Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Language of the Revolution

Andrei Sinyavsky's brilliant treatise on Soviet culture, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, reminds us that revolutions are linguistic phenomena as much as they are political ones. It's not surprising then that the Bolshevik victory in 1917 led to linguistic changes in the Russian language that rival those of Peter the Great's momentous reign in the early eighteenth century. What were those changes? As a folklorist, Sinyavsky is well-placed to analyze and categorize these changes. He says that the Revolution unleashed a plethora of new words, expressions, metaphors, phrases, slogans, and literary constructions.

The linguistic revolution had both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, it led to new and sometimes startlingly original literature, as exemplified by the Blok's poetry and Zoshchenko's prose. The vernacular, as connoisseurs of Hip-Hop and Rap music know, is alive, endlessly inventive, and refreshingly spontaneous.

But as the language of the street entered into the central discourse of the Russian political and cultural elite, it had a coarsening effect on public life--"[c]rude words corresponding to the language of the street; sometimes very apt and exact, sometimes word monsters." Moreover, the violence and absurdity of the new language were one of the worst aspects of Bolshevik rule, responsible in part for many of its tangible and therefore sanguinary crimes. As Sinyavasky reminds us, the very term, Soviet Union, makes little sense, or worse, is an Orwellian construction signifying the very impotence of the workers' councils, or soviets, that acted as rubber stamps for the Politburo or Party Leader's decisions and played no part in the formulation of Soviet policy at any point in Soviet history.

As a revolutionary state, the U.S.S.R. came up with neologisms for everything. Old terms associated with the bourgeoisie, church, former military order, or tsardom in general, were no longer acceptable. Ministers became people's commissars and almost everything was given the prefix, Soviet, to differentiate the new from the old. Indeed, the term, "man," was now seen to be inadequate, or redolent of everything that was outdated or wrong in the world. In contrast, the phrase "Soviet man" connoted everything that human beings were striving to become through enlightenment, education, industrialization, and socialism. And what of the simple, hoary term, Russia? It too was seen to be inadequate and was of course replaced with the infinitely more complex term, Russian Federated Socialist Republic or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Over time, the language of the Soviet state became almost nonsensical, filled as it was with strange-sounding acronyms, neologisms, and novel new Bolshevik names for ancient Russian cities. Even ordinary Russians were likely to receive new names. In Sinyavasky's example, the Revolution almost put an end to common Russian names such as "Ivan," which seemed too atavistic to be employed by good, future-oriented Bolshevik parents. Better to name one's child after the heroes of socialism such as Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, or even a symbol of socialist accomplishment such as electrification or the tractor.

Other linguistic trends included the new passion for terms associated with modernity, including mechanization, modernization, industrialization, "chemicalization," and electrification, and the creation of myriad scientific-sounding terms for non-scientific phenomena, such as idealism, materialism, Trotskyism, "deviationism," and so on. Sinyavsky sees the strange expression, "I-don't-give-a-damn-ism" was emblematic of Soviet discourse. The term, like so many others, absurd and illustrates his argument that Soviet citizens began to speak in "word signals" rather than words, since no one, "not even themselves," can explain their meaning.

As Soviet rule wore on, Soviet language ossified, its bureaucratic underpinnings becoming ever more apparent. Khrushchev sees to exemplify its increasingly boorish essence. Although both clever and populist, Khrushchev's verbiage was often violent, crude, and semi-literate. Khrushchev also mixed peasant constructions with an impoverished Marxist, sloganeering, brand of agitprop and officialese.

In the end of course Soviet language became so divorced from reality that it practically signified its opposite. In other words, one could often read state newspapers or listen to public broadcasts and determine that the reverse of whatever was said was in fact true. It seems that Soviet language and Soviet reality had, at long last, veered too far apart to be sustainable.

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