One of the peculiarities of modern-day expat and immigrant life is that, thanks to the internet, you can observe how your native and adoptive languages interact with each other in real time. As a transwoman teaching my native Russian in my adoptive American culture, I have the added advantage of being professionally as well as personally invested in seeing how Russian speakers react to contemporary American English. In 2020, I saw Russian debates, public and private, on the question of the Russian equivalent for American inclusive language reach a boiling point. Some of the most illuminating instances of the debate I’ve found are from a Russian-language online media, a Russian poet, and a Russian academic.
But first a few words about inclusive language itself. By “inclusive language” I mean language practices that acknowledge the power dynamics inherent in speech acts and that actively protect groups traditionally misrepresented or excluded from representation in language altogether. In American English, inclusive would mean antiracist, feminist, sexuality neutral — or what in both English and Russian is often described by the term “politically correct.” In the specifically Russian context of the last couple of years, language of inclusivity, or rather the moral engine behind it and other adjacent modes of behavior, is also called by the umbrella term “new ethics.”
Meduza, the “Russian-language online publication most cited in social media” according to one metric, is headquartered in Riga, Latvia. It is therefore outside the repressive jurisdiction of the Russian government, with its notorious “gay propaganda” law, and is free to address some of the topics normally eschewed by metropolitan news outlets. Meduza’s writers often do so in a format they call “shameful questions” (shameful because controversial or traditionally passed over in silence; think “Too Afraid to Ask” subreddit meets scientific objectivity). The first batch of “shameful questions” about transgender identity and expression appeared in 2016, under the title: “He or She? Shameful Questions about Transgenders: Yes, really shameful questions (and non-shameful answers).” In it, the uncredited author listed some basic facts about transgender people, prioritizing questions of anatomy and physiology over social acceptance and inclusive terminology and, more tellingly, consistently employing the word “transgender” as a noun, a usage many in the Russian-speaking trans* community find dehumanizing.
In 2020, in an effort to explain to their readers why J.K. Rowling’s transphobic statements met with criticism, Meduza issued an updated version of their original educational piece under the title: “Transgender Transition — Is It the Same as Sex Change? Transgender People Live Less Than Other People? Why Even Some Feminists Don’t Like Them? Shameful questions about transgender identity — a new version!” A specially invited author, Maria Bobylyova, from the publication Takie Dela, which focuses on civic and charitable initiatives in Russia, wrote the new version from scratch. Significantly, the noun “transgender” was nowhere in the rewrite (except in the recommendation to avoid it).
And yet, because the update was occasioned not by the growing need to document transgender-inclusive language in Russia, but rather by the intensification of the culture war waged against increasingly visible transgender identities in the West, Meduza’s position became more obviously detached. In the lead paragraph of the new piece, for example, Meduza’s editors noted with sympathy that “many people are at a loss why Rowling’s joke [about menstruating people] was offensive,” and in the title, the main question was “why even some feminists don’t like them” — as if the question of why transgender people could be disliked by everyone else were not “shameful” enough, or perhaps too “shameful,” to warrant mentioning. One of the most popular independent outlets in the Russian-language media — and by implication its Russian readers — was thus “above the fray,” not taking sides in the debate between transgender-inclusive feminists and TERFs.
This pseudo-objective attitude came to a head when at the end of 2020, Elliot Page’s coming-out increased yet again the visibility of transgender and nonbinary people. The related story on Meduza was published under the title: “Ellen Page came out as a transgender man.” In a remarkable footnote, the editors wrote: “When speaking about a person’s past, it is correct to use the name and pronouns which that person uses now, even if in the past he or she was in a different gender role. But in order not to confuse the readers, we used the name which was indicated in the film credits [of Elliot Page’s movies].” The position “above the fray” leads to inclusive language being seen as at once de rigueur and optional, presumably depending on which political camp the reader belongs to. On one hand, the Meduza editors recognized the correct usage rhetorically, but on the other they ignored it “so as not to confuse the readers.”
In May 2020, the young Russian poet Galina Rymbu wrote in a passionate Facebook post that every speaker of Russian must be aware of the violence perpetrated by language and that she personally chose to replace common Russian words such as “prostitute,” “transgender” (noun), and “schizophrenic” with their “non-violent” (or, person-first) equivalents: woman engaged in prostitution, or sex worker; transgender person; person with mental disorder (of a psychotic type). Within a couple of days, the post collected 570 comments and sparked a heated debate about the language of tolerance and inclusivity in Russian. Rymbu subsequently composed a poem titled “Verses in New Words” where she used her “non-violent” Russian vocabulary, most of it translations from English, to describe the experiences and realities behind such names, and the poem appeared under the title “(In)correct Verses” in Takie Dela. The violence of current language was then illustrated to startling effect by Daria Serenko’s poetic response offered in support of Rymbu’s experiment and printed alongside it, where the poet used as her material the largely negative and dismissive comments to Rymbu’s original Facebook post. Indeed, one of the most committed feminist authors writing in Russian today, Rymbu started a conversation that involved a number of Russian literary figures and academics, many of whom were unafraid to register their displeasure at what they perceived as an attack on their civic right to free speech, and as an attempt to curtail their freedom of artistic expression.
Indicative of not only inclusive language differences, but also of Russian attitudes to American cultural trends, in December 2020 a Russian academic who holds a tenured position at an Ivy League college wrote (in Russian) a public Facebook post about the atmosphere of COVID-era academic online meetings at his institution and noted that it had become a “required ritual,” “a rule of the etiquette” to respond to scholarly papers with the phrase “Thank you for being vulnerable.” He pointed out that the phrase constituted a “curious inversion of the traditional meaning of the verb ‘to debate,’ which since the 14th century signified ‘to quarrel, dispute,’ also ‘to combat, fight, make war.’” At the end of the post he wondered provocatively how the phrase “thank you for being vulnerable” could be translated into Russian. Predictably, the comments (also in Russian) were mostly negative, dismissive, and ironic. No serious attempt was made to translate the phrase, and the reality behind it was treated at best with the same pseudo-objective detachment as the footnote in the Meduza article.
Before I draw any conclusions, I admit that, as fascinating as the comments on social media are, they are often more outspokenly negative than the original posts, probably because comments are intended as private remarks addressed to one person, in contrast to posts, which are seen as statements intended for the public. I also admit that I chose to highlight the aforementioned examples from ostensibly well-intentioned propaganda-free discourses, so that the resistance to inclusive language would show with particular force; it is the language of educated, cosmopolitan Russian speakers who are struggling to adopt a “foreign code of conscience” — not so much because it is foreign, as because it is about power.
In the case of the faculty’s Facebook post in particular, one cannot help sensing the influence of a unique kind of irony towards discourses of power. The Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak ascribed such irony to the last Soviet generation and called it stiob in his 2005 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Stiob, Yurchak writes, as practiced by late-Soviet artistic groups, “performed a displacement of the symbolic order, creating in it zones that were in-between [that is, in between pro-Communist activist and anti-Communist dissident dispositions], without ever acknowledging this fact explicitly.” He continues:
By being overly devoted to replicating the precise form of authoritative texts, rituals, and images the stiob procedures unanchored the constative meanings associated with them, thus making meaning unclear, indeterminate, or even irrelevant. In other words, stiob served as a model of the “performative shift.” As a result, the symbol could suddenly appear baffling or absurd.
Much like the original stiob, decontextualizing the phrase “thank you for being vulnerable” and overidentifying with the academic discourse from whence it came for the purposes of ironic deconstruction are ways of escaping a powerful ideology. But in a curious inversion, if the original stiob protected Soviet artists from the ideology of a truly life-threatening power, today’s irony is supposed to protect the ironist from ideological pressures within politically correct US academia. In that, Russian irony towards political correctness resonates with, if not directly stems from, the conservative critique of political correctness in the West itself. For Western conservatives, political correctness that gives traditionally disenfranchised groups the power to define themselves is a form of oppression; they see as a kind of oppression a limit to their own power (or freedom) to oppress. The ironist in my example did not go so far as to identify openly with the conservative position, from which, as Corey Robin puts it in his 2011 book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, “identifying as victims, [conservatives] become the ultimate moderns, adept competitors in a political marketplace where rights and their divestiture are prized commodities,” but rather prevented himself from seriously engaging with the “politically correct” language of empathy. He only implied that a sincere response to it would constitute a divestiture of rights (the traditional right to “quarrel and dispute”), but the dog whistle was loud and clear to his Russian audience.
This doublespeak is less the result of personal choices on the part of the speakers than it is the reflection of their social reality. All of the examples above register a certain level of cognitive dissonance created by the fact that inclusive language, when it crosses the line from English to Russian, is double coded as both prestigious and dangerous in the eyes of educated Russian speakers, who for the most part still identify with the power structures that this language is meant to subvert. The more activists insist on the “prestige” of political correctness, the more dangerous it sounds to the “uninitiated.” Even the best-intentioned attempts to translate inclusive language into Russian sound like imitations of English because the embodied reality of the majority of speakers of Russian, which defines their private and public life, their intimate and professional relationships, and ultimately their attitude to words, still remains unwelcoming to inclusivity.
The point of the Russian academic’s post above was to draw attention to this imitativeness, and the point of Galina Rymbu’s poetry was to push the imitativeness to the limit and, short of writing directly in English, to try to reach for the reality that lies beyond it. In either case, the Russian audience perceived no reality behind the suggested usages — except for the reality of the liberal ideology of Western democracies, which they read as either authoritative or hostile, depending on where they were on the political spectrum. Besides, thanks to years of state propaganda, even the most tolerant of speakers of Russian cannot help feeling sometimes that while liberal Western democracies were teaching Russians “proper manners” including respect for minorities, they were at the same time hypocritically excluding Russians and looking down on them as inferior and unenlightened. As a result, in Russian the expression “politically correct” came to have strong derogatory connotations, as a new and oppressive manifestation of power, a form of “liberal bias” grading into “censorship” forced by Western democracies on the rest of the world. And while national borders prove to be no obstacle for language thanks to the globalizing influence of technology, local structures of power still largely refuse to underwrite the language of “imported” values and turn it into pretend play.
Ambushed at a press-conference in Osaka, Japan, in 2019, with a question about very concrete censorship against LGBTQ+ people and content in Russia, President Vladimir Putin for the first time acknowledged the existence of transgender people but did so with his signature snide bravado: “They’ve thought up six or five genders — transformers, trans… I don’t even understand what it is myself. […] They need to stop violently imposing their point of view on others.” Russian linguists, when they weigh in on the debate, agree that politically correct language is a linguistic imposition in Russia that alienates and antagonizes people partly because it comes from outside the groups it is supposed to represent. But even when it comes from within those groups, such as Russian nonbinary people advocating for life-saving linguistic accommodations for themselves, change meets with a backlash from the majority. As of today, the segment on language and terminology in the Russian Wikipedia article on transgender identity does not reference a single Russian-language source.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of current Russian debates around “new ethics” is how supremely theoretical and abstract they usually are. Even the biggest proponents of inclusive language in Russia portray it as an issue to be decided unilaterally for and by the majority (much like questions about women’s reproductive rights all over the world are decided by men in power). When, in December 2020, a major mainstream Russian publisher released Maria Bobylyova’s dictionary of politically correct Russian, the author herself compared the “illogical” nature of “new ethics” to the “illogical” nature of such religious precepts as benevolence and compassion. Compared to their American counterparts, Russian inclusive terms are not meant to represent or empower; they are meant, ultimately, to be tokens of mercy on the part of the detached majority.
Despite the government’s official policy of silencing and misrepresenting minorities, despite the lack of representation which reduces Russian conversations about inclusivity to “irrational” appeals for the majority to “be nice,” Takie Dela continues its crusade to introduce “tolerant lexicon” into the language, and Galina Rymbu continues to write poetry that draws the reader’s attention to the ways in which the Russian language can hurt. In a glaring absence of conversations where the defined can claim the right to define themselves, it is up to Russian activists and poets to defend that right by acts of empathy and solidarity.