Humouring imperialism

Since the Cold War, western literary and educational establishments have reproduced Moscow’s chauvinist view of Ukrainian culture as a derivative of Russian. That attitude is now politically and morally untenable. Ukrainian culture must be liberated along with the multitude of other Slavic languages and cultures belonging to the post-Soviet space.

Following Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine in early 2022, the novel term ‘rashism’ (рашизм) rapidly coalesced for referring to and negatively assessing the mixed-bag fascist-inflected ideology of neo-imperialism that the Kremlin deploys for justifying and promoting its actions. Yet, in the West too little attention is paid to the Russian language’s role in this ideology. In English-speaking countries, governments leave language use to citizens and their choices. Language politics is not actively pursued as a goal in itself or as an instrument for furthering a specific policy. In contrast, this is a norm and even the fundament of politics in central and eastern Europe, where the nation – in line with ethnolinguistic nationalism – is defined as all speakers of a language (or speech community).

Not paying attention to this salient aspect of rashism, and to how Russian language and culture are taught and researched at English-medium universities, gives the Kremlin an upper hand in the ongoing worldwide mass media war that accompanies its brutal and unjustified attack on Ukraine. Miscomprehension of this kind is a tactical weakness that de facto privileges Russia in its irredentist empire-building efforts for ‘gathering all the Russian-speaking lands’ within Russia’s frontiers.

Reading room No. 3 of the State Library of the USSR named after V.I. Lenin (now the Russian State Library). Fred Greenberg/RIA Novosti 1980. Source: Wikimedia Commons

How the world sees the Russian language

In the West, the perception of the Russian language and culture unwittingly follows the Kremlin’s propaganda of the Russkiy Mir (Russian world). No one questions the fact that Russian is an important language of global communication. After all, it is one of the UN’s six official languages. The Cold War made the West oblivious to the fact that – unlike Arabic, English, French, Spanish and even Chinese – Russian was official only in a single country, namely, the Soviet Union. This lack of attention to language politics prevented western observers from pondering why Moscow could still claim exclusive ownership of the Russian language after breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Such a claim directly impinges on the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states. Like in central Europe, post-Soviet states are legitimised through ethnolinguistic nationalism. In practice, this means that ‘proper’ statehood is earmarked for single nations that speak their own language, be it Estonian, Georgian or Ukrainian.

In the wake of the 1991, language and culture were still seen as elements of soft power. This all changed when the Kremlin weaponised language and culture for hard power uses, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Even after this breaking point, most western commentators failed to see how Moscow’s control over Russian translates into cultural and political influence and control over Russian-speaking communities outside Russia. The existence of such Russophone communities is used by the Kremlin’s ideologues to propose that Belarus or Ukraine are ‘pseudo-states’, because Belarusian and Ukrainian are not ‘real languages’. Hence, in Moscow’s skewed neo-imperial logic, neither the Belarusian nor Ukrainian nation exists. Their existence is an offense to rashists and their vision of a reborn Russian empire. After all, Belarus and Ukraine are supposed to constitute the ethnic and economic core of Greater Russia.

Only in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was the rebroadcasting of Russian television and radio stations banned in the post-Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In March 2022, a month after Russia had attacked Ukraine, the EU followed with a blanket ban on Russian media outlets that broadcast in Russian and western languages. But somehow Moscow is able to evade these bans, pumping out Russian propaganda across the European Union, mainly through the internet. At the same time, the near totalitarian control of the mass media in Russia prevents any western news outlets from broadcasting to the Russian public, who are duped and conditioned by propaganda. On top of that, Russia appears to be winning the propaganda war in the Global South, where the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine is widely seen as justified.

Blind in one eye

Moscow’s official position is that neither the Ukrainian language nor nation exists; and that Ukraine must be ‘denazified’. What does this denazification mean in practice? At present, in Ukraine the Russian invaders target and destroy museums, monuments, archives, schools and hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children have been already deported to the heartlands of Russia, ensuring speedy Russification. In the areas under Russian occupation the libraries and schools are cleansed of summarily destroyed Ukrainian books. Russian replaces Ukrainian as the language of instruction and Russian syllabuses supersede Ukrainian ones. Russian mobile operators supersede their Ukrainian counterparts in the occupied areas, the Russian rouble replaces the Ukrainian hryvnia and to the levelled Ukrainian cities and towns under Russian control, vans arrive with huge screens on their sides to spread Russian propaganda directly in the streets. The Kremlin’s ‘denazification’ is a new name for the old imperial policy of Russification that entails the forced liquidation of other languages, cultures and nations.

Meanwhile, in the western media, voices can be heard saying that what journalists report from Ukraine under the relentless Russian onslaught should not be identified with Russian language and culture. Why not? This callous attitude rightly offends Ukrainians, because it is none other than Russian soldiers and officers, educated and bred on ‘great Russian literature’, who are committing heinous crimes in Ukraine. After 2014 some high-minded Ukrainian intellectuals believed that Kyiv’s efforts to limit the supply of Russian books in Ukraine, including those openly anti-Ukrainian, were harmful to freedom of speech and thought. After the genocidal massacres in Bucha, Borodyanka or Izyum, and over 22,000 casualties in the completely levelled Mariupol, they have no such compunctions.

How could the West have failed to take note of Moscow’s continuing weaponisation of culture and language? During the long decades of the Cold War confrontation, ‘great Russian literature’ offered consolation, even a hope that a free Russia of the future was possible, that it may yet turn out to be a ‘normal European country’. At the same time, western sovietologists and scholars of literary studies did not question the Soviet practice of not publishing literature written in other Soviet languages until a Russian translation was released. Only then would a translation of this non-Russian Soviet novel or collection of poetry into a western language be permitted. But it had to be conducted solely from the approved Russian translation, not from the Ukrainian, Azerbaijani or Georgian original.

This practice made non-Russian Soviet literature appear a poor relation to great Russian literature. To this day, in the West, the belief is rife that Ukrainian, with 40 million speakers, or Uzbek, with 35 million speakers, are ‘small languages’. Hence, a Ukrainian or Uzbek novel can be translated into a western language – for instance, Swedish with ten million speakers – only after it has appeared in a well-acclaimed Russian translation. The Soviet Union split three decades ago, but Soviet cultural and linguistic imperialism still persists. The Kremlin claims its ‘right’ to the post-Soviet countries as parts of the ‘Russian world’, because they have ‘no culture worth speaking of’ beyond the Russian language. Russian ideologues claim that post-Soviet non-Russian literatures are poor and derivative, merely a pale shadow of great Russian literature.

This noxious view has been repeated time and time again by acclaimed Russian authors, including the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, who found haven in the West. Unthinkingly and without having engaged with these non-Russian literatures, western pundits nod in agreement. As a result, they do the Kremlin’s bidding, extending the western seal of approval to Russian cultural imperialism. Some know this and expect accolades in return, help and money from Moscow.

The writers’ war

Apart from being representatives of ‘great Russian literature’, Dostoyevsky and Brodsky were also unrepentant imperialists. Brodsky de facto denied the right of independent existence to the former Soviet bloc countries. Countering Milan Kundera’s 1984 definition of central Europe as the ‘kidnapped West’, Brodsky infamously dubbed this region ‘western Asia’. He did not balk at equating the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia with Asia, as long as Central Europe would remain under Moscow’s suzerainty. The will and opinions of the nations concerned were of no import to Brodsky. Why should an imperialist care about some ‘uncivilised natives’?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – who in his writings tore away the veil of oblivion from the genocidal horror of the Soviet gulag concentration and death camps – in the end proved to be another convinced Russian imperialist. Putin co-opted the writer for his political system and Solzhenitsyn was only too happy to follow. Solzhenitsyn, like Putin, abhorred the West and shared with him the vision of a ‘pure Orthodox and imperial Greater Russia’. In 2007, upon receiving the State Prize of the Russian Federation from the hands of Putin himself, Solzhenitsyn reflected about Russia’s future: ‘Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively’, he said; ‘The next war (which does not have to be an atomic one and I do not believe it will) may well bury western civilisation forever.’

This war of Solzhenitsyn’s prediction is now taking place in Ukraine. Democracy, human rights and basic political freedoms are at stake. Some western intellectuals are starting to sense that ‘great Russian literature’ is part and even a weapon of this confrontation; that the beauty of the Russian belles-lettres cannot be responsibly enjoyed in separation from a conscious reflection on the broader context of brutal Russian and Soviet colonialism and imperialism. Despite some qualified and muted criticisms, most Russian writers have supported the imperial expansion of tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation. Whatever the current name, their lodestar remains none other than Mother Russia, the Russian world, or just the empire.

A new approach

The recent proposal that western publishers should make the highlights of Ukrainian literature readily available in high quality translations directly from the Ukrainian originals is a good start. But it is late in the day. And what about the achievements of Armenian, Belarusian or Tajik literature? Why not extend this translation programme to masterpieces created in the official languages of Russia’s autonomous republics, for instance, in Bashkir, Chechen, Kalmyk, Sakha (Yakut) or Tatar? A whole continent of Soviet and post-Soviet literatures in about fifty languages remains hidden from the western reader behind the impenetrable Iron Curtain of ‘great Russian literature’.

Even if such a programme is realised, the main constraint is the dearth of qualified translators and researchers. Another obstacle is how the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states are covered at western universities. Attention is paid almost exclusively to the Russian language and literature. At universities in the UK and North America, departments of Slavic studies are usually ‘Slavic’ in name only. Students are required to master Russian as the obligatory entry into the Slavic world. This methodological narrow-mindedness leaves them convinced that Brodsky was right, that there cannot be any great literature in Bulgarian, Czech or Polish, let alone Belarusian or Ukrainian.

An aspiring student of Germanic languages and cultures is not obliged to master German before being allowed to focus on her beloved Dutch, Swedish or, for that matter, English. Why not extend this approach to Slavic studies, so that at least two-thirds of incoming students are encouraged to focus on Slavic languages and cultures other than Russian. For the time being, Ukrainian language and literature should be the main priority. Likewise, more attention needs to be given to non-Russian languages and cultures in today’s Russian Federation. Currently one can study these only after being able to read Russian-language textbooks of such languages. Only rarely are native speakers of these languages employed at western universities. Russian imperialists approve. But do we? Need we be complicit in facilitating and humouring Russian imperialism, in other words rashism?

This is not just an idle proposal of change for change’s sake, but an answer to the West’s blind acceptance of Russian imperialism in culture. After all, it is this unquestioned acceptance that helped guarantee impunity for Putin when he attacked Georgia and grabbed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, annexed Crimea and seized eastern Ukraine, or when he levelled areas held by the democratic Syrian opposition. The Kremlin sweetened this poisonous ‘deal’ dished out to the West with gas and oil, including well-paid sinecures for retired German and French politicians, and dirty money for London’s financiers in the greedy City. Now, with Europe’s overdependence on Russian hydrocarbons and money, Putin excels at frustrating the EU and NATO’s united response to Moscow’s ongoing war on Ukraine. It is high time that the West takes its head out of the Russian noose.

Treat with caution

In such a situation, should we keep reading ‘great Russian literature’? Yes, of course, but let us peruse it critically, as products of tsarist imperialism, Soviet totalitarianism and Putin’s rashism. And first of all, we need to make up for lost time and get acquainted with the masterpieces of Belarusian, Chechen, Tatar and Ukrainian literature that Russian and Soviet imperialists have done such a good job of hiding from the world in plain sight.

One needs to treat Russian belles-lettres with caution, until a Russian Viktor Klemperer, a Primo Levi, or a Thomas Bernhard appears on the horizon. In Russian literature, no robust trend critical of Russian and Soviet imperialism and totalitarianism has emerged. Russian authors prefer not to talk back to the powers that be. They leave politics to politicians, and then, in private, where no one can hear, they sob at the loss of liberty. An overflow of feelings and emotions replaces sober analysis of the causes of this perennial state of Russian ‘unfreedom’. It is easier to lament beautifully than to analyse the situation in the form of an excellent piece of fiction.

Varlam Shalamov’s stories about the Soviet concentration and death camps, with their direct and unsparing prose, were an auspicious beginning. Shalamov proved to be a worthy successor of Anton Chekhov, who saw his study of the tsarist penal colony on the island of Sakhalin as his main contribution to literature. Yet, by and large, Russian writers shy away from the task of addressing the imperial, totalitarian and genocidal past of Russia and the Soviet Union. One reason is that Putin’s rashist regime now actively rehabilitates Soviet totalitarianism. To most Russians and Russian intellectuals brought up in this odious adoration of power and naked violence, that programme is curiously attractive. They know nothing else, even when they sojourn in the West. Their choice is imperial Russia, rashism in short.

There is a small hope that Ukrainian, Belarusian, Tatar or Chechen literature may turn out to be a vaccination not only against the West’s blind veneration of Russian literature, but also against the Russians’ masochistic love of totalitarianism and unfreedom. Let the healing begin. It is way overdue. I look forward to at least a steady stream of novels, stories, plays and poems translated into western languages from Ukrainian, Tatar, Buryat, Chechen, Sakha, Tuvan, Uzbek… Although, what we really need is an avalanche for countering the ravages that rashism has left in people’s heads worldwide and on the ground in Ukraine. But I fear that what will remain of these high-minded promises will again be words, words, words.

Published 1 February 2023
Original in English
First published by New Eastern Europe 6/2022; Eurozine (shortened version)

Contributed by New Eastern Europe © Tomasz Kamusella / New Eastern Europe / Eurozine

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