What’s Wrong with “Soviet Russian”? (Soviet Russian Viewed from Belgium)

Specialists of the Russian diaspora in Western Europe have noticed a recurring feature in the emotional attitude (one might even say passionate attitude) of Russian émigrés towards language change in their country of origin (see Granovskaja, Golubeva-Monatkina). Indeed, the socio-political changes of the twentieth century have profoundly affected the linguistic approach of the émigré confronted by the changes in his or her mother tongue both at the oral and the written level (lexico-semantic innovations, neologisms, new spelling, etc.). This complex context has given rise to opposing value judgments about the status of “émigré Russian” and “Soviet Russian.”

Research among Russian immigrants (first, second and third waves) established in francophone Belgium (Wallonia and Brussels) indicates that this opposition is especially marked in the first wave. Although this linguistic concept was created by this wave of immigrants (the White Russians), it deeeply influenced the following generations and still exists nowadays. What, then, according to this category of émigrés, are the distinctive features of Soviet Russian? First, they are the expression of a type of behavior labeled “Soviet” for its negative connotations, due to the dislocation of a tradition that has provoked the degeneration of Russian culture and the “proletarianization” of the elite (a lack of culture in general and of savoir-vivre mainly expressing themselves in poor manners). Secondly they are the result of the constraints imposed by a totalitarian regime (homo sovieticus not being particularly noted for free speech, human rights and restrained patriotism). Thus, one of the first questions posed to a newly-arrived Russian-speaker by a “white émigré” was often intended to position the new arrival with respect to the Soviet system (“Vy sovetskij?”).

The attitude of émigrés towards the “Soviet language” was linked to the political divisions ranging from an outright rejection of anything Soviet (some émigrés still use old spelling conventions) to a more subtle analysis (the heavy-handed stereotyped language of Pravda being then distinguished from an authentic Russian used by the present-day intelligentsia). The reproaches towards Soviet Russian are rarely argued coherently, the usual attitude being to qualify the language as barbaric and uneducated and to support this by a few biased examples.

The Soviet Russians have counter-attacked by criticizing the language used by the émigrés which, it is argued, is distorted by the majority language (in this case French), does not keep up with the times (modern technology being a case in point) and can generally be characterized by a gradual language loss.

The disappearance (officially at least) of the Soviet regime has not radically modified the attitude of the migrant purists. The Soviet myth has now given way to that of the New Russian, easily spotted in the upmarket shops of Brussels. Although supposedly embracing the values of the czarist empire, this new species is not more civilised than before: it still has its proletarian roots and, moreover, is Mafia-prone. The New Russian is also blamed for exacerbated materialism and mercantilism and a willingness to embrace the American mentality (“They copy all the bad things from the West”). From a linguistic point of view, the New Russians can be said, on the one hand, to continue the tradition of the Soviet speech, and, on the other hand, to develop it by resorting to massive borrowing from English.