There’s a war going on, the Kremlin wants you to know.
It’s not in Syria. It’s not in Libya. It’s not in Ukraine.
It’s a war on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Akhmatova, and Pasternak; more specifically, the language that gave humanity some of the world’s greatest literature.
“A war on the Russian language has been declared not only by Neanderthal Russophobes, as we are witnessing,” President Vladimir Putin said on November 5. “This is an open secret. It is being waged by all kinds of fringe groups, but also by active and aggressive nationalists.”
“We are facing attempts to oust artificially — and I would like to emphasize this, crudely — to absolutely, unceremoniously reduce the space of the Russian language in the world and to oust it to the periphery,” Putin told scholars and academics at a Kremlin meeting of the Presidential Council on the Russian Language.
And don’t get him started on Wikipedia.
Putin’s sentiments, which were echoed by other participants, including a descendent of Lev Tolstoy, reflect a recurring gripe that prominent Russians have made over the years: that the Russian language is in danger.
Russian was the state language under the Soviet Union, and citizens from the Baltics, Ukraine, and Moldova to the Caucasus and Central Asia had to learn it.
After the Soviet collapse of 1991, however, the newly independent countries — some faster than others — began shifting away from the official use of Russian. By the mid-2000s, just five former Soviet republics – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – retained Russian as a state language alongside their own native tongues.
In the 1990s, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov regularly railed against the encroachment of foreign words — English, first and foremost — and criticized billboards around the city that had foreign phrases on them.
In recent years, the question of who speaks Russian and where has dovetailed with two critical issues for the Kremlin: one is the decline in the number of people who speak the language as a native tongue: currently 250 million worldwide, according to the online publication Ethnologue.
‘The Russian World’
The other is the concept, espoused by Putin and nationalist ideologues inside and outside of the Kremlin, of Russky Mir, or “the Russian World:” the idea of a Russian-dominated cultural space dating back to imperial times and encompassing most of Belarus, parts of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, as well as populations in the three Baltic states.
In the Baltic states, in particular, Moscow has frequently complained about language laws affecting the Russian minorities. In Latvia, a law took effect this year that, by 2021, will require that the final three years of high-school education will be taught only in Latvian — a measure that has outraged members of the country’s Russian-speaking populace.
Putin’s call to make advocacy of the Russian language and the fight against what the Kremlin claims is “Russophobia” state policy was embraced by language-council members including its head, Vladimir Tolstoi, who drew a parallel between government investments in new weaponry and language.
“The war waged against the Russian word and the Russian language in the so-called civilized world makes it possible to consider it a powerful and formidable weapon, which means that this weapon must be in full combat readiness,” said Tolstoi, a great-great grandson of the famed 19th-century novelist.
It was later echoed by nationalist figures like Sergei Markov, a former parliamentarian who served as a member of a state body called the Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests.
“It is right,” Markov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Russophobia is a difficult political illness of the West, to which Russia, by its very existence, reminds us that the West is not omnipotent and is losing economic and moral strength.”
Putin later tried to soften the “language-as-a-weapon” rhetoric, saying “It makes sense to not use it. Why? Because if it is a weapon, it will be dealt with as a weapon. It is already being fought against, but for other reasons. Indeed, it is a power to a certain extent: a soft power.”
But Putin also took aim at another target that Russian officials have complained about in the past: Wikipedia.
Responding to a complaint raised by a university official who complained about the use of Wikipedia in Russian courtrooms, Putin called for a Russian-native online reference that would replace the online encyclopedia, which has its own Russian-language version.
“As for Wikipedia, this has already been discussed here: it’s better to replace it with the new Great Russian Encyclopedia in electronic form,” he said. “At least that will be reliable information — presented in a good, modern form, by the way.”
Government authorities have overseen the publication of multivolume Russian encyclopedias for decades, going back to the late 1920s, although the Soviet version that was published for years was heavy on Marxist interpretations.
Under a decree from Putin in 2003, the Russian Academy of Sciences oversaw the publication of a new encyclopedia, releasing 36 volumes over a 13 year-period containing about 12,000 entries.
But critics and outside observers complained that, like many similar printed reference books in other languages, the Great Russian Encyclopedia was outdated even before it was finished.
According to government tender documents published in September by Russian media, the government plans on earmarking nearly 1.7 billion rubles ($27 million) for the development of a Russian-language reference source similar to Wikipedia.
The Russian version of Wikipedia says it contains more than 1.5 million entries.