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The war on Ukraine will “provincialise” Russian

The Kremlin has stated time and time again that its war in Ukraine will ensure the safety of the country’s Russian speakers. Far from achieving this goal, Moscow’s military threats will only diminish Russian’s status as a global language.

April 25, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

A mine warning sign in the Donbas. The inscription in Ukrainian and Russian language - Danger mines! Photo: rospoint / Shutterstock

On February 24th, 2022 Russia attacked Ukraine. The unprovoked and unjustified full-scale invasion of peaceful Ukraine shocked the world. The date will be remembered for a long time 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 those 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 such principles and values aside when it suits. No one can be sure from one moment to another that a sitting Russian dictator will not take an arbitrary decision to everyone’s disadvantage, including that of their own country.

Russian neo-imperialism

In this time of heightened volatility, the West must change tack accordingly. First of all, it must urgently rethink how the European Union, NATO and the wider West can 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. To be able to assist Ukraine, however, the West needs to comprehend the “logic” of Moscow’s actions. Otherwise, the West and its associated international organisations will remain unable to predict Russia’s next move or responses. Yes, the Kremlin’s ideology of Russkiy mir is neo-imperial in character, as it involves the rebuilding of a Russian empire by reconquering some post-Soviet states, especially in Europe. Until 2022, such ideas were dismissed as the Kremlin’s toothless rhetoric and macho posturing. This cannot happen anymore.

The Russian language name for Moscow’s new ideology can be translated into English as the “Russian world” or even Pax Rossica. In both cases, the military undertone is clear. Between 2007 and 2022, the Kremlin maintained that the eponymous Russkiy Mir Foundation was nothing more than a Russian counterpart to organisations such as the British Council. This foundation’s exclusive agenda was supposedly to spread knowledge of the Russian language and culture around the world. Now, it is obvious that the organisation and its branches scattered across Europe and around the globe are more like instruments of Russia’s hybrid warfare. In this way, they are similar to China’s Confucius Institutes.

Under Vladimir Putin’s 23-year authoritarian rule, the Russian language has been used as a tool and justification for Russia’s offensive actions against neighbouring states. During this time, Moscow embraced a form of ethnolinguistic nationalism that had first appeared in Central European politics following the First World War. Russia’s 37 official regional (or republican) languages are neglected and are effectively being replaced by Russian. Infamously, the Duma (Russian parliament) proclaimed in 2002 that only Cyrillic must be used for writing and printing in these languages. This is mandatory even if an ethnic group (nation) wants to use a different alphabet for this purpose.

Despite this, the Kremlin cries foul when Russian speaking communities in the post-Soviet countries are expected to master a state’s official language. The Russian authorities fall back on the European concept of minority linguistic rights, forgetting that Russian is both a world and imperial language. As a result, it is illogical to portray Russian as a minority language. Likewise, no one has any illusions in Europe or elsewhere that English is a minority language either. It would be contradictory to define communities of English speakers in France or Czechia as “national minorities”.

The double standards here are clear. Russia believes that it has the right to impose its own desires on the post-Soviet states with substantial Russian speaking communities. At the same time, the Kremlin sees no problem in breaching its constitutional obligations with respect to the use and protection of the Russian Federation’s official regional languages. In 2018, the teaching of these languages ceased to be obligatory for children living in Russia’s autonomous republics. Two years later, the new Russian constitution made Russian 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”. It is perhaps appropriate to highlight the similarities to the nazi concept of Übermensch here. Now, with Ukraine under Russian attack, the Duma is on the cusp of accepting a new law that will recognise all the world’s Russian speakers as Russian “compatriots”, or members of the imperial Russian nation. This law will only 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 national minorities to second-class citizens or Untermensch.

Language politics

The sociopolitical logic of the Russkiy mir ideology is divisive at home and abroad as it aligns with the old imperial principle of divide and rule. Russian neo-imperialism is firmly anchored in language politics. To “make Russia great again”, the Kremlin must ensure above all that everyone speaks Russian in the Russian Federation. As many post-Soviet countries as possible must also 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 of 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 population. Less than one per cent of administrative acts are now issued in this language.

The same approach had worked similarly well 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 was firmly reasserted in the 2019 language law. In line with this law, all print newspapers and periodicals in Ukraine had switched to publishing in Ukrainian by January 2022. Of course, this happened much to the Kremlin’s displeasure. As a result, the Duma’s aforementioned consolidating law also aspires to broaden the definition of Russia’s state forming nation by including Belarusians and Ukrainians. The Duma “justifies” this move by claiming that both Slavic nations “are connected to the Russians through shared historical fate and culture”. In this manner, the 19th century Tsarist theory of the single “Great Russian nation” has been revived, with Belarusians and Ukrainians becoming unimportant branches attached to the Russian trunk. The languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian are deemed to be mere “peasant dialects” of the Russian language. Belarusians and Ukrainians can speak their languages at home and with neighbours. However, all public, educational, administrative and political matters should be conducted exclusively through the medium of Russian in Belarus and Ukraine.

Curiously, Russian is the world’s only postcolonial language that the former imperial centre claims 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. Using the Kremlin’s logic, all of Britain’s inhabitants must be members of the English nation. The same should also 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 of neo-imperialism, all of these groups would have to be members of the same English nation. Yet, in 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 neo-imperialism is alien to Western Europe’s former colonial metropolises, as well as the postcolonial countries that are historically and culturally connected to them. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that the decolonisation of the Russian/Soviet empire is not yet complete. 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. These borderlands coincide at least with Finland and Poland. Some fantasists even say they want to reclaim Alaska for a resurgent Russia.

The Kremlin’s propaganda and legislative efforts promote the idea that the ethnolinguistically defined Russian nation occupies an area much larger that today’s Russian Federation. This disconnect produces political tension and a feeling of injustice among Russians, which in turn “justifies” the Kremlin’s expansionist policies. This recent irredentism is the fuel that powers Russian neo-imperialism among Russians at home and Russian speakers outside Russia. The method is eerily similar to Nazi Germany’s concept of Lebensraum or “living space”. Under the nazi regime, Berlin used to claim that the German nation was suffocating in a small state. This “justified” Germany’s conquest of Central Europe as the German Volk’s “natural” living space.

Ukrainian in the cross hairs

In the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin claims that the Ukrainians are nazis. This is because their government is reaffirming the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine, which they use to “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 an 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 neo-imperial ideology and the politics of its implementation on the ground. Moscow has turned language into its main weapon of hybrid warfare.

As the current Russian war on Ukraine shows, the Kremlin intends to unite Ukraine with Russia by literally destroying the Ukrainian language, nation, culture and history. In July 2021, the Kremlin’s official website posted Putin’s rambling essay. The Russian dictator “proved” that Ukraine is part of Russia, while the Ukrainians are simply Russians who forgot about their true identity under the West’s nefarious influence. The current war is Russia’s neo-imperial effort to impose this political project on Ukraine and its 40 million inhabitants and make the West accept it. In order to justify the war, Putin presents it as a mere “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine. The Russian president openly denigrates the Ukrainian government and elite as “nazis and drug addicts”.

Who are Moscow’s imaginary “nazis” in Ukraine? As the Russian propagandists explain, they are Ukrainians who do not believe that they are Russians and who oppose the Russian army’s valiant “liberation”. What should happen to such recalcitrant “Russians”, who wrongly believe that they are Ukrainians? The Ukrainian leadership, as well as the country’s soldiers and cultural elite, should be “liquidated”. This essentially means that they will be blacklisted, tracked down and killed. Ukrainian citizens who fail to see the light and refuse to become loyal Russians would be thrown into concentration camps for re-education through forced labour. The very name of Ukraine must be erased and the country 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, there will be no reconstruction in a destroyed Ukraine. The country would become a desperately backward and rural land. This is not an idea from a dystopian novel. Indeed, it is the Kremlin’s official programme for postwar Ukraine as published on April 3rd by Russia’s official news agency RIA.

As a result, the denazification of Ukraine is first of all “deukrainisation”, which is then to be followed by russification. The aforementioned article portrays this process and Russia’s planned annexation of Ukraine as the “decolonisation” of a country currently suffering under the West’s imperial (colonial) rule. In Russian propaganda, the meanings of the highly charged political terms “nazis”, “denazification” and “imperialism” are manipulated for the Kremlin’s gain. The rhetoric of the “big lie” works. After the liquidation of the country’s free mass media news outlets, Russian propaganda simply wins over public opinion across the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, four-fifths of Russians now support Putin and their president’s war of “liberation” against “nazi Ukraine”.

All is going according to plan in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian troops. Libraries are being “cleansed” of Ukrainian books that are summarily destroyed and even burned. The same fate is meted out to Ukrainian archives, museums, churches and 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 with Russian fully replacing Ukrainian as the medium of instruction. Furthermore, the school subjects of Ukrainian history, literature and language have been scrapped. Last but not least, those who oppose the Russian occupation are imprisoned, tortured, raped and summarily executed by shooting. Some just spoke Ukrainian. This is also a crime as Russian is the sole official language under Russian rule. When a Ukrainian city desired by the Kremlin is defended too stubbornly, the Russian troops just raze it to the ground with indiscriminate shelling, burying thousands alive. This has already happened in the case of Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol.

The promised “Russian peace” has finally come. Meanwhile, Moscow denies all crimes against civilians and bizarrely claims that the Ukrainians are shelling their own people and staging mass killings to discredit “peace-loving” Russia. This propaganda uses the same tactics developed in 2015 after invading Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Among other explanations, Russian propaganda proposed that it was Kyiv and the West that staged this disaster with the use of predeceased bodies. These bizarre explanations are not beneath the highest state officials of the Russian Federation. For instance, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova has seriously proposed that Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine is over soup. Apparently, the conflict started because the Ukrainians refused to share the recipe for borscht with Russia. This somehow “proves” that they are nazis and left the Kremlin with no choice but to attack Ukraine.

The future?

What does the future hold for Ukraine and the Russian language? It is impossible to say. But judging by the West’s mobilisation in support of Ukraine, there is a good chance that the Ukrainians will eventually manage to fend off the invaders. Afterward, Ukraine will be a drastically different country. The possibility of a Ukrainian form of Russian will be gone. 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 through the decolonisation of Western Europe’s overseas empires are generally relaxed about designating the former colonial language as an official language. Neither this status nor the significant presence of speakers of this colonial language give the former imperial power any rights over the new independent state.

In Ghana or Canada, English speakers do not identify and are not identified as members of the English nation. On the basis of the shared English language, Britain cannot legally embark on a war to “reunify” these countries with the “motherland”. Likewise, London has no say on how to write and speak English correctly in Ghana or Canada. This is left to the Ghanaians and Canadians themselves, who typically delegate this task to specialists at the countries’ universities, newspapers and publishing houses.

The Kremlin’s ideology of Russkiy mir stands in complete contrast to this laidback and hands-off approach. Neo-imperial Moscow sees the Russian language as belonging only to Russia. This claim of exclusive ownership encourages the Russian government and elite to control how the language should be correctly written and spoken. Any efforts on the 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 Russian speakers. As aforementioned, the Kremlin protests even more loudly when Russian speakers are encouraged to acquire the official language of their post-Soviet country of residence.

The Russian government sees this all as an unjustified blow to the “sacred unity” of the Russian empire as a state extending at least as far as the territory of the former Soviet Union. For now, the Kremlin sticks to a minimalist approach, aiming to “bring back” post-Soviet areas inhabited by considerable Russophone communities. Unsurprisingly, this prospect puts many post-Soviet states on high alert, nullifying any discussion on an Estonian, Latvian or Ukrainian variety of Russian. Instead, Russia’s offensive rhetoric is countered with policies that encourage the wider use of a given post-Soviet country’s state language. This eventually results in the exclusion of Russian from the 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 your identity. After all, an Austrian or Swiss person 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 to “gather” all German speakers in a single big German state. The Kremlin’s neo-imperial programme of the “Russian world” entails exactly the same in relation to the planet’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 citizens, intellectuals and politicians felt pressure to switch to Ukrainian, at least in writing and public life.

Following the Russian invasion in 2022, Russophone Ukrainians of all backgrounds are making a concerted effort to switch to speaking and writing exclusively in Ukrainian. This has become a mass phenomenon. They do not want to play the role of Putin’s “compatriots”. They do not want to give the Kremlin a reason to “liberate” them. They prefer not to become “beneficiaries” of Russkiy mir, only to then be hunted down and persecuted for a Ukrainian word that may carelessly slip from their lips. They want to avoid being deported to Siberia and other far-flung corners of Russia, where Moscow’s occupants have already dispatched half a million Ukrainians. On the way, Russian guards confiscate Ukrainian passports, making any future return to Ukraine much harder.

It is no surprise that the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live like Europeans and westerners. Their attachment is to democracy and liberalism, not to Putin’s dictatorial Russkiy mir that mixes Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union with the vaguely remembered autocratic Russia of the Tsars. In 2019, membership in the EU and NATO were enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution as the country’s strategic goals.

The Kremlin’s impulse is to continue with the imperial project. This will ultimately prop up the huge empty territory of Russia and make its inhabitants accept impoverishment, corruption and arbitrary governance as a fact of everyday life. The social contract between the new Tsar and the population works. The grandeur of Russia, or a country others now fear and loathe, 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 a democratic and liberal Ukraine that could well become a member of the EU and NATO?

The decline of Russian

As mentioned above, this apprehension and imperial delusion sees Russia line up alongside many policies of the Third Reich. This is particularly clear in the sphere of language politics. Until the Second World War, 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, as well as his insistence on “gathering” them and their “small states” into 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”, which still had to be cleansed of non-Germans, be they Slavs or other racially inferior Untermensch.

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 a politicised language in everyday conversations, education, administration, economy and culture. The big lie of nazi ideology became its foundation, much like Russkiy mir in the case of today’s Russian. Perhaps, as in the case of wartime German, some émigré writers and thinkers may save the relative openness and apolitical versatility of Russian. But those who dare to protest are few 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. Berlin’s defeat in the Second World War drastically reduced the geographical area in which German was employed as a language of everyday communication and administration. Moreover, the language’s functions as a lingua franca were taken over by English and to a degree by Russian. What is more, after 1950, practically no German speakers remained outside Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Between 1945 and 1950, millions of Germans and German speakers were expelled from postwar Central and Eastern Europe and fled west.

Earlier, it was the Germans and Austrians themselves who singled out Central Europe’s Jews for extermination in the Holocaust. The vast majority of these Jews spoke Yiddish, or in other words “Jewish German”. Out of all the Germanic languages, German is closest to Yiddish, though the language’s Hebrew script makes it appear significantly different. For all practical purposes, Yiddish and German are kindred varieties of the same Yiddish-German language. Yet, it was Yiddish speakers, due to their significant worldwide presence, who made German into a world language. As a general rule, Yiddish speakers knew Latin letters and could also read and write in German. Christian German speakers never cared to reciprocate and to this day are unable to read Yiddish. As a result, the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews simultaneously liquidated the use of Yiddish in Europe and convinced Yiddish speakers to distance themselves from German around 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 policies. This is sure to reduce the Russian language and belittle Russian culture. The Russian government calls its victims in Ukraine “nazis” while it pursues the nazi-style policies of mass killings and war crimes with an aim to “denationalise” (denazify) the Ukrainians. Ostensibly, these policies are followed to ensure an improved position for Russian and to broaden the language’s use throughout the post-Soviet countries and beyond. But Moscow also wants to employ such widespread use of Russian as an “argument” for claiming that these countries’ inhabitants are Russians before actually launching an invasion.

In reaction to this imperial grand scheme of Russkiy mir, the targeted countries are sure to abandon Russian language and culture. Most Russophones in these post-Soviet countries will certainly make an effort to abandon this language in favour of their given state’s language. After the period of Russia’s neo-imperial wars, the Russian Federation will not only be thoroughly isolated from the world and the global economy but also 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. Monocentric Russian will become another “provincial” language spoken and written in just a single country, namely the finally decolonised but still happily autocratic Russia.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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