Russian Language in the Time of War

A guest post by Yuriy Serebriansky

Photo from the author’s archive. The picture shows Yuriy (on the right) and Igor Belov, a poet, literary translator and journalist from Kaliningrad.

What doomed Putin’s blitzkrieg and continues to make his war against Ukraine absurd is a strategic mistake which I believe to be socio-linguistic in nature. 

Let me recall the literary festival held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in November 2021, long before the Bloody January in Kazakhstan (which now feels like it was years ago—time has expanded). The festival was the second collaboration between the SEIP Foundation (Russian Federation) and our Open Literary School Almaty (OLSA, Kazakhstan) in the last ten years. The program of the festival, with its prose and poetry workshops for Kazakhstani writers and meetings with Natalia Ivanova, Maxim Amelin, Vitaliy Nayshul and other established Russian authors and editors, was designed around the theme of “A Single Cultural Space. Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan: From a Dialogue of Cultures toward a Single Cultural Space.” You can find the recordings of the panel discussions on OLSA’s Facebook page. 

I clearly remember being disappointed by both the speakers and the content of the discussions (except those who skipped the topic and focused on literature, as, for example Natalia Ivanova, Evgenia Jane Baranova and Anna Markina). Not a single speaker—all of whom, I believed, aspired to the ideals of a liberal and multicultural society—could clearly articulate the idea they mentioned several times, that of the “Russian World.” Speakers evoked a range of ideas whose relevance was not easy to grasp, from the economic reforms of the nineteen-nineties to conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most honest thing I heard from a Russian colleague was, “Folks, to be frank, I really don’t know what to tell you.” I wondered why our discussions felt tense and the talks of my Russian colleagues so unfocused. The only answer I have is that the original idea behind their lectures—that the use and promotion of the Russian language beyond Russia self-evidently meant also the promotion of Russian culture and ideas—was unsustainable. It had bankrupted them just as it had failed Putin. 

Kharkiv and Kyiv, the two biggest Ukrainian cities Russia attacked first, are both predominantly Russian-speaking. I have no doubts (in fact, I recognize the sentiment that informed this delusion) that the Russian troops had expected to be greeted with flowers by people thanking them in Russian.  Instead, they faced a ferocious resistance from the local forces whose ranks included just as many speakers of Russian as of Ukrainian. In the same vein, in Poland, a country dealing with an enormous influx of displaced Ukrainians, the demand for interpreters from/to Russian is as critical as the one for those working to/from Ukrainian.

It grieves me to say this, but in one way, Putin’s ideological plan has succeeded. Now is probably not the right time to talk about any of this war’s victims other than Ukrainian civilians. However, I am compelled to name one more casualty: the Russian language. The global urge to ‘cancel’ anything describable by the adjective “Russian” is real, understandable, and damaging. Damaging because something ‘Russian’ might have as little relationship to the Russian Federation as something ‘English’ to the actions of England—yet the aversion to all things ‘Russian’ feeds the Kremlin’s narrative of grievance. Old fears and political instruments they had spawned are familiar and therefore easy to use. The disappointed voices of Russophone people on social media are a song of alarm, confusion, and upheaval as Kremlin’s propaganda hooks sink into individual linguistic identities.

Getting back to Kazakhstan again, I anticipate that the status of the Russian language will be revised in the near future in line with the decolonization effort to revise the available history of the Kazakhstan famine and the persecution of Kazakh leaders after 1917.  I believe the status of the Russian language in Kazakhstan needs to be officially reconfirmed. Along with Kazakh as the national language, Russian remains a critical language of inter-ethnic communication. Kazakhstan has the third largest Russian-speaking population in the world, after RF and Ukraine, and it has fallen to our country to navigate this linguistic relationship now. 

Yuriy Serebriansky is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin and cultural researcher. His prose, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in Kazakh, Russian, and American literary journals, and been translated into several languages. Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Kazakhstan from 2016 to 2018, he is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny and the prose editor of the Russian-language literary magazine Literatura. He is an alumnus of the International Writing Program and served as an instructor in the IWP’s Between-the-Lines 2019 session.