia itself
- Putin launches broad new attack against non-Russian languages
- Russian language not united or unifying even inside Russian Federation