How the Russian language caused the bloodiest war in Europe in this century

Russia’s linguistic imperialism is at the heart of dozens of diplomatic feuds between former Soviet states and the West, as well as hate campaigns in the Kremlin-controlled media.

In early 2014, a popular uprising in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, overthrew a pro-Moscow president, and the new government overturned the law that made Russian a “regional” language in the eastern and southern regions.

“Although this could have been a cause of legitimate concern for the rights of the Russian minority, it was instead used by Russia as a means of justifying the annexation of Ukrainian territory in violation of international law,” said Diyar Autal. from Harvard Davis University. Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, when he spoke to TRT World.

In retaliation, Moscow supported a separatist uprising.

“It is about guaranteeing the rights and legal interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking nationals,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in April 2014, shortly after the secession of the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The separatists were delighted with Putin’s support – and angry with the new central government for pledging to eliminate Russian from schools, media and government institutions.

“Why are they forcing me to give up the language of my ancestors? If I speak Russian, does that make me a second-rate citizen? Said separatist activist Konstantin Kornienko in April 2014.

Wearing old-fashioned sunglasses and black gloves with cut out fingers, as well as an AK-47, the small coal miner stood in front of Donetsk town hall in front of a gray skyscraper, surrounded by tents, barbed wire, piles of tires and cartoons of US President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders.

Weeks later, he was killed in the conflict which left more than 13,000 dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The smoldering trench warfare still kills several people a month, even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But Kornienko’s opinion is shared by millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians – who often hate Putin and make a sharp distinction between Russian culture and Kremlin nationalism.

“For them, the study of Ukrainian is like falling into a civilizational abyss. Russian is the language of high culture and Ukrainian is rustic, humble, ”Germany-based researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin, from the University of Bremen’s Research Center for Europe, told TRT World. East.

Language as a weapon

Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia have always used their tongue as a tool of soft power.

One of the six official languages ​​of the United Nations, Russian was widely taught in pro-Moscow countries of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa before the Soviet collapse of 1991. The Mongolian alphabet is still based on Russian Cyrillic script.

Since Putin’s first election in 2000, “protection of the Russian language” has become a pretext for dozens of diplomatic disputes with former Soviet states and the West, as well as nationwide hate campaigns. in the Kremlin-controlled media.

Moscow has repeatedly complained to the United Nations, the European Union and international organizations about the rights of Russian speakers in the Baltic States, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries.

One such country is Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim Central Asian republic of 33 million people, where ethnic Russians make up just 2% of the population. But Russian remains “a language of interethnic communication” spoken mainly in urban centers.

In mid-May, Moscow bristled at Uzbekistan after Uzbek authorities offered to impose fines on officials for the exclusive use of Russian.

“There is the impression that if Russian were used officially, it would fully reflect the spirit of history and the current quality of our relations, and, more importantly, the interests of many Uzbek citizens who often choose to study or work in Russia, ”Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

The word “work” was a veiled threat – at least a million Uzbeks work in Russia. Under Putin, Moscow detained and deported thousands of nationals from former Soviet Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan after their governments fell out with the Kremlin.

Uzbek authorities are aware that the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks can trigger unrest in their overcrowded and unemployed homeland.

But these migrants often want their children to study in Russian-language schools – while Uzbeks raised in Soviet times had no choice.

“If I had worked as a civil servant, I would have spent my entire salary in fines for not knowing my native Uzbek,” human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev, based in the central Uzbek city, told TRT World. of Bukhara. “But in the USSR, I couldn’t have a career and even get a decent education without knowing Russian.”

Language bank

Since last August, one of the largest banks in Uzbekistan has been unable to provide a customer service contract to Elyor Nemat.

The documentary photographer and graphic designer wanted the contract in Uzbek, but the Capital Bank could only offer it in Russian. Bank workers repeatedly snubbed Nemat’s request.

“I felt disgusted, I felt inner pain, discrimination,” said Nemat, who considers Uzbek and Russian as his mother tongues and also speaks English and Tajik, a brother of Farsi.

“They laugh at you and say,” I can translate it for you [orally], ‘for them it is a sign of illiteracy,’ the 32-year-old told TRT World.

Nine months later, the bank still could not provide Nemat with the contract in Uzbek, he said.

The bank’s press service was not available for comment.

The riddle of the Crimea

More than a hundred ethnic groups live in the 83 regions of Russia, and the largest have regional autonomy and can educate children in their mother tongue.

“Objectively, in Russia, ethnic minorities have many more real rights and opportunities than those in neighboring countries,” says Mitrokhin of the University of Bremen.

But the Soviet-era alphabets developed for their languages ​​are based on Cyrillic. This deprives some of these groups of access to their pre-Soviet literature, their religious and secular texts.

Buddhist Kalmyks could not read their scriptures based on translations from Sanskrit and Tibetan, and Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia no longer understood their writings in Arabic script.

Under Putin, the Kremlin dusted off forced Russification.

In 2017, Moscow made lessons in Tatar – a Turkish language spoken by Russia’s second-largest ethnic group – non-compulsory in the Volga region of Tatarstan, a region that attempted to secede in the 1990s.

This move triggered a domino effect in other regions, including annexed Crimea.

The Black Sea Peninsula was once dominated by the Crimean Tatars, who share linguistic and historical ties with Turkey. Nowadays, Tatars make up about 15 percent of the 2 million inhabitants of Crimea.

Many resisted annexation, and the Kremlin paid back by imprisoning or banning activists and banning many civilian groups and ATR, a TV channel that broadcasts partially in Tatar.

New history books describe the Crimean Tatars as ruthless looters who plundered Russian lands, enslaving tens of thousands of people. Many kindergartens and schools in the Tatar language are now bilingual, and in other schools, lessons in Tatar are no longer compulsory, according to activists.

“The problem of linguistic imperialism looms large in Russia,” Zair Smedlya, a senior electoral official with the informal Tatar National Council, told TRT World.

He highlighted Putin’s speech in November, in which he urged officials to “preserve, develop and disseminate Russian language and literature”.

“It was understood as an order to push regional languages,” said Smedlya.


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Sylvester L. Goldfarb

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