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Russian: a pragmatic proposal

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is inextricably linked to Putin’s belief that the Ukrainian nation and language do not exist. In response, western institutions should do all they can to promote this language when engaging with Russian citizens. Such a policy may encourage Russians to reflect on their government’s actions.

November 21, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Photo: E.Va / Shutterstock

Weaponising language policy

On February 24th 2022, Russian tanks, warplanes and troops flooded Ukraine from the north, south and east. They were convinced that their victory would be swift, because Ukraine “did not and could not exist.” In unison, the Russian government, legislature and elites – with the overwhelming support of Russian public opinion – subscribed to the Russian president’s “historical justification” for this unprovoked and genocidal invasion. An important element of this justification is the claim that the Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians “naturally” constitute a single people (nation). They supposedly have spoken and written the same language since the Middle Ages. Hence, no Ukrainian language exists. At most, it is a dialect of Russian, while at worst it is an artificial creation of (never explicitly identified, thus, mythical) anti-Russian Austrians and Poles.

In defence of democracy and the Helsinki Final Act’s principles of stability and peace in Europe, the West has come to support Ukraine’s brave defenders with shipments of weapons, logistics and financial aid. But is this sufficient? Because language policies are rarely employed in western international politics, the current measures taken against Russia by the US, EU and NATO still fail to take into consideration the ethnolinguistic foundation of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ideology of Russkiy mir (Russian world or Pax Russica). This needs to change fast, so that the West’s response matches and surpasses the level of the Russian menace.

Kremlin’s spurious claims

On July 12th 2021, in preparation for the ongoing war, the Russian president published on his office’s website a rambling essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” for all the world to see. Apart from the Russian original, this text is also available in English and Ukrainian. Given Moscow’s strenuous denials of the existence of the Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian language, it is surprising that a Ukrainian translation of this essay is on offer too. Perhaps the Kremlin sees it as a mere “adaptation” into a “southwestern dialect” of Russian.

Indeed, this rare concession purportedly shows the Russian governing elite’s “pure intentions”. Such “dialectal adaptations” will not occur in the predicted post-war future after the “ensured” Russian victory. There will be no need because, courtesy of concentration and death camps, all Russians in Ukraine that are currently unaware of their own “Russianness” will have acquired a proper command of standard Russian. Dialects, including Ukrainian, will be finally consigned to the ash heap of history.

The Russian president proposes that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have always been a single Orthodox nation united through their single language. This is Russian, or in the pre-modern period, its earlier version that is nowadays known as “Early Russian”. All of the three groups (peoples?) together have always constituted “a single people of the same shared single faith and language”. Yet, nuances are not alien to Mr Putin. He proposes that the literate elites of the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians used a single written language, while the speech of the peasantry tended to differentiate. But according to the Russian president these differences in speech were and are negligible. He is not blind to the use of the Ukrainian govor (sub-dialect, speech variety) of Russian in the Ukrainian sub-branch of All-Russian literature, especially in folk-inspired poetry. But, as the Russian president emphasises, even the supposedly classical “Ukrainian” writers stuck to standard Russian in their prose.

Mr Putin concludes that the Russian government and ruling elite “respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous”. Note the absence of the definite article in the official English translation in front of the word “Ukrainians”, denoting that in Moscow’s opinion they do not constitute a nation in their own right. Hence, there should be no state for them, just a “country” within an enlarged Russia. As explicitly stressed in the Kremlin’s official plan related to Mr Putin’s historiographic musings, no polity by the name of “Ukraine” will be allowed to exist after Russia’s victory. After all, the Russian “special military operation” had to be initiated because the existence of Ukraine “inherently endangered” Russia. So, Mr Putin’s self-proclaimed “respect” for the Ukrainians’ security, state, language and culture will be achieved only through destroying the Ukrainian state, nation, language and culture. For that matter, the realisation of this “lofty” goal will be ensured by the use of a full-scale system of occupation and repression, which would remain in place for at least a quarter of a century.


Oxymorons, outright lies and logical contradictions are typical of Soviet and present-day Russian imperial propaganda newspeak. Simply shrugging at it without listening is fraught with danger. At a time of their choice, the Kremlin may act upon this or that unbelievable intention to the West’s total surprise. In this manner, Moscow gets the upper hand, making up for its tiny economy, malfunctioning logistics and substandard technology. Yet, the West is able to and should cut down on such situational strategic advantages that the Russian Federation amply enjoys. This also includes language politics.

First of all, in their services for Russian citizens, western embassies and consulates should provide all information and communicate with such customers exclusively in the medium of Ukrainian. Second, the same treatment needs to be extended to Russian citizens already residing or seeking asylum in western countries. Third, any permitted cooperation with Russian entities or individual Russian citizens ought to be channelled only through Ukrainian or in the official language of a given western state. What is more, any opposition Russian-language mass media (radio and television stations, periodicals and websites) or organisations re-established or founded across the West should provide all their content also in Ukrainian. The very same measures must be applied to citizens of Belarus, which also participates in Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Although in this case, the option of the Belarusian language may be offered, because the Belarusian usurper, who spuriously titles himself “president”, actively suppresses Belarusian language and culture.

As a result, every single Russian or Belarusian citizen who wishes to engage in any contact with the West should be compelled to learn about the war and suffer at least some administrative and cognitive discomfort. It is nothing really in comparison to the fate of millions of Ukrainian refugees; tens of millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat, water supply, food or healthcare; tens of thousands of killed, massacred, tortured to death, or horribly maimed Ukrainians; and many more Ukrainians suffering due to the death or injury of their loved ones.

On the bright side, providing services to Russian and Belarusian citizens in touch with western institutions exclusively in the medium of Ukrainian will push them to start reading in this language and learn more about Ukrainian literature and culture. In many cases, this necessity will help chip away at the ethnolinguistic monolith of the Russian world’s imperial ideology, which forbids any critical thinking and individual initiative.

The potential counterpoint that most Russians do not understand a text in Ukrainian ought to be given short shrift. Mr Putin’s theses on the Ukrainian language, culture and statehood need to be handed over to such applicants. Should they agree with the Russian president’s war and ideology, they must believe that in essence Ukrainian is identical to Russian. But if the applicants in question condemn and disagree with the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine and all things Ukrainian, it has to be pointed out to them that it is their personal obligation to learn and support the Ukrainians facing Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked attack. Furthermore, this linguistic requirement constitutes a significant chance for Russian citizens to mentally free themselves from the domination of Moscow’s Russian world propaganda and ideology.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Politics and the Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe (CEU Press 2021) is available as an open access publication.

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