Putin’s Russian World Dissolving in a 60 Percent Solution

The most politically significant number released last week was provided by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who noted that 60 percent of those fighting in Ukrainian forces against pro-Moscow militants in the Donbas speak Russian as their first language. That figure by itself dooms Vladimir Putin’s Russian world project to failure and even more undermines the continued existence of the Russian Federation.

Only two groups of people think that language change is the same as identity change: those raised in Soviet times who were told to believe that if non-Russians stopped speaking their languages and started speaking Russian, they would be more loyal to Moscow; and those in immigrant societies who often think that learning and speaking the language of the dominant group is not only a necessary but a sufficient condition for integration.

Both of these groups are wrong. Learning to speak another language may lead to identity change but not to the identity change many of those demanding it assume. On the one hand, if one is compelled to learn another language, one may care even more about the identity associated with the language one has had to give up. Thus, the Irish did not become nationalists until they stopped speaking Gaelic and had to use English; and many non-Russians in Soviet times discovered their identities when they were forced to learn Russian and then discovered how much they were discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

And on the other, ethnic or national identity is never simply about language, however much the advocates of this or that language community may say. For some national groups, language may indeed be the most important thing, but in no case is it the only one. And for many other nations, language simply isn’t that important. Other things matter more, including history, culture and so on. In fact, one can even speak of «language-centric nations» and «non-language centric nations».

In pushing for his «Russian world», Putin has forgotten these realities if he ever knew them, perhaps in part because talking about supposed Ukrainian persecution of Russian speakers was a good mobilizing tool. But as Poroshenko’s words show, Putin has failed to understand that for Ukrainians, language matters, but independence from Moscow and freedom to choose their own future matters more. Many Ukrainians may prefer that to be proclaimed in Ukrainian; but at least some for whom Russian has been a more familiar language are quite prepared to do so in Russian.

Putin’s mistake on this point is even more profound than that, however, because it has consequences not just for his imagined «Russian world» but also for the Russian Federation whose president he now is. By elevating the role of the Russian language, Putin is undermining any possibility for stability in a country where loyalty to the center rather than language has always been more important. That is because by taking that step, he is making language as such more important, including for the 25 percent of the population which is not ethnically Russian. Many of them will see their own languages as more important and more worthy of defense than ever before, and at least some of them will conclude that they do not want to be part of a state where by definition they are less than first class citizens.

In Ukraine, Putin should be learning that language isn’t the most important thing for all people; and in his own country, he should be learning that if governments handle the issue badly, it can become exactly that.

Ignazio Silone once observed that the last battle in the Cold War would be between communists and ex-communists, but it may be the case that in Eurasia, thanks to Putin’s failure to understand the nature of language and identity, the last battle will be between those who speak their own languages and those who have been forced to speak someone else’s. In that event, not just «the Russian world» but the Russian Federation are likely to dissolve in Poroshenko’s «60 percent» solution.

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Paul Goble

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