For socio-linguists everything matters – private ads hanging on the fences, street signs, media commercials, election posters, and even football fans’ exclamations. This made the Socio-Linguistic Symposium “Language and the City” held in Berlin on August 21-24 a fascinating academic event with clear implications for the ways we see ethnicity, culture and identity in different regions of Eurasia.
At huge academic conferences like this you would certainly never meet anyone of a legion of professional defenders of Russian language in what they prefer to label “near abroad.” They are so vociferous within Russia and at multiple Kremlin-sponsored forums, but completely absent from international debates. This testifies to a deep gap between highly politicized Russian discourse on language and world-class scholarly research in this domain. The linguistic landscapes of the world, as seen from academic perspective, drastically differ from oversimplified (mis)perceptions of the Russian officialdom.
Spaces that are hierarchically organized by states, culturally and linguistically are constellations – or – patchworks of multiple identities and social roles. Some of them are situational, others are more engrained in lifestyles and social practices. This is especially true for areas which lie at intersections of different linguistic traditions. Pontian Greeks living in Russia’s south or Ingrian Finns in St.Petersburg area are good examples of ethnic groups that value their European (Greek or Finnish) roots and preserve their double identities. It seems that European researchers are more interested in exploring these cases of Russia’s cultural openness than their Russian colleagues.
As many conference presenters claimed, different language strategies can be effects of groups’ interests or their identities. An interesting case is Nagorno-Karabakh: the de-facto status of Russian as the second language here is more a matter of pragmatic consideration than a gesture of cultural identification with Russia (and its policies).
Globalization might be in relative harmony with local discourses, or may stay in conflict. For example, grass-roots communities in some Russian cities preparing for hosting world-scope mega-events (Universiade-2013 in Kazan or Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014) are critical about their negative impacts on historical downtowns and vernacular architectural traditions.
Language therefore is a self-sufficient and constantly changing system of social meanings, and not a political tool in states’ possession. Some political groups are of course eager to instrumentalize language and turn it into a soft power instrument. A Ukrainian colleague from Vinnitsa added a post-colonial flavor to discussion by referring to three centuries of Russia’s domination in Ukraine and imposition of the metropole’s language on this country. But does it mean that President Yanukovich who spearheaded a campaign for elevating the status of Russian as the second language in Ukraine, can be viewed as an agent of former colonial power. The answer was complicated: in his opinion, the new legislation on Russian language seems to be rather an additional resource in his complex power bargaining with Russia, and a means for extracting new – and mostly material – concessions from Moscow obsessed with reintegrating Slavic nations and the idea of the “Russian world.”
Russia does have certain linguistic influences in many neighboring countries, but this does not necessarily work for the Kremlin’s benefit. For example, according to a research in the city of Vinnitsa, it is in social networks where Ukrainians most often use Russian language: 75% of respondents are constant users of Russian internet resources, as compared with only 35% of Russian periodical readership, or 52% of Russian TV viewership. These figures can be interpreted from a political viewpoint: it is the Runet-based new social media where the bulk of protest discourse is assembled, and it is this discourse that is in huge demand beyond Russia. Speaking Russian and being loyal to Putin appear to be two different things.
Besides, there are demographic changes that work against the predominance of the Russian language in neighboring countries. Kazakhstan is a good case in point – Kazakh language is increasingly used in education and administration.
Moscow’s approach to its linguistic policy towards its neighbors, embedded in the “Russian world” concept, is deficient in one important sense: it proceeds from a false assumption that a global community of Russian-speakers does already exists, Russia inherited it from the old times, and all that is needed is to spend money on the needy “compatriots living abroad” ( library books, travel grants, etc.). If Russia is serious about instrumentalizing its soft power, it needs a much more sophisticated agenda. It has to construct the trans-national community of Russian-speakers, to nourish it with socially and culturally appealing meanings, and start a genuinely inter-subjective dialogue with this community. Yet alas this agenda seems to be way beyond the technocratic logic of the Kremlin.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.