23 September 2007

Public Service Announcement

A couple of weeks ago I sent a friend who has long been involved with democracy movements in Central Asia a link to Craig Murray's blog. Unfortunately, due to the cash and clout of the gentleman at left, Alisher Usmanov, Murray has been muzzled. Jams O'Donnell at The Poor Mouth has a few posts on how and why, linking to Chicken Yoghurt, where there are copious links to more information on Usmanov's assault on free speech.

The following blogs are currently carrying this story (updated at Chicken Yoghurt):
Curious Hamster, Pickled Politics, Harry’s Place, Tim Worstall, Dizzy, Iain Dale, Ten Percent, Blairwatch, Davide Simonetti, Earthquake Cove, Turbulent Cleric (who suggests dropping a line to the FA about Mr Usmanov), Mike Power, Jailhouse Lawyer, Suesam, Devil’s Kitchen, The Cartoonist, Falco, Casualty Monitor, Forever Expat, Arseblog, Drink-soaked Trotsand another), Pitch Invasion, Wonko’s World, Roll A Monkey, Caroline Hunt, Westminster Wisdom, Chris K, Anorak, Mediawatchwatch, Norfolk Blogger, Chris Paul, Indymedia (with a list of Craig Murray’s articles that are currently unavailable), Obsolete, Tom Watson, Cynical Chatter, Reactionary Snob, Mr Eugenides, Matthew Sinclair, The Select Society, Liberal England, Davblog, Peter Gasston Pitch Perfect, Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe, Lunartalks, Tygerland, The Crossed Pond, Our Kingdom, Big Daddy Merk, Daily Mail Watch, Graeme’s, Random Thoughts, Nosemonkey, Matt Wardman, Politics in the Zeros, Love and Garbage, The Huntsman, Conservative Party Reptile, Ellee Seymour, Sabretache, Not A Sheep, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, The People’s Republic Of Newport, Life, the Universe & Everything, Arsenal Transfer Rumour Mill, The Green Ribbon, Blood & Treasure, The Last Ditch, Areopagitica, Football in Finland, An Englishman’s Castle, Freeborn John, Eursoc, The Back Four, Rebellion Suck!, Ministry of Truth, ModernityBlog, Beau Bo D’Or, Scots and Independent, The Splund, Bill Cameron, Podnosh, Dodgeblogium, Moving Target, Serious Golmal, Goonerholic, The Spine, Zero Point Nine, Lenin’s Tomb, The Durruti Column, The Bristol Blogger, ArseNews, David Lindsay, Quaequam Blog!, On A Quiet Day…, Kathz’s Blog, England Expects, Theo Spark, Duncan Borrowman, Senn’s Blog, Katykins, Jewcy, Kevin Maguire, Stumbling and Mumbling, Famous for 15 megapixels, Ordovicius, Tom Morris, AOL Fanhouse, Doctor Vee, The Curmudgeonly, The Poor Mouth, 1820, Hangbitch, Crooked Timber, ArseNole, Identity Unknown, Liberty Alone, Amused Cynicism, Clairwil, The Lone Voice, Tampon Teabag, Unoriginalname38, Special/Blown It, The Remittance Man, 18 Doughty Street, Laban Tall, Martin Bright, Spy Blog The Exile, poons, Jangliss, Who Knows Where Thoughts Come From?, Imagined Community, A Pint of Unionist Lite, Poldraw, Disillusioned And Bored, Error Gorilla, Indigo Jo, Swiss Metablog, Kate Garnwen Truemors, Asn14, D-Notice, The Judge, Political Penguin, Miserable Old Fart, Jottings, fridgemagnet, Blah Blah Flowers, J. Arthur MacNumpty, Tony Hatfield, Grendel, Charlie Whitaker, Matt Buck, The Waendel Journal, Marginalized Action Dinosaur, SoccerLens, Toblog, John Brissenden East Lower, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Peter Black AM, Boing Boing, BLTP, Gunnerblog, LFB UK, Liberal Revolution, Wombles, Focus on Sodbury…, Follow The Money, Freedom and Whisky, Melting Man, PoliticalHackUK, Simon Says…, Daily EM, From The Barrel of a Gun, The Fourth Place, The Armchair News Blog, Journalist und Optimist, Bristol Indymedia, Dave Weeden, Up North John, Gizmonaut, Spin and Spinners, Marginalia, Arnique, Heather Yaxley, The Whiskey Priest, On The Beat, Paul Canning, Martin Stabe, Mat Bowles, Pigdogfucker, Rachel North (193).

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22 September 2007

Unity Day

Today is Baltic Unity Day, when Latvians and Lithuanians mark the defeat of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword by the Samogitians and Semigallians in the Battle of Saule, 22 September 1236. Equinox greetings to pagans everywhere! Saule means “sun” in both Latvian and Lithuanian (saulė) -- the idea of a "battle near the sun” was surrealistically inspiring to me in boyhood (visions of steeds galloping through solar flares). The heathen victory moved artists and poets from the national romantics of the 19th C to today's "pagan metal" band Skyforger, which has a song about the battle that makes use of the early 20th C poet Vilis Plūdonis' lyrics. Jānis Juškevičs published a detailed military study in 1926, available online in Latvian. "Mārasvalsts (Mary's Land, the statelet of the northern Crusaders) stood at the edge of the abyss, and a small strike would have destroyed it. But our ancestors were incapable of national thought..."

But on to another Terra Mariana, Latgallia -- Mōras zeme, Latgola. At nine this morning Latgallian activists will gather at the entrance to the University of Latvia's main building to demand regional language status for the Latgallian language (considered a dialect by most linguists), led by Mareks Gabrišs of the Latgallian Students' Center. Vysi latgalīši aicinōti jimt piketā akteivu daleibu! I'll hide behind Max Weinreich's formulation as to whether it's a language or not: "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot." The announcement of the picket has provoked 687 comments so far at Delfi, the Internet portal that attracts the most wags and jackbooted sputterers -- that's a lot of comments, a density usually reserved for what gets a bigot's goat. Plenty of bigotry in evidence, as always -- čangaļi vs. čiuļi (the first is the somewhat derogatory term for Latgallians, the second the somewhat derogatory term for non-Latgallian Latvians -- čangalis is often used as nigga is by American blacks).

I've lived in Latgallia since 1992 and my mother grew up here, but I'm not Latgallian -- ditto for my wife, who was born here and whose mother was born here. A fervent čangalis would call us čiuļi, and it's interesting to peruse the 1930s Daugavpils "Latvian" (i.e., čiuļu) paper for some insight into the friction -- Latgallia (impoverished, Catholic, Russified, uneducated and rather drunk) resented the "Balts" (snooty, self-righteous, Germanized, Lutheran, exploitative). One hilarious argument is a complaint about the Ludza teachers' association offering a concert in which songs were sung in "bad" Latvian -- i.e., Latgallian. The teachers pointed out that this supposedly "bad" Latvian was actually Italian! The Latgallian newspaper Drywa once offered this line: "Shall we let the Lutheran wolf devour our lambs?"

Language in Latvia is heavily politicized, and the "Latgallian question" has always been suffused with politics. Long separated from the rest of Latvia (Inflanty, its name a Polish corruption of Livland, was long under Polish rule and then a part of Vitebsk guberniya, not included in the Baltic Provinces), Latgallia was subject to Russification long before the rest of Latvia was and more harshly so. I've some notes on some of this stuff here.

A friend of mine was a major Latgallian activist in the 1980s, but swerved a bit and put it aside when the Black Colonel began to take an interest. As some of the comments at Delfi suggest, Latgallian separatism is seen as dangerous because subtracting the Latgallians from the Latvians increases the weight of the Russians. Russophones are often at least as "pro-Latgallian" as Latgallians (for instance here [RU, LV]), whilst most Latgallians are quite comfortable in Latvian. A survey in Rēzekne showed that most there, in the heart of Latgallia, Latgallians included, don't consider Latgallian a language.

On the other hand, Latvian paranoia about "separatism" is often as absurd as bigotry towards Latgallians is ugly. When not tinged with intolerance, it boils down to this -- "we're so small, we shouldn't be divided against ourselves." The trouble with that formulation is that "ourselves" ought to include our diverse elements. I had the good fortune to study under the late Dr. Jāzeps Lelis for a few weeks -- a great linguist and Latgallian, he noted that Latvians say that Latgallian speech and literary Latgallian (it is indeed standardized) are no more than a dialect of the language spoken in the rest of Latvia. If meant to mean that we are one people and speak the same language, no Latgallian would object. But as soon as Latvians meet this "dialect" cheek to cheek, especially in its printed form, they immediately shout that it is incomprehensible and harmful to national unity.

On Baltic Unity Day, I would suggest a meditation on what unity means, in this sense: sameness and homogenization aren't exact synonyms of unity. I can offer qualified support to the demonstrators in Rīga because I think Latgallian ought to be taught -- dialects are part of the living language and Latgallian is one of our language's roots, and a thick one at that. But the Language Law already stipulates that "the Latvian State ensures the preservation, protection and development of the Latgallian literary language as a historical variant of the Latvian language." Making that work requires constructive labor rather than pickets -- the fact is that almost no qualified Latgallian teachers would be available even if Latgallian were declared an official language tomorrow.

I took the photo in Alejas iela here in Daugavpils (Daugpiļs in Latgallian), the second largest city in Latvia and the largest in Latgallia. It's not snowing yet, but the beauty of autumn fills me with dread?

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02 September 2007

"The Russian World"

Jack Shafer at Slate drew my attention to an "unintentionally hilarious" Russian ad supplement to the Washington Post. Shafer writes:

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...
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:
“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?”

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.

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.

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.

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