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Putin’s grip on the Russian language

The Kremlin’s system of control can often seem like a mystery to western audiences. By understanding the Putin regime’s attempts to manipulate language, it is possible to gain a deeper insight into the authoritarian realities faced every day by Russian citizens.

June 27, 2022 - Serghei Sadohin - Articles and Commentary

View of the Kremlin towers and Moscow city skyscrapers. Photo: Oleg Elkov / Shutterstock

History knows few linguistic accounts as detailed as those of the German-Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer. His meticulous observations on the deterioration of the German language since the rise of Hitler were published in his memoir The Language of the Third Reich. Klemperer provides countless examples of this shift as he witnessed the systematic mechanisation and dehumanisation of the German of Goethe and Schiller on an annual, monthly and even weekly basis. Ordinary German words, such as ewigkeit (eternity) or aufziehen (wind up) were constantly overemphasised and used in increasingly unusual contexts. At the same time, others like gleichhalten (to force into line) or voll ausgelastet (working at full capacity) were outright neologisms created by the regime itself.

With an acute sensitivity for his mother tongue, Klemperer observed that it was not just the Nazi propaganda apparatus that worked efficiently. Indeed, something even more profound was at play: “the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.” Klemperer’s linguistic observations were preceded only by the prophetic words of the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine, who famously said that “in a place where books are burned, people are likely to be burned as well.”

Not without reason, there have now been countless comparisons made between Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia. These include textbook similarities such as invading a neighbouring country to “save our people”; a totalitarian internal defiance against external “threats”; and a “semi-swastika” in the form of the pro-war “Z” symbol. Even the destruction of two Russian-language radio stations in Transnistria, Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region, is eerily reminiscent of the infamous “Gleiwitz incident”. This saw SS officers disguised as Polish perpetrators attack a local radio station in order to justify invasion.

But few comparisons have yet been made on the underlying issues that someone like Klemperer would focus on: the invisible power of language. In Hitler’s native German, the Austria (Österreich) he annexed literally means “the eastern kingdom” (vis-à-vis Germany, allegedly). While in Putin’s native Russian, Ukraina means “at the edge” (of Russia, allegedly). It is by now not a secret that the Russian president does not seem to bother with geographical maps. After all, his maps of the post-Soviet space are primarily linguistic. The annexation of predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas did not stop Putin’s expansionist vision of the so-called Russkiy mir (the Russian world). This just so happens to also have a Nazi equivalent in the concept of Lebensraum (living space).

A Russian form of power

Putin certainly does not match Hitler in oratorical skills or style. But like Hitler, he shows a thorough understanding of how language works. It is common for Putin to drop famous lines from cult Soviet movies or folk wisdom into his official speeches. For instance, in his TV address to the nation before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president used words like naziki (little Nazis), before adding “as you call them”. He also emphasised the “eight years” that the Donbas region has been under fire from Ukrainian forces. The mere fact that the word “Nazi” is constantly mentioned in Russian media eventually made its leadership resemble its own bogeyman. If you gaze long enough into the abyss, as Nietzsche would say, the abyss will also gaze back at you.

But as far as language is concerned, Putin has perhaps the greatest gift from the Russian language itself: the hardly translatable word vlast. Often translated as “power” or “authority”, vlast is in fact much closer to “deep state,” or to what the French call éminence grise. Frequently used in the plural form vlasti (the powers), this word is used in Russian as often or if not even more than “government”, “parliament” or even “president”. Unlike the bureaucratic-sounding “government” in English, or even the more sterile “administration”, as Americans prefer to say – vlast strikes an ambiguous and even godly tone. Vlasti are everywhere and they can come unannounced from all sides, influencing political events like the wind that suddenly blows off the leaves from trees. While a government governs by representation, vlast is something to which people are made subordinate. Nothing can really be done with vlasti. When said at the kitchen table, the word is often accompanied by an index finger pointing upwards towards the sky. You can protest against the “government” out loud on the streets. However, it would be better to criticise vlast within a trusted circle at home. The leader of a democratic government can be found living in a dedicated, publicly disclosed place, such as the White House, 10 Downing Street or the Elysée Palace. No one really knows where vlast lives or when it will appear in public again. What vlast means in Putin’s Russia was brilliantly depicted by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan, in which the word itself plays a key role.

Vlast versus history

Warnings emerged about the growing “Magical Power of ‘Vlast'” in the early days of Putin’s presidency in 2001. Russian commentators had observed that the word was beginning to take on a different, more politicised and more mystical connotation than previously in the country. They noted that “the word itself became more powerful than the individuals and institutions the word was intended to refer to.” Fast forward to 2014 and this is exactly what Zvyagintsev shows in Leviathan. “We’re innocent until proven guilty,” says the lawyer in the film, “but who’s going to prove it. And to whom?” That is the main dilemma with vlast – it does not seem to have any return postcode somewhere here on earth.

Whether Putin created vlast, or vlast created Putin, is hard to say for certain. But he evidently shows a deeper understanding of its meaning to the Russian ear. The recent CNN/HBO documentary Navalny reiterated the curious fact that Putin never, and under any circumstances, mentions Alexey Navalny’s name in public. He always refers to his main political opponent indirectly as “that patient” or “the prisoner you mentioned”. This is characteristic behaviour of vlast: it has almost divine power in granting the gift of even mentioning one’s name in public or just scrapping it altogether from collective memory. “When there’s no person, there’s no problem,” is a legendary phrase attributed to the other key vlast figure, Joseph Stalin. After all, the job of any dictator – as the word itself suggests – is to dictate. A dictator that does not have a sharper feel for the language in which he dictates, is a novice.

But all is not lost. Luckily, language outlives any leader who thinks they are in charge of it. Goethe survived, Hitler did not. Pushkin will survive, Putin will not. In the end, the meaning of vlast is not set in stone and might one day, even become an “administration”.

Russia’s way of doing politics might be a mystery to western audiences, but it is less so if one learns its language (and vice versa). As the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov pointed out: “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.”

Serghei Sadohin is a public affairs and communication professional working in Brussels. He is interested in exploring the intersection between philosophy and politics.

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