United Russia’s Plan to ‘Modernize’ Russian Language Sparks Outrage


One sign that a political leader or movement may be in deep trouble is when its leaders decide to take on an issue that most people in the country they are operating in feel should be beyond politics either because it is something they view as natural or as part of an untouchable national tradition.

Vladimir Putin’s United Russia appears to have crossed that line with the announcement of plans to “modernize” the Russian language, the holy of holies not only for many Russian nationalists but also for ordinary Russians who view their language as part of themselves and their culture and thus something that should be beyond the power even of the Kremlin.

In an article on United Russia’s portal (er.ru/er/text.shtml?18/2403,100022) and in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” (www.ng.ru/politics/2011-01-27/3_kartblansh.html), Aleksey Chadayev, head of the party’s political department, says that all Russians have noticed that their language is inadequate to discuss many issues, forcing Russians to borrow from English and other tongues.

“Consequently, he says, “task number one in the context of the modernization of the country and at the same time in the context of an effective cultural policy about which President [Dmitry Medvedev] spoke is the modernization of the Russian language,” especially in the economic, administrative and political” realms.

According to Chadayev, “effective policy means the selection of instruments” allowing the state to produce in a particular direction “with clear and unambiguous criteria for the assessment of the results.” Among these instruments, “the main and most valuable is the Russian language which everywhere and always is the height of culture.”

Unfortunately, he continues, if Russians are honest with themselves, the lexical wealth of the Russian language is “today insufficient” for the discussion of many issues, and even junior specialists “are forced to shift to other world languages as the basic ‘working’ language” of their fields. Worse still, the number of such sectors is growing, Chadayev says.

Moreover, he continues, “even in the basic spheres of our social life, Russia ‘does not succeed’ in coping with today’s tempo and rhythm of changes, with difficulty ‘masters’ new standars, and far from always correctly adapts to the changing picture of the world” especially in fields like economics and politics.

As a result, a large number of far from the best foreign words have entered the Russian language, he says, something that threatens its future. Consequently, the modernization of Russian is a first order task, one equivalent to what the Chinese refer to as starting all projects by correcting names.

Although Chadayev did not specify exactly what he would like to see happen or how this modernization of Russian would take place, his remarks immediately drew criticism because there are few things Russians are prouder of than their language and because past efforts to “modernize” Russian have not been popular.

Indeed, for many, discussions of modernization canraise the spectre of changing the alphabet as happened in 1917. But the possibility of even smaller changes has already sparked a sharp rebuke from the Union of Writers of Russia which has always seen itself as a defender of the national tongue.

In a comment posted on the “Russkaya narodnaya liniya” portal, Nikolay Konyayev, the secretary of the administration of that organization, pointedly suggests that “language cannot be subordinate to the decisions of the party” but must grow organically (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2011/01/28/nikolaj_konyaev_yazyk_ne_mozhet_podchinyatsya_resheniyam_partii/).

“Calls for the modernization of the Russian language by themselves elicit only surprise,” he writes. “How can an individual even discuss something he does not understand?” As writers know, “language arises by itself and lives according to its own laws. It is not subordinate to the demands of the moment from an individual or a specific party.”

That there are too many borrowings from other languages, especially in perestroika times and more recently Konyayev says is absolutely true and especially disturbing because there were Russian words for them beforehand. But handing over the task to expel them to one or another party is not so much a solution but rather another form of the problem.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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