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Estonian Russian. If or when?

The Russian language is the only ‘big language’ in the world to remain so closely connected to its parent nation-state, Russia. Despite the fact that it is used so widely across the post-Soviet sphere, there are no official country-specific varieties of the Russian language. This kind of ethnolinguistic nationalism is yet another mode by which Moscow influences the “near-abroad” and even European Union member states.

May 8, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Narva, the third largest city in Estonia. Almost everyone living there is a native Russian speaker. It is located at the eastern extreme point of Estonia, at the Russian border, on the Narva River. The river marks the international frontier between the European Union and NATO, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation and Moscow’s Eurasian Union, on the other. Photo: Andrey Korchagin (cc) flickr.com

Russian is the sole language of wider (global) communication which still is seen as unitary in its character. It is believed that no country-specific varieties of this language, or Russians in plural, exist. Even more strongly, many linguists based in Russia and other post-Soviet states emphasise that any rise of such country-specific Russian languages is unwelcome and should be prevented, while the control of the correct use of this language must remain entrusted to the (Vinogradov) Russian Language Institute (Институт русского языка имени В. В. Виноградова, Institut russkogo iazyka imeni V V Vinogradova), founded in 1944 as part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In practice this means that Moscow should retain a monopoly on the control of this language. The Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but on the plane of Russian, as the “Soviet socialist language of interethnic communication”, this linguistic avatar of the communist empire plods on.

Building of the Russian Language Institute in Volkhonka Street, Moscow.
Source: Shuvaev, wikimedia.org

The dominance of Russia’s Russian

The linguistic empire is increasingly and unabashedly Russian in ethnic and political sense. At present, almost three decades after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Russian is an official, co-official, auxiliary or de facto language of commercial or wider intellectual communication in all of the 15 post-Soviet nation-states, alongside Mongolia and Israel. Mongolia used to be an unacknowledged member of the Soviet bloc in Asia, while nowadays Soviet Jews, at 1.2 million, constitute a fifth of Israel’s Jews. However, until recently there was little reflection on country-specific Russians or any desire to research, let alone formalise, them.

This attitude stands in stark contrast to other “big languages” of the world: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese are not seen as an exclusive property belonging to a single “mother” country. Americans or South Africans would only laugh and shrug if the British Council or Oxford University attempted to impose British English to the replacement of country-specific American or South African English. Each nation-state where the aforementioned languages are widely employed is free to describe and fashion its local variety of such a “big language” as deemed appropriate and in sync with the local needs and desires. Hence, these languages are dubbed “pluricentric”, meaning with many states as their respective centres of development and cultivation. In contrast, sociolinguists qualify a language with a single state at its centre of development as “monocentric”. For instance, at present Czech, Hungarian, Irish, Maltese, Norwegian, Polish and Ukrainian are monocentric languages.

The model of ethnolinguistic nationalism

The Kremlin’s and the post-Soviet states’ unusual – from the global perspective – treatment of a “big language” spoken and written in numerous states, as properly belonging to, and properly controlled by, its “mother country” is a specifically central European propensity. In this corner of Europe during the last two centuries, the ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism emerged and was implemented, and at present is the sole accepted ideology of statehood creation, legitimation and maintenance. This ideology proposes that Language = Nation = State, namely, that all the speakers of a language constitute a nation, and that all the nation’s members should be tightly housed in a single national polity of its own.

Germany, founded in 1871, was one of the leading proponents of ethnolinguistic nationalism, hence the continued existence of several German-speaking polities was an anathema to German nationalists. During the Second World War, Berlin built a continent-wide empire, both racist and ethnolinguistic in its character. But despite the unprecedented genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing perpetrated, and tens of millions of casualties suffered in the course of military operations, tiny Liechtenstein and the German-speaking areas of officially quadrilingual Switzerland obstinately remained outside the Third Reich, or the “Third German Empire”. In contrast, the two post-war Germanies – East and West – acquiesced to the fact that Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland, as fully or partly German-speaking countries, can exist in the form of independent nation-states, and it is not necessary to conquer them in the name of a unitary German language. It is better not to act on the dogma of ethnolinguistic nationalism, when this does not improve anyone’s life and invariably leads to total war and perdition.

The Russian Empire, in its drive at western-style modernisation, adopted the German model of ethnolinguistic unification. Beginning in the 1880s, St Petersburg’s goal was to fully Russianise the empire’s European section. Russian was to replace all the local languages in the function of the sole language of administration and education. The entailed liquidation of the long-established territorial and cultural autonomies generated growing opposition. Critics saw the presumably benevolent modernisation policy of Russianisation (обрусение, obrusenie) as an imperial attempt at the “de-nationalisation” of ethnic non-Russians, or Russification (русификация, rusifikatsiia).

The 1905 Revolution put an end to this policy, entailing the invigorated spread of ethnolinguistic national movements across the European section of the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks embraced this ethnolinguistic trend and reinterpreted it as an anti-imperial and revolutionary force in order to bolster the interwar Soviet Union. However, beginning in 1938 the staggering number of 17,000 ethnolinguistically defined Soviet autonomous republics, countries, districts, territories, regions, towns, villages and kolkhozes was drastically reduced to about 30. In the same year, all non-Russian-speaking schoolchildren were obliged to attend obligatory lessons of Russian. After the Second World War, Russian was elevated to the status of the supposedly de-ethnicised universal language of the Soviet socialist narod (“people” or “nation”). As a result of this policy, in the late Soviet Union more people employed Russian than the titular language in the union republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The territories that were at one time or another part of the Russian Empire. Darker shade – under effective control (1914). Lighter shade – Former territories, protectorates and sphere of influence. Map by Milenioscuro, wikimedia.org

In the wake of the 1991 split of the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed in Kazakhastan but not in independent Belarus, where the sphere of the use of Belarusian continues to shrink. Ukraine was following the Belarusian example when the 2014 Revolution of Dignity stopped and reversed this trend. On the other hand, Russia’s subsequent official annexation of Crimea and de facto annexation of eastern Ukraine dramatically lowered the number of Russophones in the Ukrainian population from 8.3 million to 2.3 million.

Moscow’s modern-day ethnolinguistic control

Meanwhile, curiously, for the first time ever in Russian history Moscow began to embrace ethnolinguistic nationalism as its main ideology of statehood legitimation and maintenance at the turn of the 21st century. In 2002, in order to prevent Tatarstan from switching from Cyrillic to Latin letters for writing this autonomous republic’s titular language of Tatar, the Russian Duma adopted a law which prescribes Cyrillic as the sole legal alphabet for writing and publishing in the Russian Federation’s 30 or so regional (republican) official languages.

Half a decade later, in 2007 the Russkii Mir (Русский мир, “Russian World”) Foundation was established, ostensibly to popularise the Russian language worldwide, in emulation of the British Council or Germany’s Goethe-Institut. In reality, Russkii Mir rather copies China’s Confucius Institute (孔子学院, Kǒngzǐ Xuéyuàn, founded in 2004), for the sake of weaponising language in order to overhaul the soft power of culture into a rapidly hardening instrument of projecting power outside of Russia. This development saliently added to the invention of hybrid warfare in the early 2010s.

Library of the Russkii Mir foundation in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: Andrew Butko (cc) wikimedia.org

In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea, in 2014 the Duma adopted a new Russian citizenship law defining all Russian-speakers as members of the Russian nation. Now each native speaker of this language has the right to receive Russian citizenship in an expeditious manner. In this way, all the territories adjacent to the frontiers of the Russian Federation and inhabited by compact populations of Russophones have been politically re-imagined as rightfully belonging to Russia. These “unredeemed areas”, together with today’s Russia, are deemed to constitute the “full” national territory of “true Russia”. Italy’s 19th-century ethnolinguistic policy of irredenta has been married with the Muscovite (Russian) imperial policy of the “gathering of the lands of Rus’”.

This ideological jolt, alongside nuclear warheads and a degree of economic buoyancy generated by the oil industry, allowed Moscow to start punching well beyond its weight, to relaunch imperialism as the polity’s raison d’être. Russia has an economy the size of Spain’s and its exports, in monetary value, are comparable with those of the Netherlands’. Yet, the maximisation and planned synergy of the use of these limited resources for power projection enable the Kremlin to intervene militarily in Syria, or to influence the Brexit referendum in Britain and the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

“Unredeemed Russian-speaking territories” outside the Russian Federation Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

On the other hand, hardly does anyone give a thought to how this wholesale adoption of ethnolinguistic nationalism endangers the Russian Federation internally. In its ethnic composition the country’s vast Asian territories and the densely populated northern Caucasus are ethnically non-Russian. To a degree the aforementioned 2014 Russian citizenship law makes ethnically non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation into second-rank citizens and prevents their co-ethnics living abroad from applying for Russian citizenship with the use of this law. The situation may lead to an ethnolinguistic reaction, comparable to what was observed during and in the wake of the 1905 Revolution. On the cue of resurgent Russia’s imperial ideology of Russian ethnolinguistic nationalism, non-Russian-speakers may want to redefine themselves as ethnolinguistically defined nations in their own right, separate from the Russians, swiftly leading to demands for independent nation-states.

Ethnic map of Russia, 2010 Source: Koh554 wikimedia.org

Leaving aside this dilemma of today’s Russian domestic relations, the Kremlin’s paradoxical imperial policy of ethnolinguistic nationalism eerily reminds us of how the Third Reich employed this type of nationalism. Initially, in the late 1930s Berlin used it as an argument for legitimising the German annexations of Austria, the Sudentenland and Czechia, to which the West acquiesced. Afterward, on the same ideological basis, wartime Germany launched a full-scale offensive for building a German(ic) “Aryan” empire from Spain to the Urals, and from Scandinavia to northern Africa.

Russia’s Russian as a powerful weapon inside the EU

Moscow uses the same ideological logic for exerting pressure on the European Union’s member states of Estonia and Latvia, where Russophones account for almost a third and over a third of the population, respectively. Both countries’ Russian-speaking territories huddle the Russian frontier. The same ethnolinguistic arguments that the Kremlin voiced for rationalising the annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine could be easily extended for justifying any grabbing of the eastern halves of Estonia and Latvia, together with the two countries’ heavily Russian-speaking capitals. It is only NATO and Brussels, which stop – for now – an actualisation of such a scenario.

Distribution of the Russian language in Estonia according to data from the 2000 Estonian census. Dvoit (cc) wikimedia.org
Use of Russian language at home in Latvia based on the 2011 census. Xil (cc) wikimedia.org

Although many articles and debates have been devoted to the coalescence of Russia’s ethnolinguistic nationalism as an offensive instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, surprisingly little attention is given to any potential counter-measures. The sole permanent success in this corner is Ukraine’s strictly enforced decision, which bans Russian-language publications to the foreign-language book section in the country’s bookstores.

Across the EU, not a single member state recognises Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and no maps are permitted on sale that would mark this peninsula as part of the Russian territory. However, this regulation is hardly policed where it is of utmost importance, that is, in Estonia and Latvia, where almost half of the publications on offer are in Russian, the vast majority of them imported from the Russian Federation. Unlike in Ukraine, Russian-language books often dominate numerically over their Estonian- and Latvian-language counterparts in both countries’ bookstores, and no one seems to care about Russian-language atlases, maps, guidebooks or textbooks that unambiguously depict Crimea as a Russian province.

In Ukraine during and immediately after the Revolution of Dignity the possibility of codifying a separate country-specific Ukrainian Russian was intensively debated. In 2015 even a petition was lodged with the Office of the Ukrainian President for creating a Ukrainian standard of the Russian language. Had this petition been followed through, Russian would have already become a pluricentric language. But this idea soon was pushed to the back-burner and forgotten. Hence, Moscow remains firmly in control of Russian as the medium and of information conveyed through this language, as amply exemplified by Estonian and Latvian bookshops bristling with Russian propaganda publications in Russian. To a degree the same is true of Lithuania, where in 2018 I purchased a copy of Vadim Rybin’s revealingly titled work Государственный язык как орудие власти (Gosudarstvennyi iazyk kak orude vlasti, “State Language as an Instrument of Power”, 2018, St Petersburg: Piter), which had been proudly exhibited in a bookshop’s window.

Countering the force of Russia’s ethnolinguistic nationalism in Europe

Hence, the question of the pluricentricisation of Russian, rather than being of a scholastic interest, is of utmost urgency for European politics. The goal should be at least the de-weaponisation of the Russian language-turned-into-an-instrument-of-hybrid warfare. The easiest way to do it is, first of all, through enforcing the standing ban on publications in Russian (and other languages) that depict Crimea as part of Russia. Second, in Estonian or Latvian bookstores Russian-language books must be consigned to the section with books in foreign languages. Third, bookshops dealing exclusively in Russian-language publications ought to be required to diversify or close. Fourth, relaying television or radio (mainly in Russian, but also in other languages) from the Russian Federation to Estonia, Latvia or elsewhere in the European Union should be banned. Fifth, the spread of fake news by Russia-controlled websites and troll factories, be it in Russian or other languages, needs to be countered and blocked.

However, relying on negative measures alone is insufficient. Proactive ones must complement them, especially in Estonia and Latvia, where the existence of huge Russophone populations is a social and political reality on the ground. The aforementioned negative measures are bound to alienate these Russian-speaking social groups, unless something attractive is offered in return. It could be country-specific, Estonian and Latvian Russians, alongside a vibrant cultural package (“content”) conveyed in Estonian Russian and Latvian Russian in the form of publications, audiovisual programs and online productions.

Some Ukrainian scholars with whom I used to discuss the idea of a country-specific Ukrainian Russian replied that it was too costly to implement. Really? What would be the cost of creating a linguistic corpus (database of a language’s words and their usages) of a country-specific Russian? For instance, it took one person two years (2017-2018) to create such a corpus of two million words for Poland’s regional language of Silesian. He worked on this project part-time with a modest grant of 250 euros per month. In addition, this corpus has already yielded a Silesian-Polish machine translator and dictionary. So the total outlay amounted to 6,000 euros, which is the proverbial peanuts in comparison to how strongly a linguistic corpus of a country-specific Russian may contribute to the improvement of security in a state with a substantial Russophone population. For instance, the antiquated Soviet tank T-72 tank costs 45,000 euros a piece, while the price tag of the latest variant of the US Abrams tank is 7.7 million euros. The sum needed for purchasing the former tank would allow for creating seven such corpuses, or almost 1,300 corpuses of this kind in the case of the latter tank.

Codifying languages through the compilation of a corpus, and producing dictionaries and grammars on this basis, is increasingly easier and cheaper with the plethora of online resources available for automating this process. No budgetary concern justifies not following down this easy lane, if it could effectively de-weaponise the offensive potential of monocentric Russian.

Creating an Estonian Russian

But how to create an Estonian Russian in practice? First of all, a governmental Institute of the Estonian Russian Language should be founded in Tallinn, complete with a team of scholars and experts knowledgeable about Estonian, Slavic languages, English, and online linguistic solutions. Second, a corpus of such a country-specific variant of Estonian Russian should gather vocabulary and phrases employed in publications, radio and television programs produced on the territory of Estonia during the last two or three centuries, perhaps beginning with Muscovy’s seizure of the Swedish provinces of Estland and Livonia in the early 18th century. Third, on this basis an authoritative dictionary and grammar of Estonian Russian need to be compiled, alongside bilingual dictionaries, pairing this language with the national and official language of Estonian and with English. The pride of place must be given to country-specific Estonian terminology and vocabulary in these references. Fourth, in the wake of these developments an Estonian Russian-Russia’s Russian dictionary of lexical differences could be compiled for showcasing these Estonia-specific words.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. Photo: Jorge Franganillo (cc) flickr.com

In practice, these steps should lead to the coalescence of Estonia-centred usage in Estonian Russian. For instance, the Riigikogu (meaning “State Assembly”) is Estonia’s parliament, while the Duma (meaning “Place of Reflection”) is its counterpart in Russia. In Russia’s Russian, often the Russian term duma is employed as a generic word for “parliament” in general. But in Estonian Russian it should be riikogu, not duma. Hence:

Дума это рийгикогу России Duma eto riigikogu Rossii

(The Duma is a riikogu [= parliament] of Russia), not

*Дума это парламент России Duma eto parliament Rossii.

Furthermore, the Estonian-based transliteration of Russian could be made into the parallel Latin alphabet of Estonian Russian, yielding, for example,

Duma eto Rijkogu Rosiji.

Some attention could also be given to syntax. In Russia’s Russian the verb “to be” (быть, byt’, or byt in Estonian Russian) tends to be avoided. But nothing stops its reintroduction to Estonian Russian under the linguistic influence stemming from Estonian, Latvian or Belarusian, for example:

Дума это есть рийгикогу России, or even more radically,

Дума есть рийгикогэм России, which would be rendered, respectively, as

Duma eto jest Rijkogu Rosiji and

Duma jest Rijkogem Rosiji

in the Latin script-based Estonian Russian. The recovering of the verb “to be” for Estonian Russian and the entailed inflection for nouns would limit the overwhelming South Slavic (that is, Church Slavonic) influence in Estonian Russian and re-endow it with its original North Slavic character. Prior to the standardisation of Russian on the Church Slavonic model in the 18th century, the former language used to be more similar, in syntax and the use of the verb “to be”, to other North Slavic languages such as Classical Belarusian, Polish, Slovak or Ukrainian.

Republishing all the pre-1917 Russian-language classics for school use in Estonia could be another useful measure for enriching Estonian Russian. During the Soviet times all the re-published literary texts from the imperial period had to be “modernised” in order to comply with the new revolutionary spelling. For example, the adjectival form of the name of the country “Russia” (Россия, Rosija) is nowadays rendered as российский (rosijskij) in Russian, but prior to the 1917 spelling reform it was россійскій (rosijskij). A small irony in the proposed reversal of this anachronistic “modernisation” of pre-1917 Russian-language texts is that the linguist who spearheaded this spelling reform was none other than Aleksei Shakhmatov (1864-1920), who was born in Narva. Nowadays Narva is Estonia’s third largest city, but at 94 per cent, it has the highest share of Russian-speakers among the inhabitants of any of the country’s towns and cities. What is more, Narva is located on Estonia’s border with Russia. After the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014, this eastern frontier of the European Union and NATO may soon morph into a new Iron Curtain.

Yet another way of bolstering Estonian Russian could be drawing at the cultural and linguistic resources of nearby Belarus. The 1995 introduction of Russian as a co-official language in this country effectively pushed the national language of Belarusian to social and cultural margins. Luckily the considerable tradition of Belarusian-language literature and other publications produced between the late 19th century and today is meticulously preserved, researched and made available both in print and online. What is more, the crème de la crème of present-day Belarus’s authors and intellectuals write almost exclusively in Belarusian and when pressed to communicate with the European public at large, they prefer to switch to German or English, rather than to Russian. In this manner the elite constantly write Belarusian literature and culture back into the European mainstream of belles-lettres, and quite a few Belarusian novelists and poets trailblaze new paths of expression, while the official line of Minsk is for ever closer relations with Russia within the Union State of Russia and Belarus, founded in 1996.

What is all too often forgotten is the fact that, until the mid-20th century, Belarusian-language writers and publishers regularly used the Latin alphabet, alongside Cyrillic. As a result, like in the case of Serbo-Croatian, Belarusian also boasts its own two parallel alphabets. All the country’s intellectuals know the Belarusian Latin alphabet, or Łacinka. Hence, if a need arose to infuse Estonian Russian with more country-specific words and syntactical construction, Belarusian is a readily available and closely related North Slavic resource for this purpose, while Łacinka could be easily adapted for writing Estonian Russian. Another advantage is that the Estonian-based transliteration of Russian has some lacunae, unlike the Belarusian Łacinka. In addition, Belarusian distinguishes between the voiceless palatal fricative /x/ and the voiced velar fricative /ɤ/, rendered respectively as [ch] and [h] in Łacinka, or [х] and [г] in the Belarusian Cyrillic. This phonemic distinction does not exist in Russia’s Russian and is not marked in spelling. Hence, when in Russia’s Russian the name of the German philosopher Hegel is rendered Гегель (Gegel’), in the potential Łacinka-based script of Estonian Russian it would remain Hegel.

More information on the question of the pluricentrisation of Russian is available from Tomasz Kamusella’s article “Russian: A Monocentric or Pluricentric Language?”, Colloquia Humanistica, Vol. 7, 2018.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was published by Routledge in July 2018.

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