The Discovery of Russia and the Russian Language:
Insights of a Linguist
Maurizio Angeletti
"Using Wrong Words is a Dangerous Practice", says Maurizio Angeletti, independent researcher in semiotics, applied linguistics and the philosophy of language from Italy, – and has ample language-related evidence to prove the point in the context of portraying Russia by the Collective West.
Part 1

I own and use an HP laptop duly equipped with Windows 10 and with the Microsoft Edge browser. When the laptop is on, if I stop using it for a few minutes, the screen goes black. If I want to use the computer again, I will have to push the space bar a couple of times to be able to see my desktop again.

After the first push an image will typically appear showing an outstanding natural landscape from this or that country. Images I have seen so far were from Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, United States, Switzerland, Greece, East-European Balkan countries, South American countries, Australia, Japan, Tibet. Occasionally an image from Africa or India has also appeared. Even China, incredible but true, gets an opportunity every once in a while.

I have been using this laptop daily for about 4 years now, and not once have I been presented with an image of Russia. Quite simply, according to my laptop Russia does not exist. But its absence is certainly conspicuous, given the size and relevance of Russia on too many levels: cultural, artistic, natural, geographical, historical, industrial, and military, notwithstanding the beauty of its geography and landscapes.

Conversely, when it comes to the Russian "invasion" of the Ukraine, for instance, Russia is regularly and obsessively brought up in the newsfeed, which the computer provides unasked, and is presented not exactly in favourable terms.

Apart from that, Russia is absent as a normal place, one amongst many in the world. This is an instance not so much of Russia being not understood but of it being simply edited out of reality.

One of the videos available on the PICREADI web site is titled "The Picture of Russia Has Nothing to Do with the Real Country." The title is perfect because it fits its related reality perfectly. The modern world, which the Collective West matter-of-factly equates with itself, certainly is affected by a specific linguistic predicament: little or nothing is what it is said to be. As a matter of fact, language is now routinely used to create reality and what it is passed off as actuality.

The fact remains that language has been used and can always be used to engender and assist terrible human dynamics which result in violence against and even extermination of specific groups of people. What is obscene about the sentence "Arbeit macht frei" which was placed at the entrance to Nazi extermination camps? What is obscene is that it does not have an object. Work makes whom free? The grammar does not say that; the grammar is neutral – and genocidal, as we know. German grammar allows for such a construction. So does Italian grammar ("il lavoro rende liberi"). At least in English one has to add a generic object ("work makes one free.")

In the everyday use of language on just about any level, today, one observes the fossilization and ossification of concepts and realities into codes and clichés. The prime field of operation, so to speak, is the one where cultures meet or, as that is often the case, fail to meet. What often meets, after a fashion, is not the living cultures but their (biased, warped, or downright falsified) descriptions.

Codes and clichés create and apply labels. Thus, mythologized entities come into being – the Italians, the Russians, the Arabs, the "anybody-else" and "anybody-different". Otherness, when it comes to races and cultures, is a loaded weapon to put it mildly – I am echoing here the title of one of the books1 by American linguist Dwight Bolinger (1907-1992).

So, there is no escaping the role that is grafted on to us in accord to our nationality. That defines us and shapes us in the psyche of those who expect us to behave accordingly. Whatever your nationality and related identity, there is no way that you will be able to escape the ludicrous cliché that is already there, ready-made for you. The same applies if you are Russian, with not a few added special dangers – namely, the fact that at least since 1917 the Collective West has consistently, coherently, and relentlessly endeavored not only to overcome and subjugate the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation, but to cancel out the very notion that Russia has an independent identity and existence in the world or even a right to exist as itself.

The late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward W. Said (1935-2003) repeatedly articulated in his lucid books how the stereotype of the "Oriental" took a life of its own in the past centuries and came to completely determine the knowledge that Westerners had of the real Orient (virtually none) and the policies of those who both fostered this attitude and took advantage of it.

Books by Said such as Covering Islam could be almost entirely rewritten just by substituting Russia for the Middle East - they would make complete sense. The book is a unique study on "how the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world" (that is its subtitle.) Although the book is a study on the way the West specifically misrepresents Islam, its theses are perfectly applicable to the parallel way in which the West "manages" (that is, determines, shapes, and propagates) the public perception of Russia and Russianness within its own societies, first and foremost the American and British one.
Read the following passage (I have intentionally highlighted certain parts in bold lettering):

"Aside from the combination of hostility and reductionism offered by all these misrepresentations, there is the matter of how grossly they exaggerate and inflate Muslim extremism within the Muslim world. (...) In an essay originally published in 1993 (...) I attempted to show how it was secularism, rather than fundamentalism, that held Arab Muslim societies together, despite the wild exaggeration of the sensationalist and ignorant American media, most of whose ideas were taken from anti-Islamic, careerist publicists who had found a new field for their skills in demonology."2

This passage could be doctored in a way that perfectly applies to the perception of Russia in the Western world:

"Aside from the combination of hostility and reductionism offered by all these misrepresentations, there is the matter of how grossly they exaggerate and inflate Russian aggressiveness within the Western world [through] the wild exaggeration of the sensationalist and ignorant American media, most of whose ideas were taken from Russophobe, careerist publicists who had found a new field for their skills in demonology."

Such passage would be quite accurate in relation to the reality it refers to, that is, the way the Collective West sees and reports about the former USSR, contemporary Russia, and Russian culture in general.

In attempting to explain the mismatch between the reality of Russia and its culture and the lack of correspondence with the supposed "reality" and reliability of the picture of it being circulated within the Collective West, the active presence of several "distances" can be observed. Such distances can be ontological (the Russians' way of being and existing not coinciding with "ours"), semantic (their meanings not coinciding with and not being a "translation" of ours), chronological (we may hold stereotypes in our heads which carry the additional problems of existing in time warps, with our specifically Western ability to truly connect each historical period often amounting to nil), geographical (obviously), cultural and ideological.

Thinking about chronological distances, the "experts" of the Collective West knowledgeably talk about items which are conveniently located in a past that is totally inaccessible to the average Western citizen. Here is a list of favourite subjects:

Russian Revolution, 1917
Josif Stalin, 1922-1953 (years in power)
Gulag, 1929-1956
"Holomodor" famine, 1932-1933
Moscow Trials, 1936-1938
Great Purge / Great Terror 1936-1938
Katyn Massacres, 1940
Soviet Union 1922-1991

For each of such headings all that is accessible to the average Western citizen is a received narrative. The Western media, academia, and the whole machinery of the political system insist obsessively and synergistically that all that the Soviet Union was about was mass repression and mass extermination. The truth is that just about everyone repeats the same inherited mantra whilst being consistently and totally ignorant, disinformed or misinformed about the Soviet Union, its history, and its life within the larger history of Russia.

Inevitably, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation both merge into an indistinct conception which amounts to pure mental fog. But an interesting exercise is to read the books that a different breed of Western commentators wrote in the first decades after the Russian Revolution, people such as Anna Louise Strong, L. G. Churchward, Corliss Lamont, W. P. and Zelda K. Coates; Albert E. Khan, Michael Sayers, Rev. William Howard Melish, Moses Miller amongst others. There the fog begins to clear, and one begins to form a more focused idea of what will remain the boldest experiment ever undertaken in attempting to create a more just and non-capitalist society. (And yes, that system had its own problems and failures, of course – just like any other system that ever existed in recorded history.)

Then there is the supreme distance – that of language. And the key to unlocking the whole issue of getting to "know" a country is its language. How much does one need of it? The answer is simple: ideally, all of it. This is not to be taken literally, of course. But the point I am making is that learning about another culture on its own terms requires deep, near-native knowledge of its language and culture and no shortcuts or palliatives can replace that. (Besides, its "own terms" are the only possible terms. No other country or culture in the world would desire or accept to be interpreted and redefined on the basis of external cultural or political standards and ideologies.) We may not like to think of it, but many of us who are quite articulate in our own native language are total illiterates in most of the other languages of the world. Not a pleasant realization but certainly a sobering one.

With reference to the current international situation and to the relentless spreading of propaganda and misinformation about Russia, an exercise which is now little over 100 years old and can be dated from the 1917 revolution to this very day with no interruption, the only real way to break through the wall of lies and distortions and falsifications is to be able to independently push aside any media "narrative" and independently access Russia and Russianness through the Russian language. When that is possible, it has large implications.

If I can give a scholarly example, two outstanding American scholars who have studied the history of the Soviet Union from a standard of objectivity, J. Arch Getty and Grover Furr, can speak and read Russian fluently and as a consequence can discover facts otherwise hidden in the many folds of general ignorance and disinformation. Throughout their work they never rely on hearsay or unverified sources, but on direct access to original Russian sources: this ranges from documents available from recently opened Soviet archives to the ability to read and make sense of the transit lists of prisoners during the Second World War.
A telling example of a specifically linguistic predicament has been brought up by historian J. Arch Getty and further highlighted by Professor of Medieval History Grover Furr. It has been endlessly said in anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin propaganda that Stalin set "quotas" for the number of people who were supposed to be arrested, interrogated, and deported. In his book Stalin . . . Waiting for the Truth, Exposing the Falsehoods in Stephen Kotkin's Stalin Waiting for Hitler, 1929-19413 Grover Furr quotes first Stephen Kotkin who says this:

"In summer 1937, he vastly expanded the arrests and executions to nonelites [non-elites]. There was no "dynamic" forcing him to do so, no "factional" fighting, no heightened threat abroad. The terror was not spiraling out of his control. He just decided, himself, to approve quota-driven eradication of entire categories of people in a planned indiscriminate terror known as mass operations. (Reference given)."

But Furr objects that, "this is a falsification, and a particularly flagrant one at that. As American scholar Arch Getty has pointed out,

"Order No. 00447 established limits [limity] rather than quotas, maximums, not minimums . . . The word's meaning was well known: it never meant 'quotas'. Reflecting Stalin's concerns that locals might go out of control (or out of his control) Order No. 00447 twice warned that 'excesses' in local implementation of the operation were not permitted. (Reference given.)"

And Furr provides a second statement by Arch Getty:

"One of the mysteries of the field [of Soviet history - GF] is how limity is routinely translated as "quotas". (Reference given)"

Notice that in the passage quoted above Stephen Kotkin does not mention Order No. 00447 (or any other reference) at all. What he does instead is to pile up generalities and abstractions, none of which are backed-up with solid proof and whose meaning is anything but clear. Underlying there is outright falsification because it is not true that in 1937 Stalin and the Soviet Union faced no threats domestically or abroad. (How can anyone possibly defend such a notion knowing that throughout the 1930s the Soviet Union was in Hitler's sights and his explicitly declared genocidal expansionist intentions with his grand plan to remove altogether the Slavic populations of whole chunks of the Soviet Union in order to re-populate them with ethnic Germans?)

This passage is a prime example of a specific and recurring linguistic predicament. To state, as Kotkin does, that "He [Stalin] just decided, himself, to approve quota-driven eradication of entire categories of people in a planned indiscriminate terror known as mass operations" proves only that Kotkin has made such a statement. It certainly is, by itself alone, no proof that Stalin did that.

Now, thousands and probably millions of such statements have been generated over the decades after Stalin's death in 1952 and after Khrushchew's famous/infamous 1956 "secret speech". Generally, their truth value is nil. They are simply verbal statements subjectively made by their authors and lacking any evidence. They are also instances of a specific linguistic epidemic: too many people report what they have simply heard or read with the utmost conviction that that is the truth; "evidence" or "proof" is not even a matter of consideration.

But as regards Arch Getty's last statement, there is no "mystery" at all. This is normal practice in propaganda: taking advantage of the more or less complete lack of knowledge of a whole society of another and very different language (and due to certain features to be discussed later in this piece the Russian language lends itself almost naturally to that) such instances can be sneaked in and endlessly repeated with the complete assuredness that only rare and honest researchers might be able and willing to challenge them, and such researchers will be studiously ignored and avoided (when they are not slandered and marginalized) by mainstream media and academia.

Sure enough, there is no mention in the much publicized book Gulag, A History by American journalist Anne Appelbaum of such linguistic subtleties as the difference between the word "limits" (Лимиты, transliterated as Limity, limits) which appears on the specific document quoted above, and the word "quotas" (Квоты, transliterated as Kvoty, quotas), which does not appear in recognizable and quotable documents but does recur in works of pulp scholarship by American and other Western authors. Appelbaum offers her own contribution4:

"The mania for arrests and executions spread down the Party hierarchy, and throughout society. It was pushed from the top by Stalin, who used it to eliminate his enemies, create a new class of loyal leaders, terrorize the Soviet population - and fill his concentration camps. Starting in 1937, he signed orders which were sent to the regional NKVD bosses, listing quotas of people to be arrested (no cause was given) in particular regions. (...) Some scholars speculate that the NKVD assigned quotas to different parts of the country according to its perception of which regions had the greatest concentration of 'enemies'."

The reference given by Appelbaum here is p. 472 of the book The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov.5 The problem here is twofold: the book quoted only has 287 pages, so page 472 does not exist; secondly, Arch Getty himself was quoted above as questioning the ubiquitous (incorrect, British and American) translation of one word (limits) with another (quotas).

Notice that the whole passage just quoted from Appelbaum lacks any reference (for instance, which orders and which order numbers?) and abounds instead in abstractions and generalities, all unreferenced: which "enemies"? Which "new (…) loyal leaders"? Which "concentration camps"? Which "orders"? "Which regional NKVD bosses"? Which "people" in which "regions"? Which "scholars" "speculate"? Which "assigned quotas"? Which "enemies"'? And what proves that Stalin personally "pushed from the top" the "mania for arrests and executions"? (Appelbaum's statement is in itself no proof at all but will typically go on to become "evidence" for future generations of pulp academics and commentators on the subject.)

And Appelbaum's words such as "mania" and perception" are pure abstractions which do not serve historians well or at all - but they do serve inflated and resounding propaganda. Incidentally, the term "quotas" does not even appear in the Index at the end of the book.

Theoretically, each and every statement in this book (and other similar books) should be questioned and each reference ought to be double-checked and verified. But how many readers will be willing or simply able to do that?

But that is precisely what Grover Furr is able to do when demolishing the books by two established American authors of pulp scholarly books, Stephen Kotkin and Timothy Snyder, books which will unfailingly be stocked in every mainstream bookshop as reliable works of reference – and Furr is able to do that thanks to his knowledge of the Russian language and of the history of the Soviet Union.
Baba Yaga and the origins of the Russian Villain in the Western world
Meeting Russia Alumnus Dr. Michael Lambert, director of the Black Sea Institute, offers a reflection on how the USSR became the Baba Yaga of the Euro-Atlantic Community, a position previously occupied by France after the French Revolution and Germany during the Second World War, and why Russia inherited this title after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Such procedures ought to be applied to any other Sovietologists, starting with Robert Conquest (1917-2015). Appelbaum refers to Conquest's "ground-breaking" work (and so do other contemporary authors such as genocide-scholar Adam Jones by repeating exactly the same adjective.6) But considering that Conquest advocated hearsay as a valid source of historical information, and that there is much that has been questioned and shown to be incorrect about his work (notwithstanding his career with institutions such as the British Information Research Department and the American Hoover Institution, both openly concerned with creating and disseminating anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda), the only "ground-breaking" quality of his work is to have kick-started the grand project of Anglo-American pulp scholarship in "Sovietology" which started flooding the West and the world throughout the Cold War and for a time even gained some acceptance and recognition in post-Soviet-Union Russia. No other ethnic group in the world ever embarked on such an organized and systematic effort to discredit another ethnic group. Conquest's books, just like the works of Kotkin, Snyder, Appelbaum and many others, were meant to establish "reference" for subsequent authors and for the whole mainstream of Western societies, and indeed they did just that.

I hope the reader will acknowledge that what I have discussed above is the value and accuracy of a specific linguistic issue – the mistranslation of the word "limits" with the word "quotas". I have also indirectly hinted at an all-important issue: whether certain symbols (words) actually have any matching referents (things, people, events) in reality. The two passages quoted from Anne Appelbaum's and Stephen Kotkin's books can be defined as containing mainly words that are semantically "empty of meaning". Ironically, the only word that has a correct symbol-to-referent relationship is the word "Stalin".

Here is an important point: without a degree in linguistics or in political sciences, anyone can form a correct judgment about the truth value of virtually any verbal statement. Anyone has the faculty of establishing whether a symbol is linked to an actual referent, whether a word or a phrase or a sentence has a real meaning linked to an object, a place, a person or an event existing in the world. Whatever we may be saying or hearing about Stalin, we know that the word "Stalin" does indicate the actual person who bore that name. The phrase "a major Soviet leader" already loses that precise, exclusive connotation. The attribute "tyrant" (or "dictator" or "despot") has no meaning whatsoever unless its meaning can be proven. Simply to utter a word is, by itself and without a surrounding context, at best irrelevant and at worst fraudulent.

The context, too, must satisfy the same criteria. When the BBC says, as it did months ago at the time of the battle of Bakhmut, that "Russian soldiers could be fighting with shovels," not only proof of that statement was unavailable in any form, but proof of linguistic treachery became apparent, if not certain, due to other "facts": the BBC is known to have often lied in the past, and Russian soldiers are actually using a range of extremely sophisticated and lethal weapons and no shovels; but there is especially the essential grammatical fact that the headline used the conditional "could" rather than the indicative "are". Things that "are", are; things that "could" are not unless proof is given that they "are." In any event "are" and "could" are mutually exclusive. "Are" entails a single and hopefully correct meaning; "could" is an empty signifier that can be filled at will with all kinds of suppositional, "possible" (but unproven) meanings.

Similarly, when former British Prime Minister Liz Truss early in February 2022 boldly declared to Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov that "the U.K. will never recognize Russian sovereignty over these regions," referring to Voronezh and Rostov in the belief that they were Donetsk and Luhansk, she inadvertently overlooked the "fact" that Voronezh and Rostov already were and always had been Russian. Not only referents must be provided; they should also not be mixed up. In this case lack of knowledge about the other side's language and geography proved to be linguistically fatal.

All that I have said in the foregoing paragraphs goes beyond the range of beliefs, opinions, and ideologies. The two words discussed earlier, "limits" and "quotas", are simply different and have distinct meanings. Was that chronic mistranslation intentional? It is really difficult to believe that, at source, it "just happened." Then it is easy to realize that hundreds of later commentators will have just repeated unquestioningly and matter-of-factly what they had previously heard and read and that they believed or wanted to believe, links in an endless chain which by now has no beginning and no end.

Indeed, we can think of a ubiquitous two-word phrase, the "Great Terror", which has now become standard within the Collective West and beyond. That phrase is Robert Conquest's own invention. Wikipedia gives the game away by telling us this: "The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties is a book by British historian Robert Conquest which was published in 1968. It gave rise to an alternative title of the period in Soviet history known as the Great Purge."

So, it follows that the "Great Terror" is a phrase of formidable effect, but it is also a spurious, possibly false, and certainly questionable concept. (Indeed, without the concept it is technically more difficult to discuss the issue and that is why the concept is necessary: not only it discusses the issue but, most importantly, it creates it.) Yet again, such a concept negatively mythologizes certain entities (Stalin, the Soviet Union, the Communists) but as it stands is no proof that the link between the symbol and its referents is true.

But note that even the phrase "Great Purge(s)" is to some extent a Western invention. It is extremely interesting to read what Arch Getty writes at the beginning of the chapter "What was a purge?" from his book Origins of the Great Purges:

"Western students have applied the word "purge" to everything from political trials to police terror to nonpolitical expulsions from the party. The label "Great Purges," which encompasses practically all party activities between 1933 and 1939, is an example of such broad usage. Yet the Communist Party defined and used the word quite specifically. The term "purge" (ckistka - a sweeping or cleaning) only applied to the periodic membership screenings of the ranks of the party. These membership operations were designed to weed the party of hangers-on, nonparticipants, drunken officials, and people with false identification papers, as well as ideological "enemies" or "aliens." In the majority of purges, political crimes or deviations pertained to a minority of those expelled.

No Soviet source or usage ever referred to the Ezhovshchina (the height of police arrests and terror in 1937) as a purge, and party leaders discussed that event and purges in entirely separate contexts. No political or nonpolitical trial was ever called a purge, and under no circumstances were operations, arrests, or terror involving nonparty citizens referred to as purges. A party member at the time would have been mystified by such a label."

What am I trying to say? I am trying to highlight the no small issue that such words and phrases (and their meanings) are non-Russian (i.e. English or American) terms and concepts which were coined outside Russia (in Great Britain or in the United States) and were then taken to have universal value within the Collective West. In actuality, such terms were the fruit at best of genuine languacultural confusion and at worst of organized propaganda, and never had any currency in the place and culture to which they were meant to apply: the Soviet Union and its (Russian) culture.

But since words are all-important, using wrong words is a dangerous practice which contradicts the very purpose in using language: it does not lead to good thinking. The casualty, inevitably and predictably, will be the truth. A sane person and a sane society would feel that life without truth is impossible and unthinkable. The problem that plagues the advanced societies of the Collective West is linguistic: language is no longer the natural and indispensable vehicle for finding and expressing truth.

The problem is not limited to those who consciously manipulate language for specific political goals. There have been legions of foreign commentators on the Soviet Union, on Stalin, on Communism, on contemporary Russia, who were seemingly linguistically and culturally impaired by not knowing well or at all the other side's language and culture. Many truly believed (and many more still believe) in several official narratives and, to be fair, apart from the specifically linguistic problem (personal knowledge of Russian or lack thereof) up until the dissolution of the USSR they did not have the advantage of later scholars and researchers who after the dissolution of the Soviet Union started researching and studying the Soviet archives that were made available.

The way to arrive at the truth, if the truth still is the ultimate goal of study and research, is through language. When Westerners study Soviet and Russian history and culture the problem of the truth is doubled: not only should a researcher be committed as much as possible to historical evidence and truthful language, but they should also be totally conversant in Russian – or at the very least they should be acutely aware of the issue - so as to push aside hearsay, secondary sources, vagueness, abstractions, generalizations, interpretations and falsifications, and go straight to the most authentic sources, from Russia and in Russian.
  1. Dwight Bolinger, Language, The Loaded Weapon (Longman, 1980)
  2. Edward W. Said, Covering Islam, How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage, 1981-1997) p. xxvii
  3. Grover Furr, Stalin. Waiting for . . . the Truth. Exposing the falsehoods in Stephen Kotkin's Stalin Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (Red Star Publishers, 1989, 1990) p. 205-206
  4. Anne Appelbaum, GULAG, A History (Penguin Books, 2003) p. 105
  5. J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (Yale University Press, 2010)
  6. Adam Jones, Genocide, A Comprehensive Introduction, 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2017) p. 92
  7. J. Arch Getty, The Origin of the Great Purges, The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938 (Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 38