"The Russian World"
Jack Shafer at Slate drew my attention to an "unintentionally hilarious" Russian ad supplement to the Washington Post. Shafer writes:
Right on. As Shafer observes, "beneath the shattered syntax of these laughable pieces beats the bloody red heart of the tone-deaf Soviet propagandist." Perusing the supplement, certain of finding the obligatory dig at the Baltic republics, I discovered an article entitled "When a little paranoia is good for you" by Dmitry Babich. Praising the "concept of Russian world (russkiy mir), ushered into the public sphere by President Vladimir Putin in his State of the Union speech in April," Babich invokes Rīga:
The collapse of the Soviet Union was good news for almost everybody—Russia's citizens, its captured "republics," nations targeted by Soviet missiles, and neighboring states such as Finland, just to get the list rolling.The only losers were fans of Soviet propaganda...
“I am also a Russian-speaker,” a local journalist from Latvia’s Diena newspaper said sourly, mocking Moscow’s attempts to protect Russian speakers in Latvia from discrimination. “Does the Russian government think I need protection?”Ah yes, "the Russian world." "Latvian" (read "Soviet") music and cinema remain highly popular -- Laima Vaikule, for instance, still draws crowds from that part of the Russian world known as Brighton Beach. New Wave is enough of a popmuzak event to attract Latvia's President. But note that Vaikule's site is in Russian only. New Wave, though held in the seaside city of Jūrmala (in Latvia, though it sometimes seems like a Moscow suburb), offers Russian and English -- but no Latvian.
Indeed, it does. Because this person, whether he wants it or not, is a part of the Russian world. If his children do not speak the language that can make them feel at home from Kaliningrad to Mongolia, this will be a loss for them. So, a journalist from Diena indeed needs protection - from forgetting. In the same way we need protection against forgetting Latvian music and cinema, which used to be highly popular in Soviet times.
Babich's view is so cliché that I won't belabor it much -- the fact is that Russian isn't forgotten so easily. Most Latvians still speak it fluently, and most of Latvia's Russophones still can't hack Latvian (a slight majority now knows some Latvian, but the level of fluency is abominably low for most). Nobody's asking the Russians to forget Russian. They've more of a chance of preserving and cultivating their native tongue than most any linguistic minority anywhere -- state-supported education that is mostly in their chosen language, a thriving Russian-language media, etc. Most of the basic cable channels here in Daugavpils are dubbed into Russian -- I can't even get Euronews except as Yevronoose. Next door is the largest country in the world, stretching from Königsberg to Chukotka. There are 274 million speakers worldwide, Babich proudly states. Oops, by Königsberg I mean Kaliningrad, of course. What happened to the German-speakers there, and the Balts who preceded them? As to Chukotka -- only about half the Chukchi can speak their own language these days... but fewer than 500 of them report speaking no Russian at all. In fact, if you examine studies of endangered languages, not a few of the threatened tongues (not to mention peoples) are in the Russian Empire... oops, I mean Federation (or the prison house of nations, as the venerable Beacon had it).
"The Russian world" was and is a world of linguicide (let's forget those other 'cides for the moment). As to forgetting and "feeling at home" -- Babich forgets to note that many in what Shafer rightly calls the "captured 'republics'" finally didn't feel at home in their own countries. In Belarus, this continues today -- Belapan/RFE:
While crossing the border into Ukraine on August 20, Syamyonau asked Belarusian customs officers to either invite an interpreter to help him fill out the form or give him one in Belarusian. The officers refused to meet Syamyonau's request and complained to the district court over the incident.My friend Aleks (a Latvian Russophone who has no problem with the language laws) recently told me of a gloomy discussion he had with some Latvian Russians who were saddened by a local boy who hadn't learned Russian. Like Babich, they were concerned that he was missing out on the world that stretches from Sovetsk to, um, the North Pole. The thing is that most of the Latvians I know who don't know Russian learned other languages instead -- Swedish, German, French, Lithuanian, etc. ...and English, of course. Babich forgets that other worlds were mostly closed to those under Russian rule. We live in many a world. How many Russians in Latvia ever touched upon the Latvian world prior to the collapse of the empire?
I learned more Russian in a month in Ventspils than I have in the last several years. Why? Because I was around people speaking good Russian, not the Soviet patois (and occasional trasianka) one often hears here -- and the talk wasn't weighted with chauvinism. Over at the corner store, after years of learning to shop in Russian, I finally asked whether the cashier ever planned to learn the word for milk in Latvian (it being emblazoned in large letters on every carton in the cooler). No -- that would be diskriminatsiya, she said.
"Leonid Krysin, the deputy director of the Russian Language Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that the use of [the] Russian language is waning in former Soviet republics," RFE reports. Krysin on Uzbekistan: "It's very possible that in a few decades, Russian will no longer be spoken there. Or, at least, it will exist, but only as a foreign language that is taught in schools like any other."
Russian retains remarkable prestige in Latvia despite its lack of official status. It is, after all, the mother tongue of more than a third of the population. Babich forgets why this Latvian world is so Russian -- like Miroslav Mitrofanov, a Latvian MP who provided bitter commentary re my post on the imperial behemoth, Babich prefers to ignore the history of Russification and Nazi-Soviet aggression. Not long ago, Polish, Yiddish, and German were major minority languages in Latvia. It's not only Latvian that suffered during the occupation -- with the exception of Polish and Romani (and, to a degree, Belarusian), now renascent in a free Latvia, not only the tongues but also the people who spoke them are gone, murdered, banished, or coercively assimilated. I think it's telling that only the Russian minority schools whined about the education reform on principle -- of course, some in the so-called "Russian community" think teaching Ukrainian or Belarusian is part of a plot to dilute or splinter the "Russian world" Babich is so eager to "protect.".
"Or, at least, it will exist, but only as a foreign language that is taught in schools like any other." Nah -- I accidentally found myself at the unveiling of a new taxi company the other day. Hey, I got a free ride home, even. Ah, the smell of new vehicles and the scent of gratuities! The driver could speak no Latvian at all, though. All of the Letts getting free rides blissfully switched to Russian, myself included. But these taxis will service a hotel that receives guests from the "real" Latvia (i.e., Rīga). But heck, the cabbies know a smattering of English. The boy who learned Italian instead of Russian will use the new international language. It's a Russian world, right now -- or a backwater in a country where the conquerors' tongue is rapidly becoming "like any other."
Naturally, Russian is "just" a language -- one that many Latvians enjoy. A great language. When one can get a drink in Latvian in the boondocks of Latvia -- in a language which has less than 2 million speakers as opposed to those 274 million, and possesses only a shrinking little patch of the world -- language politics will lose yet more of their notorious intensity here. Unless homines sovietici like Babich keep babbling in the retro, of course, and "the Russian world" is really code for empire.
Do we want it or not, indeed.
I took the photograph in my local market -- since the language laws were liberalized at the behest of "Europe," Latvian has begun to disappear from the stalls. But the tomatoes are from the Netherlands.