Lithuania TribuneEdward Lucas: Warning: don’t use the Kremlin’s loaded lexicon
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 5:00 pm
JOURNALISTS like nice simple categories and descriptions. So Ukraine is divided between “Ukrainian-speakers” and “Russian-speakers”. Crimea is “historically Russian” and in the recent “referendum result”, Russia’s “compatriots” on the peninsular gave an “overwhelming majority” for “reunification” with Russia. The “large Russian ethnic minorities” in the Baltic states may have similar sympathies, writes Edward Lucas for the Lithuania Tribune.
Without realising it, many Westerners writing about the grim news of the past few weeks have adopted the Kremlin’s terminology. This skews their reporting, their readers’ understanding, and (quite possibly) the course of future events.
For a start, nobody should accept the idea of “Russian-speaker” as a political label. I am a Russian-speaker, as are many (though sadly not all) foreigners who deal professionally with Russia. Most people over 40 in the former Soviet empire speak at least some Russian. In some countries (Ukraine is an example), educated people of all ages know the language. But none of these “Russian-speaker” categories means any particular political affiliation, let alone pro-Kremlin sympathies.
“Native Russian-speaker” is almost as useless. Monoglot journalists from countries like Britain find it hard to grasp that people can grow up speaking several languages. The one they learn first may not be the one they end up speaking at home, or at work, or most fluently. Mixed marriages may have several languages: one for the children, one for each set of grandparents, plus another one for the country they are living in. A “Russian-speaking” province or city is not monolithically monoglot: people may speak one or more other tongues too.
“Ethnic Russian” is equally slippery. Is this simply a question of a surname? Or prescribed by some modern version of the Nuremberg laws? Or is it a matter of choice and self-description? Clearly it is not an exclusive category. You can be “Russian”, but also “Jewish” – or something else. I have a friend who is proudly Russian and Jewish and also Estonian (fiercely) by political orientation. When you read the word “ethnic” try to mentally substitute “racial”, to remind yourself how prescriptive, rigid and offensive the term is.
Moreover, just as most neo-Nazis don’t speak German, notable Kremlin supporters may not know any Russian (I am thinking particularly of the Putin fan club in other European countries, such as the far-right groups which endorsed his seizure of Crimea).
Talking about political views makes more sense. I would be interested to see an opinion poll in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania asking: “do you wish the place where you live to become part of the Russian Federation?” The tiny “Yes” camp (I suspect under five per cent— and even less in Lithuania) could then be accurately described as the “pro-Kremlin minority”. Which is why propagandists prefer to talk vaguely about large numbers of “Russian-speakers”.
Other language is misleading too. Democracy is more than casting ballots: political institutions and processes matter too. How was the campaign conducted? Who was allowed to vote? How does the result affect those who voted differently? It is quite wrong to describe the Russian-run sham poll in Crimea as a “referendum” from which real political conclusions can be drawn, without examining these other questions.
Similarly, what does it mean to describe the Crimea as “historically” Russian? Tatar, Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians have roots there too, plus of course Ukrainians. Does only the majority dictate a region’s history? Does the Kremlin alone have the right to decide which kinds of majorities matter, and when?
As the “Rights in Russia” blog has noted, Sky News captioned rival Crimea protests in Moscow last month as “Pro-Russia” and “anti-Russia”—thus echoing the sinister Kremlin line that dissent is treason. Simplicity can lead to absurdity. Or worse.