Putin’s hold on the Russian language – New Eastern Europe
The Kremlin’s control system can often seem like a mystery to Western audiences. By understanding the Putin regime’s attempts to manipulate language, it is possible to better understand the authoritarian realities Russian citizens face every day.
June 27, 2022 – Sergei Sadohin –
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History knows few linguistic accounts as detailed as those of German-Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer. His meticulous observations on the deterioration of the German language since the rise of Hitler were published in his memoirs. The language of the Third Reich. Klemperer provides countless examples of this change when he witnessed the systematic mechanization and dehumanization of Goethe’s and Schiller’s German on a yearly, monthly, and even weekly basis. Common German words, such as ewigkeit (eternity) or aufziehen (wind up) were constantly overrated and used in increasingly unusual contexts. At the same time, others like gleichhalten (to force online) or voll ausgelastet (working at full capacity) were pure neologisms created by the regime itself.
With a keen sensitivity for his mother tongue, Klemperer observed that it was not just the Nazi propaganda apparatus that operated effectively. Indeed, something even deeper was at stake: “the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or leaflets, posters or flags; it was not reached by things that had to be absorbed by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through simple words, idioms, and sentence structures forced upon them in a million repetitions and assumed mechanically and unconsciously. Klemperer’s linguistic observations were preceded only by the prophetic words of 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine, who said that “in a place where books are burned, people are also at risk of being burned”.
Not without reason, countless comparisons have now been made between Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia. These include textbook similarities such as invading a neighboring country to “save our people”; a totalitarian internal defiance against external “threats”; and a “semi-swastika” in the form of the pro-war “Z” symbol. Even the destruction of two Russian-speaking radio stations in Transnistria, the pro-Russian dissident region of Moldova, is eerily reminiscent of the infamous “Gleiwitz incident”. This saw SS officers disguised as Polish authors attacking a local radio station in order to justify the invasion.
But few comparisons have yet been made to the underlying issues that someone like Klemperer would focus on: the invisible power of language. In Hitler’s native German, Austria (Austria) he annexed literally means “eastern kingdom” (vis-a-vis Germany, allegedly). While in Putin’s native Russian, Ukraine means “on the edge” (of Russia, allegedly). It’s no longer a secret that the Russian president doesn’t seem to bother with maps. After all, his maps of the post-Soviet space are above all linguistic. The annexation of predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea and the invasion of Donbass did not stop Putin’s expansionist vision of the so-called Russkiy mir (the Russian world). It also happens to have a Nazi equivalent in the concept of Lebensraum (living space).
A form of Russian power
Putin certainly does not match Hitler in terms of oratorical skills or style. But like Hitler, he shows a deep understanding of how language works. It is common for Putin to insert famous lines from cult Soviet films or popular wisdom into his official speeches. For example, in his televised address to the nation before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president used words like Naziki (little Nazis), before adding “as you call them”. He also pointed to the “eight years” that the Donbass region has been under fire from Ukrainian forces. The mere fact that the word “Nazi” is constantly mentioned in the Russian media has ended up making its leadership look like its own bogeyman. If you look long enough into the abyss, as Nietzsche would say, the abyss will also look at you.
But when it comes to language, Putin has perhaps the greatest gift of the Russian language itself: the hardly translatable word last. Often translated as “power” or “authority”, last is actually much closer to the “deep state”, or what the French call power behind the throne. Frequently used in the plural Vlasti (powers), this word is used in Russian as often if not more than “government”, “parliament” or even “president”. Unlike the bureaucratic-sounding “government” in English, or even the more sterile “administration”, as Americans prefer to say – last takes on an ambiguous and even pious tone. Vlasti are everywhere and can come from any direction unexpectedly, influencing political events like the wind blowing suddenly on the leaves of the trees. While a government governs by representation, last is something to which people are subordinate. Nothing can really be done with Vlasti. When spoken at the kitchen table, the word is often accompanied by a forefinger pointing skyward. You can protest the “government” out loud in the streets. However, it would be better to criticize last in a circle of trust at home. The head of a democratic government lives in a dedicated place made public, such as the White House, 10 Downing Street or the Elysée Palace. No one really knows where last lives or when he will appear in public again. What last means in Putin’s Russia was brilliantly portrayed by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathanin which the word itself plays a key role.
Last against history
Warnings emerged of the “increasing magical power of ‘Vlast'” at the start of Putin’s presidency in 2001. Russian commentators had observed that the word was beginning to take on a different, more politicized and more mystical connotation than before in the country. They noted that “the word itself has become more powerful than the individuals and institutions the word was meant to refer to”. Fast forward to 2014 and that’s exactly what Zvyagintsev shows in Leviathan. “We’re innocent until proven guilty,” the lawyer says in the film, “but who’s going to prove it. And to whom?” This is the main dilemma with last – there doesn’t seem to be a return zip code anywhere here on earth.
That Putin created lastWhere last created Putin, is difficult to say with certainty. But it obviously shows a deeper understanding of its meaning to the Russian ear. The recent CNN/HBO documentary Navalny reiterated the curious fact that Putin never, under any circumstances, mentions Alexey Navalny’s name in public. He always indirectly refers to his main political adversary as “that patient” or “the prisoner you talked about”. This is the characteristic behavior of last: he has an almost godlike power in granting the gift of even mentioning his name in public or simply erasing it from collective memory altogether. “When there is no one, there is no problem”, is a legendary phrase attributed to the other key last figure, Joseph Stalin. After all, the job of any dictator – as the word itself suggests – is to to dictate. A dictator who does not have a keener sense of the language in which he is dictating is a novice.
But all is not lost. Fortunately, the language survives any leader who thinks they are responsible for it. Goethe survived, Hitler did not. Pushkin will survive, Putin will not. In the end, the meaning of last is not set in stone and could even one day become an “administration”.
How Russia does politics may be a mystery to Western audiences, but less so if you learn its language (and vice versa). As the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov pointed out: “As many languages as you know, as many times as you are a human being.
Sergei Sadohin is a public affairs and communications professional working in Brussels. He is interested in exploring the intersection between philosophy and politics.
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language, Putinism, Russia