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An Empire Divided by a Common Language

'Sovietization' by means of Russian was devastating both for the Russian language and other languages across the old USSR, linguist Hasan Huseinov argues.

by Kseniya Turkova 3 January 2017

Ukrainian news site talks to linguist Hasan Huseinov about the changes in the Russian language and influences on the languages of the successor states 25 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union.


Did the breakup of the Soviet Union trigger new linguistic processes? What else disappeared along with the USSR? What has happened to the [Russian] language in the last 25 years?


Many things happened to the native [Russian] speakers in the last 25 years. It was an eventful time. People suddenly saw and heard the hidden language of subtexts. They were definitely stunned by it.


What happened to the “Aesopian language” [with hidden meanings] that we all used to speak? Did it transform into something commonly used and open to everybody?


The “Aesopian language” simply disappeared. It was replaced by direct speech. But that direct speech was really ugly because it had been hidden in the dark for so long! There were so few bright, interesting, rich, or genuine features to be found in that speech that people were really shocked.


I wouldn’t agree that it was not “bright” enough. During the 1991 [Moscow] White House events [during the failed coup attempt by hardliners], there was an explosion of linguistic creativity and, as you rightfully said, many things that had been kept in the dark and suppressed finally saw the light. People went into improvising, constructing new senses … Linguists claim that there was an unprecedented wave of creativity.


There was some creativity in that period, indeed. But it was very shallow, short-lived, and mostly performed by the elites. It failed to expose what was in the linguistic shadow for all those decades.


USSR ethnic mapDetail of a map showing the major ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin


What was in the linguistic shadow then? Could you present some examples from that linguistic darkness?


The main part of this linguistic shadow is a complex and understudied mixture of the coarse and official languages. People used this language to respond to lies, hypocrisy, and superficially official statements. That’s just one side of it. On the other side are numerous interpretations and games with the classic literature that were quite hypocritically taught at school.


Another example from this darkness or rather a series of examples is what was actually happening with education and the book publishing industry. Ironically, from the viewpoint of the development of the language and literature, the Soviet times were times of modernization. Despite censorship and all the shortcomings, certain standards were set; there were proofreaders and editors. In the last 25 years, this system has disappeared. Nowadays, no one can provide you with a professionally written and articulate manuscript review. Things that are published and printed are just rubbish! Esoteric literature has no boundaries. I am not sure about Ukraine but respected bookstores in Russia place totally anti-scientific, esoteric books in the history sections – some pseudoscientific works by Anatoly Fomenko or some tales about Stalin, [Lavrenty] Beria [Stalin’s chief of secret police] ...


Which, in turn, is an element of propaganda. This brings me to my next question: One can observe the renaissance of Stalinism in Russian society and the media space. Is that reflected in the language? And if yes, in which type? Is it common language, the language of the media, political speeches?


This problem has two sides. The first and the most significant to me is that Stalin’s speeches were ingrained in people’s minds and Soviet society as far back as the 1950s. After 1956 when Stalin’s name could no longer be mentioned, Stalin’s language remained in people’s heads and their vocabulary. Ironically, it was during the so-called thaw after Stalin’s death when lots of Stalin’s expressions grew popular.


Could you name some?


“You have to break eggs to make an omelet,” “both [candidates] are worse”… Or, for example, when one thinks that being a hardliner is good and reaching a compromise is bad. Another example is “no one is irreplaceable.” When I was compiling a dictionary of Stalin’s language, I found around 300 expressions rooted in Stalin’s well-known speeches and texts.


What about “let’s tighten our belts” – an expression recently revived in the Russian discourse? Is it also rooted there?


One can say so, although it’s a more general expression. Actually, Stalin took some phrases from his adversaries. He borrowed quite a lot from Trotsky. His famous phrase “both [candidates] are worse” was taken from The Forthcoming Ham by the Russian poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Or let’s take his saying about [Vladimir] Mayakovsky, whom he called “the best and most talented poet of the Soviet era.”… This phrase traveled through generations as part of Stalin’s overall vocabulary. However, what’s crucial here is not some phrases but the whole neural network of society, if you wish, which keeps us enthralled in Stalin’s stereotypes. The main Stalinist stereotype is that the language does not belong to people who speak it. It belongs to the state and should exist this way. Therefore, the Russian language naturally belongs to the Russian state, just as it used to belong to the Soviet Union before.


What was the role of the Russian language in the Soviet Union? Did it unite or rather suppress other national languages?


The Russian language itself never suppressed anyone. The Russian-language community in a way, on the contrary, supported the development of other languages.


Sure, but what about the state policy?


The state linguistic policy was multi-directional, which made it very complex and fascinating. On one hand, the Russian language was central for the development of whole regions – for instance, in the Caucasus, including the South Caucasus, or in Central Asia. On the other hand, it was used as a tool of oppression in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. This dual function of the language has brought the minority (younger) languages into decline even in the Russian Federation. Technically, the state supports the Tatar or Bashkir languages, but the number of native speakers declines. The language is just an administrative tool.


So, at the end of the day, Sovietization through the Russian language was devastating both for the Russian language and for the other languages in the former Soviet countries.


In your opinion, why did some new independent states such as Georgia manage to revive their national languages, while others, such as Belarus, use their national languages very little?


The Georgian and Armenian languages with their distinct, ancient alphabets and culture have played a crucial role in their cultural identity for a long time. The situation in Belarus is different. You should not even ask people which language they speak: sometimes they will say “Russian” although they speak Belarusian in their everyday lives. Languages from the same linguistic family always have a more difficult time to compete with Russian. The main problem of the post-Soviet states with Slavic languages was that they went through many decades of oppression and even physical destruction of the national elites. People were killed merely for using their mother tongue. Many in Russia do not realize that. But those who live in the post-Soviet states remember that and still fear that someone will come and force them to speak another language again. I’ve talked to many Belarusians and some of them told me straight away that for them the fall of the Soviet Union was a temporary stage. They think that the threat of its return still exists. You know, speakers of Slavic languages are quite melancholic by nature … so, they are melancholic in this respect, too.


You mentioned the oppression. Indeed, some Russian speakers treat those who speak other Slavic languages as representatives of second class languages. There’s this myth that other languages are just “broken Russian.”…


It is a quite rare but still extant phenomenon – politicization of the mother tongue. I think this idea is supported by those who prefer to see the Russian language in this political role, including people in other Slavic countries of the former Soviet Union who tend to label the Russian language as “the language of the aggressive neighbor.” But that’s not true. Ukraine has its own Russian language. In Belarus, the Russian language dominates. None of these states owns the language, and neither should the Russian state own it. The language exists on its own.


You were born in Azerbaijan. What has happened to the Azeri language in the last 25 years?


It’s a difficult question for me, since I am not a fluent speaker – I do understand some Azeri but do not speak it at all. My father is a bilingual writer, so maybe you should ask him instead. ... Naturally, the introduction of the Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic played a significant role, as well as the elite’s choice to speak Turkish or English instead of Russian. However, it did not change much, since a significant part of the population in Azerbaijan lives in Russia, works in Russia, or goes to Russia frequently. So, Russian continues to be the language of communication for many Azeris, especially those living abroad. Speaking about Azerbaijan, Russian is still popular in Baku, while in other parts of the country people mostly speak Azeri. Local administration and education are part of the Azeri-language consolidation.


What has disappeared from our languages since the fall of the Soviet Union? What have we lost? I remember words related to shortages of goods. People would say that they “got” something, not just bought it, to underline how difficult it was to get hold of it. The goods were “thrown out” into the shops from time to time instead of being regularly available … Have those words disappeared?


Of course, vocabulary becomes richer all the time, and we all are witnessing that. We see how Germanisms and Americanisms enter our language … People rely on memory to understand what it means to “get” something as opposed to just buying it, or what it means to have something “thrown out” in the shops. But there are no modern cultural references to support those words. How would one dial a number on a rotary dial phone? Nowadays, people do not understand the function of that phone. This is a natural global process.


New things come into our language, and I am always surprised by the words that disappear. Many of them are related to technology. For example, my 17- to 18-year-old students know the word “slide” but don’t know the word “diapositive.” … The main changes, however, happen not in vocabulary but rather are style- or even grammar-related. Language becomes simpler. The written language gets closer to the spoken language. Many people become less demanding when it comes to oral communication. They neglect the language. Because of the availability of multiple sources of information on any subject, the quality of that knowledge has significantly deteriorated.


Do you have any favorite word or phrase from the post-Soviet era? 


I don’t have any favorites. On the contrary, I reject some new phrases such as “don’t sweat it” or “don’t get steamed up.” … We’ve got many new expressions that suggest not paying any attention to the world around. One should care just about oneself and disregard the rest. That’s quite popular nowadays.

Ksenia Turkova is a journalist and presenter on Radio Vesti and, an internet TV and multimedia organization. She writes for and, and is based in Kyiv. The original version of this interview, in Russian, was published on Reprinted with permission.
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