I was once talking to a young American teacher, who told me he had started learning Russian but gave it up in protest of LGTB rights violations in Russia. It is, indeed, not hard to be discouraged from learning Russian when Russian governments and people, past and present, commit offenses against principles one holds dear.
However, is Russian (or any language, for that matter) solely the language of the oppressor? Does learning it mean the learner endorses the oppression? I will leave these questions here for our readers to ponder. For most causes involving Russian-speaking perpetrators, there is also a Russian-speaking champion of the oppressed. By learning Russian (or any other “implicated” language), we can hope to gain access to the cause and support the champion.
One can come up with many examples of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or present-day Russia meddling in the affairs of other nations. One such example is the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. The intervention was justified by the Soviet government as fending off NATO influence, but was likely triggered by the liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia. In the words of a Soviet official:
Трудно было представить, что у наших границ появится буржуазная парламентская республика (!), наводненная немцами ФРГ, а вслед за ними американцами. [It was hard to imagine having a bourgeois parliamentary republic next to our border, filled with Germans from West Germany and, later, Americans.]
However, not everyone in the USSR shared this outlook. On August 25, 1968, 7 people went to Red Square in Moscow to protest the invasion. They were arrested and most of them received prison sentences or were involuntarily committed to mental institutions. One of the protesters, Larisa Bogoraz, offered this motivation for the protest in her last plea (последнее слово) in court:
Я оказалась перед выбором: протестовать или промолчать. Для меня промолчать — значило присоединиться к одобрению действий, которых я не одобряю. Промолчать — значило для меня солгать. Я не считаю свой образ действий единственно правильным, но для меня это было единственно возможным решением. [I was faced with a choice — to protest or stay silent. For me, staying silent meant expressing approval for actions I do not approve. Staying silent meant lying. I don’t consider my decision the only way to go, but that was the only way for me.]
Another factor contributing to Russia’s poor human rights record is cracking down on the LGBT community. Requests to hold a pride march are routinely denied and people coming to the marches are assaulted by protesters and often arrested by the police. While homosexuality is legally shielded from persecution, Russia has recently passed a law supposed to protect (“protect”?) minors from “LGBT propaganda.”
One of the more infamous Russian politicians, member of the St. Petersburg legislature Vitaly Milonov said:
…обеспокоенность тем, что нельзя будет подкатывать к восемнадцатилетним, и вызывает эту волну протеста у гей-активистов, я могу предположить” [“I suppose this wave of protesting by gay activists was unleashed by their concern they won’t be allowed to hit on 18-year-olds anymore”].
While Russian society as a whole is becoming increasingly intolerant towards LGBT people, this cause is not without its champions. Lena Klimova started a project called Childen-404 (Дети-404), which shares stories of LGBT teenagers and their struggles. She has been fined under the new law. Here is her take on why this law hurts LGBT youth:
Психологи сейчас, по сути, из-за недавнего закона ходят по грани. Они помогают ребятам, говоря им: вы нормальные. С вами всё в порядке. Это не беда, не болезнь, не грех, не порок, просто так бывает. Сейчас любого психолога, к которому обратится ЛГБТ-подросток, можно будет осудить за «пропаганду гомосексуализма». И это страшно. Закон запрещает помогать и говорить правду. [Psychologists are essentially walking a thin line because of the recent legislation. They are helping kids, telling them, “You’re normal. You’re fine. This is not a catastrophe, disease, sin, or vice; it simply happens.” Today any psychologist counseling an LGBT teen can be convicted for “homosexual propaganda.” And that is scary. This law forbids helping and telling the truth.]
These are just two examples of human rights abuses associated with Russia. I’m sure we can come up with others — for Russia or for other countries. What do you think? Would or did you quit a language out of protest of a country’s policies? Did you learn a language to support an oppressed group?