sábado, 7 de outubro de 2017

The language as link of a nation: Russia and the Russian world.

(T-shirt with Byzantine symbol of the two-headed eagle, the Russia´s map with the national flag and the country´s name written in Russian: unifying symbols of the nation.)

          Last July 20th, Russian president Vladimir Putin made a pronouncement at the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnical Issues in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of the small republic of Mari El, about the inter-ethnic relations in the country. The republic has about 700 thousand people, being around 47% of Russians and 43% of the mari ethnic group, whose descendentes belongs to the Finno-Ugric people originating from the Northern and Eastern Europe and that have interaction with Russian ethnicity.         

(Putin at the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnical Issues meeting, in Yoshkar-Ola, July 20th, 2017.)

          According to the US analyst Paul A. Golbe, expert on ethnic and religious issues of Eurasia, in his speech Putin stated that all ethnic non-Russians should learn the Russian language, while ethnic Russians shouldn´t be forced to learn the language of the republics in which they live and which are culturally characterized by the predominant ethnic group. Goble takes a critical stance on this speech stating it applies two-and-a-half measures with regard to the ethnic status of the groups that make up Russia, privileging ethnic Russians to the detriment of other ethnic groups and stimulating the national passions of both sides.

          Golbe transcripts the Putin´s commentary, who says: “Russian language forus is the state language, the language of inter-ethnic communication, and it cannot be replaced by anything else. It is the natural spiritual skeleton of all our multi-national country. Everyone msut know it … The languages of the peoples of Russia are also an inalienable aspect of the unique culture of the peoples of Russia.” The speech is clear: Russia has a peculiar, unique culture whose multinational unity is woven by the language, the center, the main structure of it´s culture. According to Putin, the non-Russians languages are not property of the State as the Russian language is, but belong to their respective peoples. The Constitution guarantees their study, but voluntarily and not mandatory like the mother tongue. “To force someone to study a language which is not his native tongue is impermissible”, said the President. The exception is the Russian, mandatory in all whole country.

          According to Golbe, Putin treated non-Russians cultures from the perspective of turism and public events, so that the Russians could get to know another cultures, noting that the development and popularization of these regions are of extremely importace given that Russia "is unique in the multiplicity of it´s nature and national traditions". It turns out that the President made reference only to the extraterritorial national communities, municipalities and regional officials, but not to the ethnic groups which have their own republics with their own laws according to their culture. In Golbe´s view, this is a "silence that spoke more loudly" given  the importance of these regions in the formation and structure of the country.

          The emphasys in the peculiarity of the Russian culture is a recurrent narrative in Putin´s speeches, who usually evokes espiritual and civilizational issues when he addresses this theme. It clear in his speech of the July 20th that the Russian culture is the link that unites the multiethnic nation, a prevailing culture.

(São Paulo, the largest city of Brazil and the Americas, with 11 million inhabitants, the scene of Svetlana Ruseishvili´s research: the researcher considered as Russians the people in the city based on the linguistic unity.)

          This Putin´s view can be better understood by distinguishing the role of each national group within Russia, historically constructed as a multinational empire. In her PhD thesis in Sociology at the University of São Paulo Ser russo em São Paulo ("To be Russian in São Paulo"), Russian-born Svetlana Ruseishvili, based in Brazil, seeks to answer the question: "What is to be Russian?" to mark her field approach. Ruseishvili reminds us that Russia must be understood according to the imperialistic nature of it´s state, where the ethnical and civic dimensios of being Russian aren´t totally separeted (all ethnic Russians are Russian citizens, as well as all non-ethnic Russian who lives within the country´s border).

          Ruseishvili explains that as the Empire expanded from the 16th century onwards, various ethnic groups were incorporated into it´s domain, creating different citizens categories according to their ethnic identity. The assimilation obeyed geographical and cultural criteria, and the people "with little degree of citizenship" received a inferior administritve and political status. The author says:        
"The concern of an Empire in organizing it´s conquered territories in a segregated way, giving to some greater cultural and political weight than to others, created a conception of ethnical belonging as an inherent attribute of each individual, being imutable and inherited." (p. 179)
          The sociologist uses the idea of common language to explain the so-called "Russian world". Understanding the Russian world through the ideia of common language, the term acquires a conception that is similar to that of the Russian Academy, conceptualized as:
"...a transnational cultural space whose main element is the Russian language. With no doubt, the ideological dimension of this concept cannot be ignored: the Russian world is first and foremost a world of Russian colonization, with it´s history of 'russificiation' of the new territories as the main strategy of cultural assimilation." (p. 182)
          And she continues:
"However, the result of these policies has become a conception of ethnic nationality based primarily on linguistic belonging. In this way, the Russian language, a language difficult for non-native speakers, has become the univeral common denominator for a multilingual and multinational country like Russia. Paraphrasing Elias, the Russian language effectively changed in an institution that allows to speak of the existence of a national habitus in Russia" (p. 182) 
          Before this part, Ruseishvili reproduces passages written by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, for whom the national counscience, the personality of a people, "cristallize in institutions that have the responsability of ensuring" that several different people acquire the same national habitus. For him, the common language is the "most immediate" example of this habitus

          It was on the basis on the common usage of the anguage which the Russian sociologist defined who the Russians and their descendents are in São Paulo. The language "is the central element of understanding of what I have called here 'to be Russian'". This is the delimiting factor of this social group´s bounderies capable of giving it internal cohesion and that allows people of different ethnicities to present themselves as Russians without exposing their original identity. In this way, Ruseishvili delimited her field research where, in addition to ethnic Russians, she approached Jews, Ukrainians, Bessarabians and Lithuanians all as Russians.
          For Russians, therefore, the Russian language is the national habitus and element of the culture that manifest itsefl more directly in national institutions. In this case, the school would be the main vehicle and disseminator of the language. Goble doesn´t speak about the school in Putin´s speech, but this can be implied given it´s role as propagator of the civic and national values. For the Portuguese historian Fernando Catroga, in the book "Between God and Ceasers", the school is responsible for instilling civic values in people:
"In appealing to the needing of education to provide a common moral and social education, it demanded the sharing of common values and ideas about the world and life (...), worldliness that the action of the political power (...) would have to become hegemonic in order to 'create' rationalistic and patriotic citizens. What, as we saw, didn´t exempt the socializing role, if not from a civil religion (...), at least some kind of 'secular' or 'civic religion'" (p. 302-303)
(View of the Kremlin: in Russia the state has strong presence within society, including as promoter of the Russian culture throughout the centuries, like the mother tongue.)

               The Catroga´s quotation occurs within his analysis of the Church-State relationship in an historical perspective to highlight the school´s role in propagation of values. This is particularly relevant in Russia because of the strong state´s role in social life, where even the church was under it´s direct influence. For centuries the political authority was above the religious authorities with several moments of tension. The church was submissive to political power not only during the Soviet period, as Ruseishvili relates, but throughout all period since the reign of Peter, the Great. According to the British historianl Benedict H. Sumner, in 1721 the emperor abolished the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and replaced it by an administrative board, the Holy Synod. The emperor Alexander I went further: in 1824 he appointed a chief prosecutor (in practice a minister of state) to lead the Synod. This situations lasted until the Russian Revolution in 1917. With the restauration of the Patriarchate in 1918, however, came it´s submition to a body directly linked to the CPSU and the massive anti-religious persecution, particularly in 1929 and 1937. Today, even though Church and State are oficially separeted, in practice there´s a relation of dependence and mutual support: the church is tied to the ctate and depends on it for it´s revival and maintenance (the reconstruction of churches and monasteries detroyed during the Soviet period was supported and financed by the Kremlin and the new oligarchs); on the other hand the state seeks support and legitimacy in the church as way of uniting the country and exalting nation sentiment.

               From this we can conclude that the Russian state isn´t only an administrator of the public affairs, but above all a structure which seeks to embrace the whole of society and, therefore, to define the role and values that it must bear. Looking at the country´s history described by Sumner, as the Russian state expands, it also expands it´s activities within various domains of public life, particularly since the Peter the Great administration. In Russia, State and society walk thogether or, to be more exact, the State walks above the society and even the Church.   

          When Golbe says that Putin didn´t make reference to non-Russian republics, but only the nations without their own territory, it´s implied that the priority of the Russian language over all others goes beyond the school and embrace the entire state apparatus. This doesn´t means that these groups don´t have their own state apparatus capable of propagating the mother tongue, but rather that these languages are of secundary importance to the national project of promotion of the Russia´s mother tongue.             

          I don´t intend here to qualify what Putin said, but to conclude this brief analysis by stating that for what we call Russia, the Russian ethnicity doens´t prevail over the others only in number (equivalent to 82% of the country´s population), but also formally through official promotion of their mother tongue. In this way, the state acts to promote national and territorial unity through a specific culture, but without necessarily depreciate other cultures, since there´s no legally prohibition of teaching the language of the non-Russian ethnicity.

(Map of the ethnic group of the former USSR: the mother tongue generally goes along to the corresponding ethnic groups. The Russian language - whose ethnic group appears in red - is the most widespread in the region, and goes beyond the ethnic and national borders of present-day Russia.)

          Meanwhile the evocation of the "Russian world" along with ethnic and linguistic contours as a vector of the Moscow´s foreign policy is a concern for neighbours like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have military presence of Russia, as well as for other countries of the former USSR, which witness the "multiplication" of Russian citizens by granting citizenship to it´s inhabitants. In this way the Russian world enlarges legally and Moscow starts to claim the right over these populations. But this already is another problem.

* Published in Portuguese on July 24th, 2017.

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