''Experiments with the Russian language in Stalin’s era reduced...''

Culture expert Oksana Moroz tells how revolution, wars, camps and appearance of social networks affected the Russian language

''Experiments with the Russian language in Stalin’s era reduced...'' Photo: Margarita Sannikova (daily.afisha.ru)

Kazan great-granddaughter of poet Evgeny Boratynsky Olga writes in her memories that at the same time it was dangerous for life to pronounce such words as ''Russia'' aloud – only ''country'' was permitted. The words ''tsardom'', ''tsar'', ''aristocracy'' became dangerous too.'' It perfectly illustrates the fact that language both reflects the changes taking place in society and people's consciousness and is a tool in a fight for power. Philologists, philosophers, sociologists and experts in media communications united their experience to study how speech and the Russian language changed in the USSR and post-Soviet space in a joint monograph called Tuning Language: Communication Management in Post-Soviet Space. One of the authors of the project – сulture expert Oksana Moroz – told Realnoe Vremya about the results of the research.

These slogans demonstrated the powerful mythology, and people were obliged to share its parts

Oksana, what changedin the Russian language and in speech of its speakers after the revolution in 1917, when the political system changed?

We can point out two types of changes. The first is linked with the activity of groups of people who are responsible for the formation of their own languages in language, social dialects. Mainly they were writers, journalists, representatives of ''creative intelligentsia''. For them, the first years of Soviet power became a time of experiments with the language, time of the search of new forms to describe changing social and cultural conditions of life.

Other novelties happened on the initiative of the government. Mainly post-revolutionary reforms are linked with simplification of the language, and it has different reasons. For instance, request for mass literacy could be made if the Russian language built on exceptions, rules that are difficult to explain could become a digestible tool. Moreover, simplification of Russian favoured becoming an official language in regions speaking other languages.

In general, the Soviet regime was a system that was going to tune a new statehood. This is why it conquered new territories. Such a powerful expansion affected the fight for minds of citizens. So the linguistic policy was a need, an element of the state construction. It was necessary to give new names to old things and use words that would describe structures and systems appearing at that moment in speech. In fact, there was a fight for the language that has its own power. The work of the new regime on writing, speech took place as if it had accorded with Sapir–Whorf 's linguistic relativity, according to which the structure and filling of a language affect the world perception of its speakers. In other words, language reflects mind. What we say correlates with what we think to a great degree. Consequently, the fight of the Soviet regime for language is a new fight for mind. When you teach people to call some occurrences with news names or make up new words (''counter, ''bourgeois clique''), you multiply meanings that are spread in society. Abbreviations, slogans, new names of bureaucratic posts, all-round appearance of the word ''Soviets'' – it was all an attempt to reassemble the social system, show what a new social regime was coming.

First Soviet newspapers. Photo: oldtime.net.ua

From a historical perspective, the construction of the Soviet Union was a fast phenomenon. Experiments with the language in Stalin's era reduced already. In general, this time is characterised by a return to traditionalism: construction of a sustainable, post-revolutionary society oriented to protection of its ideological borders began. At the same time, the media turned out to be a space to fix correct ways of speaking about what was going on. For instance, it is what Pravda newspaper did. It offered almost single correct descriptions of some political events. Here is another example: in the 1930s, Ogoniek magazine published questionnaires ''Are you a cultured person?'' They enumerated absolutely different questions a cultured Soviet person needed to know the answers to. In fact, these questions reflected the whole range of the cultural awareness of a Soviet citizen. Questions about the content of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Stalin's latest speech and results of sports events. The language affected the coverage of any topic, and corresponding speaking norms assigned by everybody. If a person did not learn and could not speak on this topic in ''Bolshevist Russian'', it means that that person was not ''cultured'' and ''Soviet'' enough. And it all could lead to certain problems.

The must-read list that considerably changed during the Soviet period also affected linguistic norms. Works of pre-revolutionary writers were crossed out from the reading list. Some of them, for instance, Pushkin and Tolstoy were granted statuses of ''he is our everything'' and ''mirrors of Russian revolution''. Such changes also indicate transformations of the language: for instance, a certain cultural tradition left together with the withdrawal of ''unfavourable'' texts from mass circulation. It means that meanings, words and expressions that were in these forbidden texts were also taken out of circulation.

Did the approach to creation of slogans in Soviet years and today changed when people participated in protests?

Soviet slogans were constructed to a certain degree in a mature period, not created intuitively: there was some distribution coming from the top (for instance, which slogans to use on 1 May). These slogans demonstrated the powerful mythology, and people were obliged to share its parts. In this respect, a study of Soviet slogans is a study of how the regime transformed the difficult ideological language to short, sonorous and bright phrases that almost required to be illustrated on a banner.

Ogoniek magazine. 1930

During the post-Soviet period, slogans became an expression of some personal experience of a person who represents himself or herself in a public space. During protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012, people generated a big number of slogans and corresponding neologisms. Very often these slogans looked like a personal address to the elites: ''I consider myself a citizen. This is why I think I have the right to talk to the regime directly and express my requirements.'' It is curious when Russian-speaking Russian citizens participate in a protest directed at the Russian government but at the same time use a foreign language in their slogans. Frequently it is a desire to show yourself as a separate member of the society standing out from the crowd. This approach sometimes revealed another feeling: ''I want to talk to the regime in another language because it doesn't hear my usual addresses.''

At times modern slogans can have a kind of frames – fixed semantic frames to define certain occurrences. For instance, in 2011 during elections, protesters used ''146%'' in their letterings explaining their participation in the protest by this meme and insinuating that a specific problem was behind the very appearance of the meme. In general, by using fixed phrases (for instance, ''State Department cookies''), people demonstrate their participation in the political agenda. They understand what is going on and give their own description of the events.

Language lives in slogans and public statements. Today people use it differently refusing Soviet patterns like ''Peace to the world''. Monstration art march is another illustrative example. People go with interesting but absolutely senseless slogans (for instance, with ЫЫЫЫ banners). They give the language the right to express any concern through making such exotic statements in it. They refuse to repeat everlasting slogans and mottoes after the official language, obtain skills of independent language knowledge, experiments and games with it.

''In general, the Soviet regime was a system that was going to tune a new statehood. This is why it conquered new territories. Such a powerful expansion affected the fight for minds of citizens. So the linguistic policy was a need, an element of state construction. It was necessary to give new names to old things and use words that would describe structures and systems appearing at that moment in speech.'' Photo: Maksim Platonov

''Language is a field where awful things can be created''

The 20 century was full of crushing blows – wars, camps, revolution. How did these events affect the language?

First of all, language changes during tragic event already, when new topics requiring descriptions appear. For instance, during the Great Patriotic War, the language and intellectual tradition in general enriched with a great deal of songs and verses that, ideologically, were very different from analogous texts of the late 1930s. War is a terrible experience, it generates dread, fear for close people, which is inevitably reflected in oral and written speech. At the same time, we should say that war not always generates a linguistic destruction: the verses like Wait for me, and I'll be back were inscribed in literary traditions because they illustrated a universal feeling of expectation, hope. Such verses and songs, in fact, became a linguistic outlet during the terrible suffering.

There are less normative and variants of linguistic changes included in literary traditions. For instance, the language of sieged Leningrad citizens. We can see it in diaries of participants of the events, hear in conserved radio records. The language of that time has notes of hope, heroism as well as a talk about hunger, suffering and death. Due to that records of that time survived, we can touch the awful experience of survivors of siege with the language full of terror and pain.

The language showed the experience of people who started to write their memories down, create literary texts like Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov after they returned from war, Gulag. They described something we can't imagine not by means of new words but tools of the old language we all got used to. Shalamov's Kolyma Tales are terrifying. Written with respect for the national literary norm, these highly artistic works are something inhuman, unimaginable on closer inspection and mass at the same time. We also can found traces of such destructions when language becomes a means of demonstration of injury and experienced catastrophe in other cultures. For instance, new ways of speaking arose in memories of people who survived the Holocaust. A broken rhythm showing the pain of person appeared instead of an aesthetically euphonious verse. Normal language was not designed to describe terrible events. The experience of these people was not normative at all, but everybody can acquaint with it thanks to the language.

An opportunity to think over and discuss, create a habit that something horrible happening to people can be pronounced is the most important thing that language gives. Emotions, feelings that ensure a more thoughtful attitude of a person to reality digested verbally are created while discussing the experience. Language is a field where awful things can be created and fixed to avoid their repetition.

''Language lives in slogans and public statements. Today people use it differently refusing Soviet patterns like ''Peace to the world''. Monstration art march is another illustrative example.'' Photo: Sergey Mordvinov (sib.fm)

''Perestroika launched processes when native speakers rethought those speech patterns that have existed until today: What is homeland? Who is Stalin for us?''

How did the language change during Perestroika when the old communist ideology and underground movements coexisted?

At that time, on the one hand, the official language of slogans and banners still existed that served the interests of the government only. People treated it like a dead language that they could not use. On the other hand, underground establishments appeared among poets and artists, rock musicians where language had its own life. There was a parallel trend for English borrowings as reflection of the interest in foreign, mainly American culture. What is more, a dialogue with this culture was considered as an element of positive social changes. But the language full of English borrowings could not compete with the language of power that newspapers, television, banners and all surrounding texts still spoke. And this coexistence of the two languages – official and underground – created a schizophrenic situation. There were public ways to demonstrate that I am one of you in speeches and at party meetings and individual, often subcultural linguistic habits. The coexistence of these two habits sometimes reminded a kind of Orwell's doublethink.

Experiments with the language of ideology, experiments with a rethink of meanings of old words took place among conceptualists during those years. Artists and writers fairly supposed that the Soviet abstruse, official language ran its course, became dead and inflexible, consisting of concepts that were not functional. In 1990, this feeling resulted particularly in the creation of Dictionary of Moscow Conceptualism. Such authors as Vladimir Sorokin, Andrey Monastyrsky worked on it. At the same time, Lev Rubinstein wrote in his essays about some tuned words that existed in the Soviet culture as truism – especial path, homeland. For instance, why did the concept of ''peoples' friendship'' seem so easy and clear during the post-Soviet period? Because in the Soviet tradition, it echoed with two opposite terms – internationalism – a positive strategy to help other ethnicities abroad – and cosmopolitanism – a negatively estimated identity of a person who belongs to the whole world without division into cultural and ideological lines of demarcation. Such a symbolic tension, being in such a complicated group of synonyms gives the concept of ''peoples' friendship'' quite an opaque content. It is not completely clear who these peoples are, what friendship they have. Especially if we consider the information about anti-Soviet protests in national republics that the Soviet media did not speak about. It turns out all these letters, words, which seemed to be important for Soviet speech, actually did not have shared meanings. They were dogmas that people needed to simply believe in. Language could exist for a long time on this basis.

It is very important that Perestroika launched processes when native speakers rethought those speech patterns that have existed until today: What is homeland? Who is Stalin for us? And it still continues. Modern language demonstrates the uncertainty of people how they need to talk about many events of our history, including about the dissolution of the USSR. There is no agreement between people on understanding of some words, which means that there is no agreement on estimation of events. It proves that traumatic events of the past were not examined. The situation is worse because some old speech formulas going back to the obsolete cultural experience are often used in official speech. For instance, we can see the following statements in modern documents on cultural politics: love for the homeland is a basic cultural value of a Russian person. When we see this phrase (in addition, with the word ''homeland'' written in capital letter in Russian), a Soviet linguistic habit to symbolically equalise state and country (though mainly these words refer to a different social, cultural and legal background) can come to mind. But such a use of words doesn't reflect the reality. We are living in a global world: I can be born wherever, live in another country and die in a third one. What does love for homeland mean in this case? Do I betray my homeland for the sake of interests of another while emigrating? This phrase returns us to the story about the ideological fight when the Soviet Union was the only homeland of a Soviet person, any emigrant was a betrayer and homeland could be only one. This is how injuries of the past are pronounced in the language.

I think we should be cool with such linguistic phenomena. It is clear that language doesn't change fast like social and cultural changes. But it doesn't change because there are native speakers of the old language who refuse to rethink the reality, hold on the previous often ideologically loaded expressions, continue using ideologemes, and it impedes a critical rethink of these concepts. If we try to understand what they mean, rethink them and start speaking about it in public, we will be able to see what a tradition is behind them and make a decision conscientiously: whether we want to use the tradition further on or not.

''Why did the concept of ''peoples' friendship ''seem so easy and clear during the post-Soviet period? Because in the Soviet tradition, it echoed with two opposite terms – internationalism – a positive strategy to help other ethnicities abroad – and cosmopolitanism – a negatively estimated identity of a person who belongs to the whole world without division into cultural and ideological lines of demarcation.'' Photo: work-way.com

How did language change during the post-Soviet time when the Iron Curtain fell?

A colossal Babylonian mixture of languages took place. It was difficult to change views in any space where the official language still lived. There is a great example of it. Vesti programme on 7 November 1991. Serious political, social, economic and ideological changes were taking place in the country at that moment. And TV did not know what to tell and how. For instance, protests of communists and democrats were taking place in the city at the same time. Which one to show? As a result, the piece was fantastic: news inserts overlapped each other while the director was trying to pursue the policy to favour both sides. And pieces about the activity of remaining parts of All-Union Leninist Young Communist League and shooting of a sacred procession in Moscow were on air.

The incapability of the media to use a normative language to tell what was going on illustrated transformations of the linguistic situation. Soviet patterns they got used to during 70 years mixed with the Russian pre-revolutionary literary language. In addition, expressions taken from samizdat and underground were used. At the same time, there was an active invasion of English borrowings particularly during the appearance of new professional fields where English was a source of professional jargon. Remember Pelevin's creators, for example. As a result, the official language started to renew. New but widely used words like ''vouchers'', ''privatisation'' appeared.

''Now it is an important advantage to know the Russian language and know how to speak it''

What can you say about the language of blogs and social networks?

The Internet as space to exchange opinions affects language a lot. First chats and forums appeared in the early 90s. They were such isolated sites where their own speaking rules were created. The situation changed when the digital environment developed, blogs and social networks appeared, where many users were in one communication space at one time. Habits of using memes and emojis that have a special meaning during communication started to form. As a result, today speaking meme's language on the Internet can mark a user like ''one of us'' for other participants of a community.

In general, language is not becoming primitive but simple because social networks allow to talk to each other very fast avoiding official rules. Sometimes we write without punctuation marks ignoring several punctuation or syntactic norms. However, using the previous rules and epistolary genre norms is still appreciated in those electronic communication spaces that are used as means of official communication (for instance, e-mail).

There are traces of a generation gap in using language online. For people who started to use the Internet as an adult, it is a continuation of communication offline. The online language of such people copies their usual linguistic practices, it rarely has memes or many emoticons. For the young, the Internet it quite often habitat that forms their speaking and writing habits in other situations. For instance, social networks set a trend for certain ways of verbal and visual expression of thoughts with their pictographic accompaniment of posts. It means we all will need to learn a new language for better communication where pictures and icons will have a bigger importance.

I think we need to be cool with the changes taking place now. Language reacts to changes in the society, it can't be fixed in the form it existed in in the past. Moreover, the most odious language games will become marginal in the end. The Padonkaffsky jargon that existed on the Net caused a great concern in the past. It was extremely intolerable, discrimination and severe. But this language disappeared, it occupied a place in a kind of Runet history museum but was not an important and lasting communication tool.

''I think we need to be cool with the changes taking place now. Language reacts to changes in the society, it can't be fixed in the form it existed in in the past.'' Photo: fond-adygi.ru

What development perspective does the Russian language have considering the popularity of English in the world?

I can certainly say that the Russian language won't die. It won't be substituted by English. Of course, there are professional spheres where there are many English borrowings. Their presence marks dependence of an industry from the foreign language or unwillingness of Russian native speakers to actively update their speech and writing.

Everyday speech has many English borrowings. But they are likely to complement our usual communication – they a kind of vignettes, markers. And I think these English borrowings are found often because, actually, the level of English is not as high as we would like. People use English borrowings mainly to demonstrate they know everything in general, that the English language exists. So love for English words and their frequent presence in speech can be a sign of the absence of systematic knowledge of the language. What is more, English borrowings demonstrate the influence of globalisation on culture and society.

Undoubtedly, as any other modern language, Russian is in danger of having too many borrowings from other languages. But it is a natural process. I don't think that we will be speaking one language in the whole world one day. Anyway, a linguistic difference will remain. Another thing is that once people will come to a conclusion they need to speak not only their language but some others – just to talk.

The Russian language has quite a good future. Quite a big number of important cultural artefacts, meanings and works were created in the Russian language. And there is great interest in the Russian literature, the Russian language learning abroad, demand for Slavists. I regularly face ads that scholars of the Russian language, literature, Russian culture, Russian art are needed abroad. And now it is an important advantage to know the Russian language and know how to speak it because Russia is an unclear but important participant of international relationship.

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