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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Blogger jams o donnell said...

Glad to see you back and blogging Peteris!

02 September, 2007 22:09  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Very interesting post, but the food caught my eye.


03 September, 2007 05:12  
Blogger news said...

Interesting post. I once worked in the service sector in Riga (OK one of those big Bowling centres.) My graduate colleagues switched from Latvian to Russian to English and back according to what the customer spoke. No problems, everyone's money was the same colour. (The owners of the business were Soviet-Latvian born Russian-speaking Jews with German names, perhaps best described as citiiens of Riga)

But the Russian languyage is still of major importance. At any pan-Baltic business meeting, mid-level managers are still far more comfortable speaking to colleagues from Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania in Russian (though the CEOs and PR people my be keener for them to speak English.)

Remember those pan-Baltic Big Brother type shows, all the participants spoke in Russian all the time, though dubbed over into the local language.

It will take 20 years I think for Russian to be overtaken by English as the major lingua fraca of inter-Baltic dialogue.

The Baltics could profitably take part in some future Russophone union, of a purely cultural and educational kind, but the present Russian world idea is not one that will work.

Bit long, sorry

03 September, 2007 15:06  
Blogger Giustino said...

Remember those pan-Baltic Big Brother type shows, all the participants spoke in Russian all the time, though dubbed over into the local language.

It will take 20 years I think for Russian to be overtaken by English as the major lingua fraca of inter-Baltic dialogue.

I think it's actually a source of distance between the Estonians I know and their southern neighbors.

Many Estonians have described Latvians and Lithuanians to me as "more like Russians" and I think it's their ease with speaking Russian that creates that situation.

Russian is a very hard language for Estonians to speak. The sounds are very foreign.

I have a feeling that it is much easier for a Baltic speaker to learn than a Finnic speaker. So switching to a Germanic language, like English, might make Estonians feel closer to Lithuanians in the end, because that cultural dissonance will be less there.

03 September, 2007 20:26  
Blogger Giustino said...

Also, Peteris, why aren't you as surly to that women in the store as she is to you?

In New York, if you asked for milk and didn't get it, you'd just keep asking *rudely* until you were understood.

Why are you so afraid of being an asshole to people that are so unafraid of being an asshole to you?

04 September, 2007 11:25  
Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

Giustino, I am not sure, but Latvians and Latvian is one, but if they have to use Russian then they do it with a smile. That is what I've oberved in Valka. Communication is important and language is a tool, though Latvian is highly appreciated. Would you agree Peteris?

04 September, 2007 15:40  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I agree with Jens-Olaf (with all of the implications, too?),


05 September, 2007 15:10  
Blogger Giustino said...

Was the Russian world built with a smile? Will the Latvian world be preserved the same way?

Just asking (not inciting).

06 September, 2007 19:32  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

06 September, 2007 21:47  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

06 September, 2007 22:00  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks to everyone for commenting. Don't worry about "incitement," Giustino -- I'd be most delighted if the comments section at this blog became nearly as interesting as the comments section at yours! Sorry for being so curt, earlier -- I didn't have time for a lengthier response. Now I'll sip some berezova and dilate a bit, by your leave.

I put a question mark after those "implications" for a couple of reasons -- (1) As Robert Kelly had it: "To use language for the sake of communication is like using a forest of ancient trees to make paper towels and cardboard boxes from all those years the wind and crows danced in the up of its slow." Language is not merely a tool. But that's off topic. (2) I definitely realize that the Latvian tendency to switch to Russian at the drop of a chto can do harm -- in fact, that's one of the major complaints Russophones who are trying to learn/use Latvian have. I've seen rabid nationalists bitch about monolingual Russkies only to enter a shop and keep switching to Russian despite a clerk's repeated efforts to speak Latvian.

On the other hand, I came across an amusingly bizarre note in a study today -- nearly half of the Russophones, conversing with someone who does not speak Russian, will continue blazing away in "the great international tongue"...

Was the Russian world built with a smile? Will the Latvian world be preserved the same way? This sounds suspiciously similar to the sentiments of a Lettish babushka who responds to questions about language education with "how many free courses did Stalin give us?"

A smile goes a long way, actually. A past lover of mine was among the few who konsekventi used only Latvian here in Dvinsk -- she did it with such charm that there was nary a barbaric peep. Then again she was sexier than I am.

If you would draw a parallel to America (as linguicidal an empire as Russia's), I could make a comparison to Switzerland (something I did here). Daugavpils is not New York, and you know that -- the lingua franca in the States is English, and it was never necessary to make English an official or even a state language (though some would grandstand now, in a time of desperate hyper-chauvinism).

The lingua franca in Daugavpils is not Latvian. This has long been so -- the only period when Latvian was imposed was during Ulmanis' dictatorship, 1934-40. Russians weren't the predominant ethnic group, but the Jews (who had a plurality for a time) were mostly Russophones.

This was a multilingual city and is becoming so again. (By the way, Vladimir Makarenko at s.c.b. posted a fascinating interview with our mayor, in Russian -- note how it's concerned with practicalities, like funding for Latvian instruction in preschools).

As to the Latvian world being preserved -- but Giustino, it's flourishing as never before. In 1930, for example, only ca. 15% of the Russians here spoke Latvian. About half do now. Never before have so many "others" entered this world, in other words.

Is it hunky-dory? No. There's also a backlash. But about those smiles -- we could take the moral high ground because we we were concerned about our mother tongue. Being free, we are concerned about individual rights, of course -- it may cause justifiable nausea in most that radical Russian activists summoned tens of thousands of kids to demonstrate by singing a stolen song about one's native tongue... but a mother tongue is a mother tongue, is it not?

The woman at the corner store is not being surly. She's old. She can be quite nice. To many if not most, it's surly to insist upon Latvian in a city where ca. 80% of the population is Russophone and maybe 99% of the Lettophones are fluent in Russian.

Communication -- what's more important, "preserving" the language by pretending that this isn't so, or preserving some humanity by recognizing linguistic reality? Just as our nationalism is a modern invention, so linguistic centralization and standardization are not exactly ancient.

By the way, all of the Estonians I met in Ventspils far preferred Russian to English, which surprised even me. Age, again, and individuality.

Warm regards,

06 September, 2007 22:44  
Blogger Giustino said...

By the way, all of the Estonians I met in Ventspils far preferred Russian to English, which surprised even me. Age, again, and individuality.

You are right. It depends on your age and location. I have had old Estonian ladies converse with me in German, as if it is the international language!

But I was sort of shocked to find out that my friends who never lived in Tallinn have no knowledge of Russian. They grew up in Rapla or Tartu or Viljandi and maybe they had some in grade school.

Then the whole empire fell apart and, well, they never needed it again. These are all people that are born since the mid '70s (my general age group). Obviously the gents born up to about 1970-ish got a free trip to Turkmenistan courtesy of the Soviet Army ;)

Again, age.

People used to refuse to speak to me in Estonian too. Then I got good enough that they feel they can be lazy and speak to me in Estonian. It can be quite intense to have a middle-aged person talk to you in south Estonian dialect.

My brother-in-law's sentences used to sound like just noise, yet I oddly understand him now. I must be learning. I am very flattered that I am good enough that they prefer Estonian with me. :)

06 September, 2007 23:40  
Blogger Giustino said...

By the way, they have "Lettish babushkas?"

I am trying to imagine my old Latvian hairdresser (in New York) with a babushka on.

Latvians are nice people. I bet they make swell babushkas.

06 September, 2007 23:42  
Blogger Aleks said...

Babushka is an old woman, not a thing, Justin.

07 September, 2007 12:25  
Blogger Giustino said...

Is babushka also a Latvian word?

07 September, 2007 13:24  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Babushka ("grandmother, old woman" in Russian) isn't a Latvian word (it would be vecene, vecenīte)... it's a diminutive of baba, though, and bāba is quite common in Latvian (e.g., bābu pasakas, "old wives' tales").

Bōba is also a Latgallian word. Bāba and bōba can be used for a woman of any age.

"Babooshka" is also used by Kate Bush...

08 September, 2007 06:30  
Blogger Andrejs said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

09 September, 2007 18:12  
Blogger Andrejs said...

I don't know if its necessarily true that English will ever replace Russian as the lingua franca of the Baltics. Russia is still the biggest kid on the block. Probably will remain that wau for a while. I think its important to differentiate between language as a tool and language as a weapon. As a tool Russian can come in very handy. Its as a weapon that the Balts need to be leery of it.
I am one of those "rabid" nationalists who often change to Russian when speaking to a russophone. In my case, its just a chance to practice my rapidly atrophying Russian. The Hebrew is already dead for all practical intents and purposes. I'd hate to see that happen to the language of the Russkie Occupier as well.

09 September, 2007 18:12  
Blogger Giustino said...

I don't know if its necessarily true that English will ever replace Russian as the lingua franca of the Baltics.

But how do people learn it? I ask this seriously, because, as far as I know, the Russian language competency of the younger generation in Estonia that I am familiar with is very poor.

My wife (born 1974) who grew up in the Soviet Union learned it in school (it was compulsory). But her brother (born 1988) has no Russian skills. He speaks English though.

Likewise all the younger cousins and family members I know have no knowledge of Russian. My niece (born 1998) can speak some English, but Russian? No.

This comes back to the reality that Estonia is geographically homogeneous. Why would someone born in south Estonia in 1988 know Russian? Do the Russians make the big movies? The big pop music? The big video games?

No, he goes to the movies to see The Simpsons, reads Harry Potter books, and plays Metallica on his iPod. My wife's younger cousin (18) lives in Tallinn and similarly does not know Russian, though. So is it more generation that geography?

And, as young as we are, let's not forget that this young generation is not so young anymore. My brother-in-law is 19. My niece is almost 10. These are not infants we are talking of.

In three years (hopefully) my brother-in-law will be in the workforce. When he meets a Latvian, what language will he speak?

10 September, 2007 15:17  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Excellent point, Justin, and I think the answer to your last question is -- English. Even now, in Lithuania, outside of the pockets that are heavily Russophone, English is getting to be at least as useful as Russian, in my experience (sometimes neither is especially useful...).

The lingua franca_ within each country ought to be the national language, in my view. It's Latvia that has the most trouble with this, and that won't change in the near future -- it could even get worse, due to immigration from the CIS.

On the other hand, Russian in Latvia will probably maintain its position. Elsewhere, I quoted Dr. Dribins' data -- ethnic Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians in Latvia together add up to 789 795 persons (April 2007). Between 1989 and 2000, the percentage of Russians who consider Russian their native tongue slid from nearly 99% to 94,5%. The percentage of Allophones (using this term in the way it's used in Québec -- here meaning those who are native speakers of neither Latvian nor Russian) declined -- 49% of Ukrainians, for example, considered Russian their mother tongue in 1989, but that had risen to 67,8% in 2000. Oddly, this even
happened among Latvians -- 2,5% were Russophones (in the narrow sense) in 1989, 3,5% in 2000.

As you suggest, Justin, geographical homogeneity is key -- that's the big difference between Estonia and Latvia. Though we're no longer in the situation we were in a decade ago, when nine of ten towns were majority Russophone, urban areas in Latvia all have a massive Russophone population, and "bilingualism" is still essentially asymmetrical.

10 September, 2007 16:32  
Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

Ahem, don't forget German. A really talented boy learned it from the German RTL show back in the 90s.

O.k.aside this, multilingualism is what I want to see again. That is one of the strengths of the Baltic States.

My family survived the WWII circumstances cause they were able to communicate in Russian ( my grandmother, who was a German born in Jaroslawl, learning French as a second or third or I don't know language), my grandfather who talked in German ( lingua franca among the couple) to his wife, but was an Estonian nationalist. And his grandchildren are even more multilingual. To describe that it would go beyond the topic.
Back: Beeing multilingual was common in Estonia and Latvia. I wish it could be in some way again.
And Lennart Meri mentioned once:It has never been published as much in Estonian than nowadays. He was more concerned about the English language worldwide turning into local dialects.

10 September, 2007 17:11  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Again, I basically agree with Jens-Olaf. Personally, I've always felt that restoring the status of Latvian does not require diminishing Russian -- this also means that those dastardly Russkies who feel they are being deprived of the ability to dream in Russian by being forced to learn Latvian ought to wake up and smell the coffee. Learning a language is addition, not subtraction. My mother spoke 4+ languages. So did many people from Daugavpils. It was a natural condition, even though it did involve stress.

I thought about these comments last night and decided that I needed to say this, just in case I did not make my take so clear -- look, language is only meaningful when it relates directly to what is around you. The idea that "the people of Daugavpils ought to speak Latvian because this is Latvia" is actually... well, it is a bit doubtful, okay? At least -- as presented, that way?

Look at earlier stats. Germans, being the elite, were rather multilingual (hardly any Germans here, ever). Latvians were mostly peasants until a century and a half ago, and we did not savor political power until 1920. That power, taken into the extreme, came to a nasty end in 1940 -- 20 years, 4 of them unabashedly and chauvinsitically dictatorial, is a little leap for mankind, eh?

It is pretty perverse to expect that Russian-speakers in a Russian-speaking city learn Latvian because somebody up there said they must do. That idea of nationhood is unreal -- as unreal to Russophones as it is to Lettophones. Unless, of course, one sympathizes with extremists, left or right, Russkie or Lett -- but then being reasonable was never their strong suit, was it?

Meanwhile time ticks on -- in the last decade and a half, had as much been invested in education as has been invested in venom? Never mind. Not worth it.

There are days when I think my Lettish friends here in Dvinsk are right -- the Russkies will win and win big, because they'll speak Russian, Latvian and English whilst the Letts stare at their second-hand boots speaking nothing.

10 September, 2007 17:47  
Blogger Andrejs said...

I think Peteris probably captured it best in his last comment on the topic, but to answer Giustino's question, seriously, they should learn it in earnest. The number of ethnic Latvian russian speakers is fast decreasing. This isn't a good thing.
Sure we can all watch the Simpsons and listen to music in English, but the question you should ask yourself is not what language your brother in law will speak when he meets that Latvian. The question you need to ask yourself is whether or not your brother in law will be at a disadvantage in business if he doesn't know Russian. Maybe this doesn't apply as much to Estonia and Lithuania, but in Latvia Russia, and Russians, is still a major player in the economic sphere. Probably will remain that way for a long time. Whether this is good or bad is debatable. (I lean towards the not so good) It is, however, an unavoidable fact. A friend works as headhunter in Riga and she is having harder and harder time finding qualified candidates who are fluent in English, Latvian and Russian. And English and Russian are usually the two must haves. In this global economy chances are that any business will have to reach outside Latvia's borders and the languages needed there are English and Russian. Even German isn't quite in as high of a demand because most Germans already speak English. Its the monolingual Americans and Russians that today's business needs to cater to.

10 September, 2007 20:21  
Blogger Giustino said...

The question you need to ask yourself is whether or not your brother in law will be at a disadvantage in business if he doesn't know Russian.

He's actually studying Japanese ;)
He was offered a place at a Russian-language immersion camp in high school, but he didn't want to go (scared of getting beaten up in the night perhaps). I can't blame him.

It's hard for to gauge the value of Russian in Estonia. I have contacts that are heavily involved in the Swedish side and those who deal often with Russians.

The Swedes have investments in things like banking, tourism, electronics, some manufacturing.

The Russians have more of an investment in transit, natural resources (metals, timber, oil, what have you).

There's about 9 million people living in Sweden, and about 13 million living in Northwestern Russia.

Estonia is wedged between the two.

12 September, 2007 12:15  
Blogger Giustino said...

As another anecdote, my other brother-in-law, aged 37, grew up in Soviet Estonia and told me he never learned Russian until he moved, of all places, to Newcastle, UK, where most of the rest of his crew spoke Russian!

He also learned some Spanish when he worked with a Spanish crew. Now there's another handy language.

12 September, 2007 14:02  

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