The language of interethnic communication

I’ve been writing an article about Transnistria this week, a self-declared ‘republic’ sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova; de jure part of Moldova. This has entailed transcribing my lengthy interviews with monolingual Russian-speaking Transnistrians who are driven to justify why they embarked on a war with Moldova to defend their native land and their right to speak Russian and not learn Moldovan, Romanian or any other language.

Russian was the language of interethnic communication in the Soviet Union, they insist. And that’s why we all lived in multinational multicultural peace and harmony and total linguistic freedom. We all spoke Russian here because it wasn’t prestigious to speak Moldovan. Of course, everyone should have the right to speak their own language. Moldovans didn’t really have much chance to learn their language at school or use it in the workplace but it was much better to speak Russian anyway, because that was the language of interethnic communication and we all lived in peace, didn’t we? What’s wrong with that?

(Is this what the Colonial English sound(ed) like? I wonder. Maybe that’s why these interviews are so long; why I keep returning to this question)

Transnistria now has three State languages, they say proudly: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan; yes, the only true Moldovan language left anywhere in the world (when I try to say, but isn’t that an obsolete form written in Cyrillic invented by the Soviets, which no one outside this made-up republic recognises?)

What a truly international republic we are, they say, unlike Moldova where everyone is forced to speak Romanian; yes they are, it’s true (when I try to point out that in the Moldovan capital Chisinau most people can and very frequently do speak Russian and English as well as Romanian which is practically identical to Moldovan).

Few people in Transnistria actually speak Moldovan, of course, they say. It’s an optional school subject, and most don’t opt for it. Why should they? Why should we, when the language of interethnic communication is Russian, and we all live in peace and harmony? It’s just not necessary, when only a few native people in villages speak Moldovan…

Ah, at last they mention indigenous people. But if it’s the native language and you keep telling me you fought to defend your native land, why are you so opposed to learning Moldovan/Romanian? I finally manage to ask. Why did they have to learn Russian? You keep insisting on the right to speak your native tongue, to speak whatever language a person chooses…

And at last, there it comes; the cry: but this is Russian land!

While working on this article, I’ve also been watching ATR’s TV marathon and countdown to April 1. ATR is the only Crimean Tatar TV channel in the world. Based in Crimea, it broadcasts in both Russian and Crimean Tatar, since after decades of ‘peace and harmony and the language of interethnic communication’ many Crimean Tatars – the peninsula’s indigenous people – don’t speak their own language.

ATR is – was – opinionated, high quality, sometimes excellent TV. Its outspoken and bloody-minded journalists toned down a bit after Crimea was annexed last spring: far fewer live debates and breaking news, more cultural shows and Hollywood films translated into Crimean Tatar. Back in March last year, just a week or so after annexation, the channel’s owner Lenur Islyamov told the Crimean Tatar qurultai or council, “the whole nation can’t be dissidents.” ATR was prepared to stop being dissident, if that meant it could continue supporting and representing Crimean Tatar identity by broadcasting concerts and films and historical programmes in Crimean Tatar language.

When Russia annexed Crimea one of many, many promises it made was that, like Transnistria, Crimea would have three state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

Just like Transnistria, in practice this means pretty much nothing.

The Crimean Tatar editorial of the Crimean state TV and radio company was effectively purged six months ago, supposedly for not providing Russian subtitles for its Crimean Tatar language broadcasts (no one insisted on Crimean Tatar subtitles for the Russian editorial’s broadcasts). Independent Crimean Tatar media outlets, which along with ATR include two radio stations, a children’s channel and an internet news agency (part of the same media holding), newspaper Avdet, and the QHA news agency, have all been unable to get a new license from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulation body.

In most cases Roskomnadzor has returned applications numerous times asking for changes and clarifications, or simply not answered in time for the deadline of April 1. (It’s a tried and tested tecnique; independent media outlets in Transnistria are silenced the same way). Broadcasting without a license from April 1 could entail fines, confiscation, even criminal proceedings.

Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov accused ATR recently of ‘inciting interethnic hatred’ by suggesting to its viewers that Crimea might one day return to Ukraine. Now it is April 1, the ATR marathon is over, the world’s only Crimean Tatar TV channel has gone off air. All I can listen to now are my interviews with those Russian-speaking, post-Soviet Transnistrians, insisting on peace and harmony only when Russian is the language of interethnic communication. When Russian is the only language, and they have fought a war to be free to speak it.

The equivalent of such people in Crimea, who Aksyonov represents, will happily explain that they were ready to fight Ukraine, and support their brothers fighting now in east Ukraine, for the inalienable right to speak Russian and only Russian, that language of peace and interethnic communication. They’ll say there is nothing wrong with that, everyone should have the right to speak whatever language they want.

They might possibly be brought to admit in passing that a few native people in villages in Crimea speak Crimean Tatar (or maybe not, since Putin now says the indigenous people of Crimea are the Greeks).

I know that if I were to push a little on this question, sooner rather than later it will come, the battle cry: but this is Russian land!

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR,  the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR, the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air

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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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