The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

An empire of language

September 1, 2007

Jack Shafer at Slate draws our attention to an advertising section included in yesterday’s Washington Post: Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Most people I know with an interest in Russia are also fascinated by Soviet propaganda, and Shafer, I think, correctly identifies this as a particularly amusing, if less effective, example of the genre.

It also provides an interesting window into the psyche of the Russian government, though. Take this piece on the position of the Russian language in post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, Great Russian nationalism may have been denounced as a bourgeois deviation, but the New Soviet Man was always presumed to be educated in Russian, because, after all, that was the language of International Communism.

Now that the Soviet Union has vanished, there are still plenty of Russian speakers within the former boundaries of the Soviet (and tsarist) empire. Russian remains an available lingua franca, though many of the post-Soviet states have worked very hard to develop a modern vocabulary in their official languages (this has been a particular issue for some of the Central Asian states). Still, it seems, Russia wants to maintain its position as the imperial culture, except now it’s framed as “convenience” rather than domination.

I remember how at an international conference on post-Soviet space, held in Riga, people scrambled to express themselves in English during the panel discussions, but switched to Russian in the cafeteria. “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.

But the value of Russian is dependent on the degree to which post-Soviet space is genuinely intertwined. If the near-abroad views its future as lying elsewhere (say, to the west, or even to the east), then the value of Russian is diminished. Or, perhaps, maintaining the position of the Russian language as the lingua franca is an important strategy in maintaining the position of Russia itself. Either way, the ghost of the Russian empire lives on.

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