18 February 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
The Russian authorities have an extremely peculiar tradition: as soon as the abominations they have committed become a flood, they immediately start to demonstrate a touching concern for the Russian language. The most recent example is the federal law on the protection of the Russian language, which the State Duma passed straight off in both second and third readings on 16 February. Protect it from whom? From Western influence, of course, from home-grown foreign agents, a “fifth column”, Ukrainian Nazis and, possibly, an extraterrestrial invasion.
Strictly speaking, from whom isn’t all that important. It’s the process itself that matters and the role played in it by zealots of national purity and custodians of patriotic values. The law, as is maintained in an explanatory note to the draft law, “aims to protect the Russian language from the excess use of foreign words”. And in Russia today everyone who is sustained in whatever way by the state budget is called upon to combat foreign influence.
Foreign influence is the universal bogeyman – whatever you like can be crammed into it, from youth fashion and modern art to the corruption of minors and attempts to overthrow the constitutional order. All evil comes from the west! And sometimes, it’s true, from the south and the east. It is all around. It would come from the north, only there’s no one further to the north than us.
The grievances of the State Duma ne’er do wells
The authorities combat foreign influence in a variety of ways. The police and state security try to catch foreign agents. The armed forces invade neighbouring states. Oligarch courtiers arrange import substitution. Tractor drivers crush sanctioned produce with their caterpillar tracks.
Against the background of this mighty patriotic upsurge, foreign words written in books or on street advertisements or spoken on TV or radio come as a blatant challenge to Russia’s sacred values. Why, if you think about it carefully, it’s practically a betrayal of the Motherland!
The plan is to abolish foreign words gradually. To begin with they will be made equal to Russian words. After all, to date “it has been possible to have an English inscription in huge letters, with the Russian somewhere off to the side in tiny letters and barely noticeable,” said the chair of the Duma Committee on Culture, Elena Yampolskaya, chafing at the injustice. What grievances torment the ne’er do wells of the State Duma!
Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov has also jumped on the patriotic bandwagon. In May he intends to bring Russian-language teachers together for a detailed discussion of the law on protecting the Russian language from foreign loan words.
Life for saying “revolution”
For now, the issue is to purge the language used in official state rhetoric. But, after all, the first step is the hardest. The law’s sphere of application will subsequently expand. And that same Deputy Yampolskaya has already warned that the work to protect our mother tongue is not complete. She recalled plans to introduce liability for breaking the law into the Administrative Violations Code. There’s the “bright future” envisaged by Yampolskaya, Kravtsov and their gang: say, for example, “emigration”, you get a fine, say “gay”, you get a prison sentence, say “revolution” and it’s life. Admittedly, no one knows what you’ll get for saying “mobilisation”.
Am I exaggerating? you’ll say. Perhaps so. But who could have imagined a year ago that people would have been tried, fined, arrested for the slogan, “No to war!”?
Our history is rich in similar examples. People are still alive who remember the “fight against cosmopolitanism”, foreign authors’ names being crossed off scientific papers and studying Stalin’s “brilliant” essays on linguistics. Back then too, bloody acts of repression accompanied a fierce campaign to protect the Russian language.
Hysterics about language often go hand in hand with repressive politics or become a marker of not all being well in the law of the land. Even countries that have embarked on the road to democracy succumb to the temptation to tinker with what people say, to ban some languages and glorify others. Sometimes this has adverse consequences: at best, it leads to civil resistance, at worst it becomes a pretext for war.
Translated by Melanie Moore