Murder of a Language

An immigrant, born in the former Soviet Union, examines how Putin’s actions have had a detrimental effect on the language, culture, and politics of Russia…

by: Mark Budman

For the first time in my long life, I’m ashamed my first language is Russian. I’m not an ethnic Russian, I wasn’t even born in Russia. I was born in the former Soviet Union, in a place that is now called Moldova. This place was and is multi-ethnic, but in my boyhood, back in the nineteen-sixties, Russian was the prevailing language, at least in the cities. I remember a boy about my age showing off a Ukrainian-language book in school. The script looked like Russian but with a few minor differences. I wondered why he would want to read that. Isn’t Russian literature much richer than Ukrainian? Even Nikolai Gogol, the most famous Ukrainian writer, wrote in Russian. He replied curtly, “It’s my language.”

My wife was born in Ukraine. The same thing happened there too, to a lesser extent. Everyone wanted to speak and read Russian. But now, thanks to Mr. Putin, it’s changing. Mr. Putin plays the role of a defender of all things Russian. But his efforts have a detrimental effect on the language, culture, and politics. People in Ukraine who used to speak Russian, are switching to Ukrainian en masse. Even the cities’ names sound different from what the majority used to say. Even words fight. Exhibit 1, this hashtag: #KyivNotKiev.

Living in a multilingual environment is beneficial for everyone. Linguistic skills flourish in a heterogeneous environment. My father spoke five languages. My mother speaks four. Beginning with my generation, we lived in a more homogenous environment. When first Russian and then English became dominant in our family, the number of languages went down. I speak only two. Maybe 2.2. My kids speak 1.5. My grandkids speak 1.2.

Increasing people’s knowledge about other cultures helps the whole society. Knowledge leads to understanding. Understanding leads to peace. Brains deteriorate slower when people speak more than one language. 

However, this truth is not shared by everyone. Dictators are not elected for their knowledge of languages and their roles in human development. They are not elected at all. They are surrounded by equally minded yes people, and therefore have a hard time understanding such intricacies. But ignorance is not a defense.

Eliminating even one language from the family of Earth languages is a crime. Especially such a rich language as Russian. Nikolai Gogol would agree. You have committed a crime, Mr. Putin. Уходите. Йди геть


Mark Budman is a first-generation immigrant to the US. An engineer by training, he currently works as a medical interpreter. His fiction has appeared in Catapult, Witness, World Literature Today, Mississippi Review, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel My Life at First Try, published by Counterpoint, and co-editor of immigration-themed anthologies published by Ooligan Press, Persea, and University of Chester (UK).

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