ZOiS Spotlight 3/2024

Russophone Authors Two Years After Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine

More than ever, the use of the Russian language is not only a political issue, but also a question of identity. This also applies to authors of Russian-language literature, some of whom have to redefine their relationship to the language and their position in the Russophone cultural landscape.

Dnipro, Ukraine, December 2022: Municipal service workers dismantle a monument of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. © IMAGO / Ukrinform

Traditionally, both readers and experts have regarded any text written in Russian as belonging to the category of Russian literature. Recently, scholars of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian cultures attuned to postcolonial studies have started questioning this approach, pointing to the often complex identity dynamics of artists who work with and through the Russian language outside the Russian Federation. In her PhD dissertation, researcher Naomi Caffee introduced the term ‘Russophonia’ to refer to ‘the widespread and variegated uses of the Russian language outside of the customary boundaries of ethnicity and nation’. Evidence of such a diverse use of Russian can be best exemplified by recent developments and attitudes in literary writing beyond the political borders of contemporary Russia.

The Russian language in Ukraine

Attention on the diversity of Russian-language culture, as distinguished from Russian culture, has been growing for some time. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a turning point for several Russophone authors in and outside Ukraine. After February 2022, Ukrainian Russophone or bilingual authors of different generations, such as Volodymyr Rafeienko and Iya Kiva, abandoned Russian and switched completely to Ukrainian. Others have continued writing in Russian, while in some cases also embracing Ukrainian as a working language, such as Alexander Kabanov, whose efforts to engage with his first language led to his 2017 publication of a Russian-language poetry collection entitled In the Language of the Enemy.

Although sociological research has revealed a rapid strengthening of the Ukrainian language at all levels in response to the devastation brought about by the Russian invasion, the Russian language still plays a role in Ukraine’s culture. Andrey Kurkov, one of the most internationally acclaimed Ukrainian voices, still writes in Russian: in his view, the latter remains his internal language, the language of his dreams, and his working language, even if recent events have caused a deep split between the Russian reality and the Ukrainian reality.

In November 2023, Polina Lavrova, Stanislav Belskii, and Vladimir Zhbankov published Air-raid Siren, an anthology of Russophone poetry that includes texts by 25 Ukrainian poets of different backgrounds and generations. Recent Ukrainian Russophone literature clearly foregrounds its ‘Ukrainian-ness’ and its independence from today’s Russia and its culture.

Trends in Belarus and Kazakhstan

Formally, Belarus is a co-aggressor in Russia’s war against Ukraine, but public support for the war is much less enthusiastic in Belarus than in Russia. The shift by Belarusian authors away from the Russian language and towards Belarusian is, however, related to ongoing protests against the country’s authoritarian regime rather than a reaction to the war in Ukraine.

Belarusian, despite being one of Belarus’s two official languages, has been the language of the opposition ever since the country’s independence in 1991. After mass protests against election fraud in 2020, many protesters became more sensitive about language use. Russia’s war on Ukraine has only increased this trend. Especially those Belarusians who were forced to leave their country after 2020 often turned away from the Russian language completely.

But some authors, like Sasha Filipenko, continue to write in Russian. Filipenko lived in Russia for about 15 years until leaving for Switzerland in 2020 but still identifies as Belarusian. In a 2023 interview, he claimed that ‘the Russian language does not exclusively belong to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’, a widespread position among Russophone authors from countries other than Russia. Another example is Dmitry Strotsev, who still writes in Russian but supports Belarusian-language poetry through his Berlin-based publishing house, hochroth Minsk. In his social media posts, he too has mostly switched to Belarusian.

Like Ukraine and Belarus, Kazakhstan has a great number of Russian speakers, and discussions about language use have been omnipresent since 1991. Although the country is not directly affected by the war against Ukraine, the Russian aggression there has given Russophone Kazakhstani authors a strong stimulus to think about their language use.

Switching languages is not an option for all of them, because many are not fluent in Kazakh, so there is an increasing tendency for authors to make Russian their own language and disconnect it from Russia. One of the most active proponents of this approach is Yuriy Serebryanskiy, who demands the establishment of a Kazakhstani institute for the Russian language, an idea that was also raised by Ukrainian Russophone authors long before 2022.

Kazakhstani poets experiment widely with bilingualism; in some poetic texts, these experiments result in a new hybrid language. In Anuar Duisenbinov’s poem Tylech, for instance, the Kazakh word tyl is fused with the Russian rech, both meaning ‘language’. Last but not least, there are increasing activities in the sphere of translation, with more and more literary texts being published in both Russian and Kazakh, placing them simultaneously in both of Kazakhstan’s otherwise often disparate language spheres.

An archipelago of Russian-language cultures

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is the culmination of a long-standing exploitation of the cultural field, which took shape not only in Ukraine but also in the broader post-Soviet region and beyond. Today, Russophone authors are trying to come to terms with the war of words promoted by Russia in its claim to a monopoly over the Russian language and Russian speakers.

While there is currently a gradual but steady shift away from the use of Russian in response to the war, in future more and more Russophone intellectuals around the world may articulate the need to detach the Russian language from the Russian state. In the long term, the creation of further publication venues and platforms for discussion beyond Russia might help Russophone writers not ‘to leave [their] Russian language to Putin’, in the words of Kabanov. This could pave the way for the crystallisation of what professor of Russian literature Maria Rubins has called a vast ‘archipelago’ of Russophone cultures beyond Russia.

Alessandro Achilli is a senior assistant professor of Slavic studies at the University of Cagliari, Italy.

Nina Frieß is a researcher at ZOiS.

Marco Puleri is a senior assistant professor in the Department of Political and Social Science at the University of Bologna, Italy.