I made a terrible mistake. I addressed a Ukrainian film director in Russian, and he recoiled from me in such a way that I felt like the girl in the Charles Perrault fairy tale from whose mouth snakes and fell.
Mikhail Epstein said that Russia is a crime in itself, a country-slash-crime.
Now I’m wondering whether the Russian language is a weapon in a crime. It’s a pretty unbearable thought. It’s like someone was scalped with a knife that you’ve been innocently peeling potatoes with all your life. But yes, this bloody knife was bagged and admitted into evidence, and a verdict will soon be returned.
Source: Dmitry Volchek (Facebook), 7 March 2023. Translated by the Russian Reader
My native tongue is Russian.
It is a language of violence and murder. A language of war and death. The language of an empire in the throes of death.
I’ve said it before, but I often think with a shudder that the last thing the people killed in Ukraine heard were the sounds of my native language — commands barked out, probably, and most likely interlarded with obscenities. This conjecture once frightened me, but I know from reading the investigations that it’s true.
Kaputt… Hände hoch… Ein, zwei, drei… Wasn’t it us who, as Soviet schoolchildren playing in the courtyard, used to associate the German language with SS squads in movies about the Second World War? This is the now the Russian language’s plight.
Every time I speak Russian outside the house, I remember this. I must remember. It doesn’t matter that I speak five languages and write in [Russian and] three others. I still have only one native language.
I think in its words. And about its words.
Life in the mother tongue is so emphatic that in a way which is rationally not conceivable, which is even rationally refutable, I feel co-responsible for what Russians do and have done.
The last paragraph that you read was not written by me. It is a quotation. Just replace “Russians” with “Germans” and you will get an excerpt from Karl Jaspers’s book The Question of German Guilt [trans. D.B. Ashton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 74.]
What comes next?
Does the language of empire — a language of violence and murder, of war and death — have any future at all?
What about the Russian language of Ukrainians, a native language for many of them?
Alas, even here the war has not left much room for maneuver.
In response to my texts on social media, I’ve been getting a lot of letters from Ukraine, sometimes in Ukrainian, but more often in Russian. The letters begin with the indispensable proviso. The Russian language is off-putting… I thought I would never be able to read anything or anyone in Russian… The sounds of the Russian language are nauseating, but out of personal respect (gratitude, as a sign of support) I have been reading you and am writing in Russian.
According to polls, since the start of the invasion, a significant percentage of people in Ukraine have switched completely to Ukrainian, while people who were originally Russophones (members of the older generation mainly, that is, people over forty-five) have strenuously been learning to use it as their primary language or studying it nearly from scratch. Many refuse to read anything in Russian on principle.
Recently, I received this testimony: “There is the phrase my daughter used in 2014 […]: ‘Mom, thank you very much for raising me on Russian literature. Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky are a wonderful tuning fork, a catalyst that helps me to distinguish good from evil. Thanks, it has come in handy. Now I’m ready for battle.”
(It is telling that the function of classical Russian literature as an ethical tuning fork, as noted in the above passage, is exactly the opposite of the anti-ethical rhetoric — “culture is not to blame” — that Russians have been practicing vis-a-vis the selfsame literature, which they call their own.)
In the spring, when I translated for the first refugees, blushing and apologizing, I babbled that, unfortunately, I didn’t know Ukrainian. I could only translate from Italian into Russian or, if push came to shove, into Polish. I always heard the same response: “Are you kidding? Thank you, but it’s your language after all.”
Shortly after February 24, one of my correspondents, having written the first part of his message to me in Ukrainian, switched to Russian himself and invited me to do the same — “You can speak Russian, it’s our language too” — thereby completely turning the language situation around. It was as if he had removed the curse of the Russian language from the conversation by inviting me to speak in his (!) Russian and thus delicately rescuing me from a situation where I would have imposed on him the need to speak the same language, but as the language of empire and occupiers.
Later, it happened quite often. But in the midst of a war, amidst the smoking ruins, it can only be a one-time individual communicative act of goodwill. It cannot and should not become an indulgence.
I have repeatedly observed how Ukrainians speaking to each other in their native Russian in the presence of a third person (whether me or when asked a question by a Russophone outsider of unknown origin) instantly responded in Ukrainian. Switching to it, they would continue the interrupted conversation amongst themselves in Ukrainian.
The bilingualism of Ukraine and the fate of this bilingualism is a purely Ukrainian matter.
But what should I do? As I have said, I speak five languages fluently, and I write in four, but I have only one native language. And only in Russian am I me to my last syllable and my last breath.
“Preserve my speech…” But how?
How to preserve Russian speech with all its rhetoric about the special, “mighty, truthful and free” Russian language, rhetoric that has glommed onto and penetrated it and today is tragicomically outdated? (How can it even occur to us to write about ourselves like that?) How to preserve a language poisoned by the criminal argot of the last decades, which always turns into a shiv in the back? How to liberate it so that it becomes the language of a continuous, uninterrupted tradition and simultaneously open to the new, which is much bigger than it and us?
It is already too late for us to speak it without being tongue-tied, but our children and students still have a chance. What the language of civilization and education will be in the life of a particular student — Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, Italian, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, French, Chuvash, Udmurt, Estonian, English, or German — is a technical matter more than anything.
In days of doubt and painful reflection, moved to despair by everything happening at home, it is difficult to believe. However, as I continue to write and teach, including in Russian, it is impossible not to believe at all that our native language is given to us not only as an eternal reproach, but also as a gift: to once and for all evict the word “great” from it and be able to put Russia at least somewhere in the above list.
There won’t be another chance.
Update. I quoted it not so long ago, but I will do it again. Recently, I read this original reflection by Hanna Perekhoda in her article “Can Russia become non-imperial?”
“The war has pushed those who had not made a conscious choice earlier to make an uncompromising choice in favor of Ukrainian identity. It has also given millions of Ukrainians the experience of grassroots solidarity, self-organization and horizontal cooperation, in the process of which a ‘nation’ is formed, if we understand it as a political community of solidarity. These Ukrainians could tell Russians in their own language how to build a political community and how to live without empire. Ukrainians could use the Russian language, which is not the property of [ethnic] Russians, and even less so Putin’s property, in order to create a radically decolonial and emancipatory culture in Russian. Perhaps it could be the key to turning the space of the former empire into a space of radical liberation.”
From today’s perspective it seems like a beautiful utopia. But the future is in a fog.
The future is really foggy, but if we don’t try to take a hard look at ourselves, then there will be no way.
Here is the link to an interview [in which Margolis discusses this issue at length with Russian liberal journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov]:
Source: Katia Margolis (Facebook), 19 February 2023. Translated by the Russian Reader. A much longer French version of this essay, which I discovered because the author cited both it and this text in a comment to Mr. Volchek’s Facebook post, above, has been published by Desk Russie.