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Does Learning Russian Endorse Oppression? Posted by on Jun 22, 2015 in language, Russian life

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.

Foreign Intervention

 

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.]

LGBT Rights

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?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    My heart breaks for the LGBT people in Russia. It also breaks when I read about the negative propaganda Russian people are being fed that they believe is “true.” If they could only hear the other side of this story . . . if only they could hear the truth. How the innocents suffer. P. I. Tchaikovsky is probably their favorite composer but would they condemn him to suffer the way LGBT people now suffer in Russia? He suffered enough as it was. As someone whose life has been shaped by The Arts I know many happy, lovingly devoted gay couples here in America. It is not a sickness. Everyone is entitled to happiness.

    However, it has not diminished my love for the Russian language. My interest in Russian started with my interest in Russian operas, Romances and ballets. I think someone stopping to learn a language because of a difference of opinion might be in a minority. The study of Russian in schools was much more prevalent during the Cold War. It was after the breakup of the USSR that interest in studying Russian waned and many schools have dropped degrees in Russian and courses in the language. I keep thinking that, even though the U.S. and Russia are on conflicting paths right now, maybe the one good thing that will come of it is that there will be a renewed interest in studying Russian once more.

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Moonyeen, that makes sense. I’m happy not everyone quits language learning out of protest — we’d then have people quitting English because of US/UK imperialism, German because of Nazism, French because of Algeria, Hebrew because of Palestine, etc., etc. — you get my point. Every language is implicated, even the small indigenous ones, if you look hard enough. What’s important to me is that there are people using that same language to fight oppression.
      I have seen some fostering/support for “critical” languages in the US (Russian, Chinese, Arabic). That’s a good thing as long as people find the strength and motivation to learn these languages beyond “This could land me a good intelligence/security career.”

  2. samonen:

    I happened to watch a long report or a news special on gay issues on Russian television recently. I think it was on the news channel Rossiya 24. While it showed friendly and happy gay couples in San Francisco and the reporter asked them questions, they were called “homosexualists” and “sodomites” by the reporter. The program was obviously anti-gay propaganda and tried to enlighten the public on the inner workings of the sodomite conspiracy. Frankly, I was as amused as I was appalled by it. I could not help thinking that this “news” programme employed exactly the same methods that were used in Soviet times: the ideologically harmful phenomenon such as long hair for men or doing the twist could be shown to the Soviet public only when it was smeared all over with conspicuously negative commentary presented in a theatrically moralistic tone.

    It is indeed “interesting” to notice that идеологическое воспитание is back in Russia. Author Mikhail Shishkin said recently that Russia is heading back to the middle ages. Way to go!

    • Maria:

      @samonen Samonen, true, watching something like this can be quite disheartening, especially once you realize that’s the only source of information for many people who sincerely believe European gay couples want to adopt Russian children so they can abuse them(?). That’s why I think it’s so important to know there are other opinions and have access to other sources of information: http://echo.msk.ru/, http://tvrain.ru/, http://www.colta.ru/, http://snob.ru/, and so on.

  3. Richard:

    I once decided to stop speaking English due to the Vietnam War but my parents insisted I finish primary school at the very least. 😉

    On a more serious note, you could argue that learning Arabic is wrong due to the horrendous human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, that learning Chinese is wrong due to the human rights abuses in China. The study of any language implies neither overt consent nor tacit agreement with the policies of the government which claims to represent that particular linguistic group. I’m sure that there are Saudis who oppose their government’s actions (and may even blog about them) and I’m sure that there are Chinese who define freedom as more than just the right to buy consumer toys. I know for a fact that there are a lot of wonderful Russians.
    Learning a foreign language is the best way to bridge cultures. Refusing to learn a language for political or social reasons engenders ignorance and results in, at best, mutual suspicion, and, at worst, paranoia. Language is the key to understanding a culture, throw away that key and the door remains locked. As someone once said: “Knowing only one language is like living in a mansion and never leaving one room”. We all live in the same mansion and banging on the walls is not the best way to communicate.

  4. Vaidya:

    I’m surprised you are being apologetic for actions of governments which had Russian at its official language. I guess if you look at the British empire, we shouldn’t be learning English, oh, I’m not even starting to talk about countries today using regime change as an excuse to go to war.
    In any case, if someone is being discouraged from learning a language because that language is/was the official language of an oppressive empire, its their problem to overcome and not yours to defend