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Leonid Bershidsky

For Russia, Even the Language Can Be a Weapon

Putin says there’s a war against the mother tongue in the Russian-speaking world outside the federation’s borders.

Restoring the imperial tongue. 

Restoring the imperial tongue. 

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Russophobes,” “aggressive nationalists” and certain countries (nod toward Ukraine and the Baltic states) are waging a “war” on the Russian language. That’s a strong word. But because Russian is regarded as the only major language under the monopoly control of the eponymous state, the resistance it runs into and the losses it suffers are greater than those faced by other widely spoken languages.

Russian, according to Ethnologue, the resource dedicated to cataloging the world’s more than 7,000 living languages, is the eighth-most-used in the world, with 258 million speakers. That makes it one of the few languages with lots of speakers outside the titular country: Russia’s population is 145 million.