20 February 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky, doctor of legal sciences, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
There is cheering news for all Russian speakers: on 16 February the State Duma approved amendments to the federal law on the state language. The Duma introduced a ban on “the use of foreign words at the state level that do not have commonly used analogues in the Russian language.” The main purpose of the amendments is “protection of the Russian language from excessive use of foreign words.” It turns out that the Russian language is being attacked by anglicisms. They must be resisted. “At the state level” they should not be present at all. Dictionaries and reference books fixing the norms of the modern Russian literary language should be published. Is there in this innovation any new political or ideological sense? I’m afraid there is. If this were just another initiative by a group of zealous deputies, it would be clear that it is just the usual activity of political sycophants who want to please their superiors. But no, this is formally the initiative of the government, which means that it is the initiative of some people close to the president. So it will be pushed through. Precisely in what way, for the time being, it is hard to know. There is also an explanatory note attached to the law. This states that the amendments “will improve the mechanism for ensuring the status of the Russian language as the state language of the Russian Federation… and the conduct of oversight of how organizations and citizens observe the norms of modern literary Russian.”
In this phrase alone, six key words have foreign origin: “mechanism” (механизм), “status” (статус), “federation” (федерация), “oversight” (контроль), “norms” (нормы) and “literary” (литературный). Try replacing them all at once, just to see how it turns out. Would there really be any analogues?
Actually, all languages develop and enrich themselves by borrowing. And trying to prevent that is like trying to stop the wind blowing. Well, let them… Dmitry Bykov was right after all when he advised one of the most popular social networks on the planet to use its brand name literally translated for Russia – Mordokniga (Facebook – morda is also snout or muzzle – ed.). They did not listen… And in vain.
Meanwhile, political life in Russia is running its course. On February 16, the Barnaul court sentenced RusNews journalist Maria Ponomarenko to six years in a penal colony. Such a case is no longer anything unusual – just the latest sentence for a post on a social network with information about the hundreds of adults and children killed in the airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theatre. Just think for a moment. These sentences have become commonplace. But it’s worth repeating: for three lines on a certain social network, three lines expressing pain and sorrow for dead civilians from a Ukrainian city, written also by an ordinary civilian from a Russian city, they are sentenced to several years’ suffering in the camps – in this case six years, but there have been sentences of seven and eight years … And you know what a Russian penal colony, a Russian prison, is like?
Let me remind you what the contents of this Article 207.3 sound like, the article that was hastily inserted into the Criminal Code in March 2022: “Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of information known to be false containing data on the deployment of the Russian Federation’s armed forces to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintain international peace and security…”
Was it a false claim that the theatre in Mariupol was destroyed by a Russian bomb? There are dozens of witnesses who assert that that is exactly what happened. But it is clear that this is not of interest to the Russian courts. After all, the article of the Criminal Code itself says that the Russian armed forces are deployed for the purposes of international peace, security, etc. To be honest, I have never seen such a thing. And in this case just a few words of sympathy got the journalist several years in the camps. I must add that this is the fate of those among us who are the most conscientious and sympathetic. Maria Ponomarenko is not a politician, just someone who could not remain silent when it was already clear that people were being imprisoned for mentioning such concrete facts. A despairingly brave person – there are still Russians like her. She has a strong professional reputation, but now she also has the reputation of a person from whose fate the whole world can conclude that not everyone in our country is ready to lick the hands of a dictator or quietly crawl under a stool.
Many Russians felt pain in their souls in response to the destruction of Mariupol. I remember Irina Gen, a teacher from Penza, who dared to express indignation in her classroom about the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. This has also been a matter for the criminal law.
But here there is some nuance. It is clear what Russian judges represent right now, what role they play. But the judge in Penza gave the teacher five years’ probation. And that’s it. And the judge in Barnaul gave a journalist six years in a penal colony. How eager some of these men and women in judges’ gowns are to show themselves to be the best learners. How eager they are!
In general, we need to consider the Russian regime’s policy with regard to the criminal law. Over the past 80 post-war years, nothing like it has been seen anywhere in the world. Dictators – European, Latin American, Asian and others – often tried to consolidate their absolute power with some kind of military victory. The “black colonels” in Greece wanted to annex Cyprus, Suharto in Indonesia seized East Timor from Portugal, Galtieri in Argentina coveted the Falklands, Saddam Hussein wanted Kuwait, etc. This is fairly typical behaviour for many dictatorial regimes. But at the same time, they did not introduce special draconian articles into their criminal codes. It was assumed that their annexationist undertakings would be popular, despite whatever criticism arose. And yes, at first most of the respective peoples liked their dictator’s aggressive plans. And the critics were cautious, but they could speak out. Hussein even demonstratively gave the floor to the American president on his state TV. But the way things ae now in the Russian Federation – when tens of thousands are prosecuted under administrative law, and several hundred are prosecuted under criminal law for publicly expressing sympathy for the fate of murdered children, who really were murdered, and for calling the war a war – I can’t recall such a thing ever happening before.
Anyway, it is clear that the dictator and his closest advisers decided within their circle that the general public should not be allowed to speak out freely about this war, because then a large portion of its not quite steadfast supporters would abandon the government rather quickly. No, not all, but a large part. For example, they would take a long look at the collapsed maternity hospital in Mariupol … Look at how things came to light in the States during the Vietnam War or in our country during the Chechen war! But still, the truth that is being held captive will sooner or later break free. And this truth will eventually become public. And it will become clear that the judges sent people to prison just to please the dictator. We’ve already experienced such a thing in the past, though we’ve quickly forgotten.
And to continue this theme.
Just recently the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding that the Russian authorities release Aleksei Navalny and other political prisoners. The addressee of the resolution, as usual, pretended not to hear. The state, represented by a few figures in epaulettes, those who give orders and those who carry them out, are humiliating the opposition leader in roughly the same way that prisoners of war are humiliated by soldiers from a punitive battalion. We can guess that the aim is not to let the captive out of detention. And what can be done? Only what the MEPs are doing, and before them Russian municipal deputies – a few dozen of these have proved brave enough – and before them, Russian doctors who signed letters demanding that the prisoner be given medicine and that the humiliation stop. What must be done here is to keep this situation in the spotlight. Exactly the kind of bright light that some rodents and insects you find around your house can’t stand.
By the way, this is a good reason to note that a state with established institutions of democratic oversight can also behave in a spiteful and cavalier manner. The European Parliament has also spoken out in support of the release of Mikheil Saakashvili from prison in Georgia. It is clear that the ex-president is a political opponent of the current Georgian authorities. And now everybody can see that even where there are democratic institutions specific individuals who are in power can openly retaliate against their predecessors. To a certain extent this was to be expected, since the ruling party in Georgia is considered by many to be pro-Russian. But hope that international justice and international public opinion will play their part remains.
Meanwhile, at the front, more precisely in the areas of Bakhmut and Liman, according to reports from various sources, the Russian army continues preparations for a broad offensive. Indeed, something resembling preparations are taking place. In particular, the Russian armed forces have brought military planes to the borders with Ukraine – about 300 combat aircraft and about the same number of helicopters. Putin has summoned Lukashenka to Moscow. One can guess that this is about the opening of a second front by the Belarusian army against Ukraine.
At the same time, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky reported that the long-planned “spring” offensive by the Russian armed forces has already begun. Localised battles are indeed taking place along the entire line of contact. But it seems that the main events are yet to come.