Staunton, Mar. 17 – Since 1991, the share of the world’s population speaking Russian has fallen from 5.4 percent to 3.2 percent, a trend that has prompted the Kremlin to conclude that Moscow must defend the Russian language and even use force against those countries like Ukraine where it believes Russia is at particular risk of decline.
That logic was behind the law the Duma passed last month to “defend” Russian, a law that attracted attention primarily for its call to “purify” Russian by dropping the use of words in Russian coming from other languages. But the far more serious impact of this law is what it is doing to non-Russian languages within the Russian Federation.
According to Azamat Ismailov, a Russian journalist writing anonymously, non-Russian languages were already at risk with the UN declaring in 2019 that 121 of the 131 languages of peoples there on the brink of extinction (kommersant.ru/doc/3917586). Now, the situation is set to get much worse (russian.eurasianet.org/россия-«защита-русского»-или-дискриминация-остальных-российских-языков).
He says that the new law is the latest step in a process that has been going on since 1991 to marginalize and demonize those who choose to use non-Russian languages instead of Russian and almost certainly will lead to more discrimination against those who do and those whose republics attempt to defend these languages.
Ilya Budraitskis, a political analyst in Moscow, tells Ismailov that “if your language is more important [for you than Russia is] that means (from the point of view of the powers] that you are not a real citizen” but rather a potential dissident or even secessionist who must be suppressed.
This reflects, Budraitskis says, “the desire of the Kremlin to blur the border between ethnic Russian and civic Russian identity and in the final analysis convert all citizens into ‘ethnic Russians of various origins.”
“The Russian language,” the Moscow political analyst says, “plays a central role in Putinist ideology. It is language which lies at the basis of its understanding of national membership. [According to representatives of the Russian elite], Russians are those who speak Russian.”
“If you speak Russian, that means that you belong to the Russian state and in your ‘cultural code’ there is support of this state, Putin and ‘the special military operation.’ The formula lies at the basis of ‘the Russian world’ and the aggressive actions in relation to Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.”
The new law requires Russian to be used in official and commercial activities and only allow the other languages to be used, if they can find local support. Such restrictions, the analyst says, “are in line with the defederalization of Russia,” something the Kremlin is promoting because if sees this as a bulwark against “collapse, separatism, and nationalism.”
“This preventive struggle against separatism has been going on over the last several years,” Budraitskis says. “It was constructed as a system of restrictive measures including the abolition of the autonomous status of some regions, changes to the law on local government … and so on.” The new law will open the way to even more sweeping attacks.
There has been resistance, Izmailov says; but Moscow’s response, not surprisingly given its past record, has been repression rather than compromise, especially as the Kremlin views the suppression of non-Russian languages at home as part and parcel of its desire to “defend” Russian abroad – and thus a matter of national security.
Window on Eurasia — New Series