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State Custody of the Russian Language
 Jan 23, 2013

Russian politicians are increasingly putting forward initiatives that somehow regulate the use of Russian. The last surge of disputes was related to the proposal of the LDPR Party to pass a law binding all journalists not to use foreign loan words whenever Russian analogues are available. Keen interest of the authorities in the Russian language is by no means casual: it clearly corresponds to the public demands. Recent sociological surveys revealed the desire of ordinary Russians to see their government standing on guard of the purity of Russian. The government has already made repeated attempts to interfere into this rather delicate sphere, but until now they have not been very effective.

The latest initiatives by certain politicians to protect the mother tongue, taken one after another, exposed a new trend. Thus a draft bill imposing fines for the use of obscene language in media (the cabinet has already come up with a negative review of this bill) passed the first reading. Another draft bill binds all migrants to take a special exam in order to prove their fluency in Russian as part of the new migration policy of Russia until 2025. In the words of prime-minister Dmitry Medvedev, this is a normal practice for all nations that care for their future. And the LDPR is getting ready to enter a draft bill introducing a ban on the use of foreign terms in media whenever Russian analogues are available. Obviously, politicians are earnest in their zeal to protect the Russian language.

The current surge of interest in the Russian language on the part of public authorities is backed by the public demand that has existed since the late 2000s. The last public opinion poll regarding the need to protect Russian and the practical ways of doing this was conducted in 2008 by the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Investigation (VCIOM). In those days 87% of Russians stated that it was necessary to target the purity of Russian and struggle towards this end. As regards the language protection means, the respondents suggested the following measures: better teaching at schools (21% of all respondents), introducing censorship in media (9%), and the ban on using obscene language in public places (6%). About 5-6% mentioned literate spoken language at home and rearing little children in the love for their mother tongue as prerequisites for Russian language protection and preservation. From 2% to 4% of the respondents argued that a greater focus should be placed on Russian literature, the distortion of Russian words and even the use of foreign loan words should be prohibited. More than half of all respondents (55%) were at a loss for listing the measures called to defend the mother tongue effectively.

Four years later the government responded to the popular appeal and proposed their package of measures aimed at preservation of Russian. They look spectacular, but suspiciously raw. A question remains: if an exam in Russian is introduced for labor migrants, is it necessary to train them in Russian? If yes, then who will cover the costs: taxpayers, NGOs or employers? Or who will compile a list of foreign loan words that shall not be used?

Leader of the LDPR faction Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proposing to withdraw from the national language all foreign words having Russian analogues (mainly Americanisms), argued that this step is necessary because “all major countries have purged foreign loan words from their national languages.” An MP from LDPR and first vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee for information policy Vadim Dengin, familiar with the development of this draft bill, was at a loss for an answer to the question of Expert Online, whether his faction conducted preliminary monitoring of international experience in this area, and could not give any examples of the nations that “got rid of foreign loan words.”

Laws aimed at the protection of national languages are generally a rarity in the world. Moreover, in many countries (including Germany, USA, UK and Japan) the “national language” notion is not enshrined in the constitutions. Nevertheless, Russia has some examples for emulation. Thus the French law about the national language protection is rightly regarded as one of the world’s strictest. The use of foreign words for trademarks, where French analogues are available, is strictly forbidden, down to the persecution of those who use the traditional “email” or “computer” terms. A similar Polish law is even more severe, since it does not only ban the use of foreign terms having Polish analogues, but also prescribes the translation of all foreign names and trademarks into the national language. However, this prescription is seldom observed in practice, which allows the Old Spice or Camel brands to preserve their original names on the territory of Poland instead of being transformed into “Stary Smrud” and “Velblond”, respectively.

Anyway Russia with all its similar initiatives certainly has a long way to go in order to approach the exemplary champions of their national languages – France and Poland. Parliamentarians admit that the main pitfall that may entrap the lawmakers on the way is the proper legal technique. Thus the bill imposing fines for using obscene language in media has already stalled: in the current version it was not supported by the Cabinet and the legal administration of the President, because the proposed norms may come into collision with the effective articles of the Code of Administrative Offences. MPs promised to refine the draft bill and take all criticisms into consideration. Vadim Dengin, in his commentary for Expert Online, suggested that given “the current level of disrespect for the Russian language”, this issue deserves separate parliamentary proceedings. For all that, Mr Dengin admitted that this would entail a huge work on precluding the new bill to reiterate the former legislative initiatives. In his opinion, an effective result can be achieved only if all parties concerned are involved in the process: committees for culture and information policy, advisory panels under the Duma committees as well as the broad public that insists on taking measures aimed at the protection of Russian. Yet the desire to increase the number of stakeholders can easily make the process messy and destroy every chance for reaching a positive result.

Previous attempts to change things for the better with Russian had been made by the Russian Parliament long before the public opinion became known and long before the above-mentioned legislative initiatives were taken. Those attempts failed. It’s noteworthy that today’s politicians repeat word for word the proposals put forward more than a decade ago, and just as emphatically.

Thus the “first robin” was the draft bill “On Russian as the national language of the Russian Federation” that was submitted to the State Duma (Parliament) for consideration in the first reading in November 2001. The bill was full of good intentions, suffice it to say that pursuant to that memorable document the cabinet was to assume the development and introduction of qualification linguistic requirements for media people and others who were obliged to speak literate Russian (public officials, in the first place). The federal government would also have to endorse and finance Russian language support and development programs. At the same time all media were forbidden to use “obscene language and words humiliating the human dignity”, and they were called to stick to the norms of literary Russian (except in cases, when the violation is caused by the “need to expose certain characters”). There was also a prescription to replace the foreign loan words, “littering the spoken Russian language” by respective Russian words and phrases. Trespassing against those rules would entail the obscure “civil, criminal and administrative responsibility.”

By 2005 these initiatives finally took shape as the federal law “On the national language of Russia” which is still effective and markedly different from numerous drafted versions in that it is way milder (it was turned increasingly “insipid” with each new reading). The government protection of Russian was reduced to a list of non-binding measures, the most specific being “the government support of Russian dictionaries and grammar rules’ publication.”

Alina Sabitova
Source: Expert Online


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"And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
The great Russian word.
We will keep you free and pure,
And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage forever!" Anna Akhmatova "Valor"

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