Power, Rule and Language
Arvamus 11 Mar 2012  EWR
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George Handlery, Duly Noted
The Soviets have abused the Russian language and culture by converting them into instruments of subjugation. The consequences still disadvantage the region.

An acquired language can be an instrument of integration, and access knowledge whereby it facilitates upward mobility. Millions that had entered the USA and Canada have learned English under these terms. That big story describes this writer’s personal story. In such instances, the new language liberated its users. In the case of contemporary immigrations, we encounter instances in which, by their free choice, groups enter countries whose culture, traditions and language –but not its welfare payments- they reject. Indigenous “goodpersons” tend to support such self-incapacitation. Preserving traditions and dignity is exploited to justify the resistance.

Sane people will opine that, if one dislikes a culture, one should seek the protection of less resented hosts. Once adapted, a language is the first step to “making it”. However, the coin has another side. Refusing an idiom can be resistance to a policy of forced assimilation whose goal is to liquidate an ethnic group. Where this is the case, a centralizing government exploits a language to firm its control and to liquidate an inconvenient group. Frequently, we discover the desire to integrate conquered territory by forcibly absorbing its people. In East-Central Europe, as well as in the case of the USSR, “nation building” has practiced the deportation of non-fitting elements coupled to the settlement of the correct ethnics in occupied lands.

The individual cases of assimilation range from the Irish, the Bretons to the Basques, the Székely’s in Transylvania and the Moldovans, including the Balts or Hispanics in the US, and so they vary greatly. No universal principle regarding proper treatment can be formulated. Seeming inconsistencies appear even on the personal level. This writer has refused to learn Russian in Hungary but became fond of it abroad. He is for “English only” in America but for the use of the local idiom in Slovakia’s south and applauds the use of Swedish in Finland and of Rhaetoromanian in Switzerland.

A region where the conflict between languages, ethnicities, political orientation, and self-determination is especially pronounced is the Baltic. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania have been part of the USSR. This after a past that, with some Lithuanian exceptionalism, made local serfs subject to foreign control by German lords, Poland, followed by Swedish dominance, and then annexation by Czarist Russia. Short independence followed once Bolshevik Russia had to release them. In 1939, Hitler sold them to his ally Stalin, then “liberated” them, after which they wound up again under Moscow’s control. Independence was reasserted after the dissolution of the USSR. Stalin did not trust the Balts and, while he deported much of the population to the Gulag, he settled ethnic Russians to “right” the demographic balance.

Starting from a low base – much below that of Poland, the Czechs, and the Magyars - the Baltic states have been amazingly successful in catching up with the modern world. However, earlier ethnic manipulation has left them with a substantial minority of Russians. Understandably, these resented to go from “Herrenmensch” to minority status, even if the opportunities of a modern society provided undreamed opportunities to enjoy a good life. Many Russians sulk and, therefore, they refuse to learn the local language, forego citizenship, and long for the Soviet Union.

Recently, a referendum was held in Latvia. The voters had to decide whether Russian should become an official language. Understandably, the majority responded with a “No”. It is a good sign that in some Russian-inhabited zones, only a small majority voted “yes”. Where indigenous people are concerned, the writer would support such a rejected cause. The reason for the personal “No” is that a language can signify an opposition that questions the right of the majority to its state. Alas, imposed languages have often been used to deprive people of their identity and to firm the hold of suppressive alien rule. That is the reason why some areas in central Europe had, before the 20th century, “nix tàjcs” (“no German” –in this case in its Hungarian spelling) movements.

The Romanovs and then the Soviets’ abusive use of everything Russian have, to my current regret, converted that language into an instrument of subjugation. To make that not only understood but also felt by the reader, this writing will shift to the personal level. The point will become tri-dimensional by recounting the writer’s first Russian lesson.

Our homework for the scheduled French lesson was ready when a lanky older stranger (probably an ex-POW) walked into the classroom. He told us (age 12) that we will now learn Russian. He then dictated to us the Soviet anthem that we had to learn by heart. This was done in its phonetic version and using Latin characters. Naturally, we did not understand a single word about the “indissolvable union” and other goodies. Thereafter we learned that “C” is an “s” as in “sissy”. Then came “t” which was an “m”. The “a”, being the same, was easy. Next, we were told that “l” is like a worm that bends upward when hurt. The magic word ended in an “H” but in minuscule. It meant “n” like in –what we felt- “NO!”. Our new skill put us in the marching column of progressive mankind because we could now spell the name of the “guardian of peace”, our “great Stalin”. Next day we learned that “u” is an “i” and that it means “and”. It took only little more to learn how to write “Lenin”. (Note the sequence!) “Comrade” in Russian completed the sentence.

With that, for many years to come, my hatred for anything Russian stood on a firm fundament. Only life and studies in the West - that is far from the scene of the original crime - have liberated me from unnecessarily refusing to appreciate a great language and significant culture. Some of its representatives are among my personal heroes, such as Amalrik, Sakharov, and Solzhenitsyn.

George de Poor Handlery is an Hungarian with a complicated/diverse ethnic and language background. He is an historian with a US Ph.D. who has moved back for professional reasons to Europe (Switzerland) in 1972. He has been writing, teaching and lecturing in several languages and countries before and after his retirement.

First published online here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com...
 
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