Pushkin and not Putin: depoliticizing the Russian language
I recently watched the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die. As you might expect, the villain’s henchmen all spoke Russian. This reflects a deeply rooted truth: in the United States, Russian is still seen as the language of the villain.
The acquisition of the Russian language by Americans has been intimately linked to politics since the Cold War. Following the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, the United States passed the National Defense Education Act, which prompted American universities to expand their offerings in Russian. Thanks to this legislation, more than 30,000 American students have learned Russian.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent perceived decline in Russia’s geopolitical importance, the number of American students studying Russian has declined significantly. In 2020, less than 5,000 first and second year students enrolled in Russian courses in 109 Russian programs. Meanwhile, in Princeton this semester, only 19 students are enrolled in the Beginner Russian I course, and only 6 are enrolled in the second year of Russian, Russian Intermediate I.
The US government has taken note of this dramatic drop in the number of Russian language learners. They identify Russian as one of the languages “critical to our national security and prosperity”. Thus, the strengthening of American security interests reappeared as a reason to learn Russian. Indeed, numerous “Why Learn Russian” lists indicate that the US government needs more Russian language specialists as the primary reason for learning the language.
There is no denying that the US government needs more Russian speakers and that Russian is an increasingly important language to learn. However, as a speaker of Russian origin, I firmly believe that the Russian language has value outside of its strategic positioning as the language of the enemy. Russian, like all other languages, is a language of love and dreams, of reflection and discovery, of culture and art, of family and friends. It is a language of life, not of combat.
So why learn Russian? Besides the more professional and pragmatic reasons for doing it, I urge you to learn the language because it is beautiful.
The association of Russian with the adversary by the Americans masks the beauty of the language, which I believe is both described and reflected in Russian poetry. For example, Turgenev’s “The Russian Language” reads as follows:
“In days of doubt, in days of sad reflection on the fate of my country, you alone are my staff and my staff – oh great, mighty, true and free Russian language! But for you, how not to fall into despair, seeing all that is happening in your house? But who can think that such a language is not given to a great people? (June 1882).
Unfortunately, the rhythm and flow of the poem is lost in the translation. Russian is an incredibly poetic language due to its grammatical structure. Poets from Pushkin to Ahmataova are celebrated all over the world, and their work is even more powerful in Russian. Speaking of Russian poetry, learning Russian opens a window to engage more deeply in Russian literature – including great literary works like The Karamazov Brothers and War and Peace.
I spoke with the director of the Department of Slavic Language and Literature at Princeton, Ilya Vinitsky, about his take on what makes Russian literature worth reading. According to Vinitsky, “Russian literature has great potential for intellectual and aesthetic provocation”. Vinitsky further argued that although the Russian literary tradition seems “more provocative than other traditions due to a number of historical factors, it is a useful provocation that tries to attain the truth at all costs. . Russian literature has the power to show us the problems we don’t want to think about. [Reading Russian literature] is good for your personal development, even if it is not in your comfort zone.
While chatting with Professor Vinitsky, I realized that Americans’ ignorance of the Russian language is reflected in their ignorance of some of the language’s most famous speakers, such as author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. According to Vinitsky, “there is another Dostoyevsky … that exists in Western culture, rather than in the Russian context.” He gave an example of this “other Dostoevsky phenomenon”: Americans widely attribute the quote “the degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons” to Dostoevsky. Dostoyevsky, however, never wrote or said these words. Despite this fact, Professor Vinitsky had to negotiate with the New York Times to remove from one of his articles a false attribution of this quotation to Dostoyevsky. Americans, it seems, deign to approach the Russian language and its literature on their own terms.
As a proud American of Russian descent, I urge you to engage with Russian on my terms. The Russian language is close to my heart and Russian literature has shaped my way of seeing the world. Readers, I invite you to study Russian. Not because it’s important to the security of the United States, but because studying Russian nourishes the soul. Current Princeton undergraduates, in particular, benefit from Princeton’s strong department of Slavic languages and literatures. The experience will be transformative, I assure you.
Genrietta Churbanova is a sophomore and prospective anthropology student from Little Rock, Arkansas. Genrietta’s chronicles often focus on Princeton’s language, cross-cultural connectivity, and reach beyond Mercer County. In her spare time, Genrietta enjoys running, drinking tea and reading Russian literature. If you have any questions or concerns about his columns, if you would like to discuss a topic that you would like to see covered in more detail in the Opinion section, or if you just want to discuss, please feel free to send him an email. email to [email protected]