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Political scientist Kimberly Marten says Vladimir Putin “may have permanently changed” Russia and its relationship with the outside world by using the word “Russkii” in Parliament this week.
In her post on The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post, Marten says there are two words for “Russian” in the Russian language, “Rossisski,” and “Russkii.”
“Rossisski” is a way to refer to Russian citizens and the Russian state in a way that includes all citizens, including ethnic minorities who hold a Russian passport. That is the term Putin has always used, and even the aggressive pro-Putin youth movement stuck to that word.
“Russkii” is primarily an ethnic designation — it refers to people and to things that are ethnically Russian, and that is the term Putin used this week when speaking before the Parliament about the annexation of Crimea.
Marten says Putin’s use of “Russkii” signals a “crucial turning point in his regime.” She sees it as a signal that Putin “has become a Russian ethnic nationalist,” and is no longer someone who simply wants to restore the glory of the Soviet days.
With that change, writes Marten, “It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia” with “the possibility of ethnically motivated violence” looming on the horizon.
Marten joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss this dramatic shift from a single word.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
We've been hearing about sanctions against Russia. Will they be effective? Relations between the West and Russia have been hardened in other ways as well, and at least one political scientist can hear that in the language that's being used. Political scientist Kimberly Marten says the ante was really up this week when Vladimir Putin addressed parliament and then formally signed a treaty with Crimea. Marten says he reframed this historical moment by his choice of a single word: Russkii. Why? What does that mean?
Kimberly Marten is professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University. She blogs for The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post. We will link you to her post. She joins us from the studios of NPR in New York. Professor Marten, Kimberly, the choice of Russkii, what does that mean?
KIMBERLY MARTEN: Well, up until now, Putin and his very close associates have been careful to use a different way of expressing the word Russian. What they have used is the word Rossisski. And Rossisski means someone who is of the Russian state, someone who is a Russian citizen. And so it's a very neutral term. You could be of any ethnic group and still be Rossisski.
By talking about Russkii, he's talking about Russian ethnicity. And it just sort of highlights the whole direction that things have gone in the past week or so, where all of a sudden Putin is talking about defending the interest of Russian ethnic people - that has potentially frightening implications both for Russian foreign policy and for what happens at home in Russia.
YOUNG: Well, you're right that Putin is signaling a crucial turning point in his regime. He's no longer simply a Russian statist, an old KGB man who wants to recapture Soviet glory. He has become a Russian ethnic nationalist. Tell us more about what that means to you.
MARTEN: Well, what it means is that he has been, for many years, balancing various coalitions of high-ranking elites at the very top in the Kremlin who have different perspectives and different interests. And by making this shift, he is signaling that he is choosing the hardliners who are from the old KGB but who are also associated with conservative elements in the Russian orthodox church, taking up a line really to the right of where he has been before.
And people even within Russia itself who are not ethnically Russian, people who are of Chechen or Circassian or other kinds of ethnic backgrounds, have to find this disturbing, especially because we've seen over recent months and years increasing incidences of ethnic attacks happening inside Russia. The most famous of those was the riot that happened last October in a suburb of Moscow, a pretty large scale ethnic riot. And the Russian police seemed to come in on the side of the ethnic Russians.
YOUNG: Well, I'm trying to think of a way that this could better be explained to Americans. What would be the equivalent in the U.S.? I'm thinking of maybe a president referred to Americans as Anglo-Saxons or something. Well, what would...
MARTEN: I think...
YOUNG: Yeah, what would the equivalent be?
MARTEN: That's about the closest you can get. Some of the other post-Soviet and eastern European languages also have ways of distinguishing people who are citizens of a country from people who are of an ethnic group. But you're absolutely right. English doesn't really have a way of expressing that. But I think that you're right. It means singling out a particular ethnic group, a dominant ethnic group, as being the ethnic group that controls the interests of the state as a whole.
YOUNG: How would it be reverberating to people in Crimea?
MARTEN: The most important ethnic group in Crimea is the Tatars. And in his speech a couple of days ago, Putin did say that he was going to protect the Tatars and allow them language rights and allow them cultural rights and so forth. He did talk about the Tatars being repressed in Soviet times, but then he followed up by saying, of course Russkii, the ethnic Russians, were the ones who suffered the most at that time.
You know, he's had a tendency already to break his promises. And so if I were a Tatar, I would not be all that confident that he would keep those promises to me either, especially because yesterday one of the high-ranking officials of the Crimean government announced that Tatars would be asked to relocate off the land that they currently are living in and go somewhere else in Crimea.
YOUNG: Well, you say it's no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia. We know that brutal ethnic conflicts broke out after General Tito. He was the communist strongman who held Yugoslavia together. He died. We are not seeing brutal ethnic conflicts. Do you think that we will be seeing them?
MARTEN: Well, so far the signs look good that the Ukrainian government is doing all that it can to stop anything like that from happening. The one thing to keep in mind about distinctions between Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia is that the ethnic groups in Ukraine are much more mixed, especially when you get away from Crimea. And Russian language use is not a marker of identity with the Russian ethnic population, and so it's much more complex in Ukraine. But I think everybody concerned has to keep in mind that it is a risk that might happen if things got out of control. And it's a real wake-up call after what's happened in Crimea for people to just continue to try to keep things as restrained as possible.
YOUNG: Why else do you think Vladimir Putin might have done this language shift?
MARTEN: To take the attention away from Sochi and the Sochi Olympics. Obviously, the Sochi Olympics in many ways were a triumph for Russia. The games themselves went well. There were no terrorist attacks. The opening ceremony and closing ceremony were beautifully choreographed. Russia won the most medals and the most gold medals of anyone. But there is also a lot of talk in Russia about the $50 billion that was spent from state coffers on the construction around Sochi and how a lot of the loans that came out from state supported banks can't be repaid.
And there was about to be a real effort by some of the economic internationalists who are high up in Russia who are disgusted with this corruption, who were very likely to try to do something to make this criticism become a public issue that would help to restrict or even try to undermine the Putin regime.
And so by turning to this populists nationalism, Putin short-circuited that from happening and really got people focused on the different issues. So it's sort of like a diversion from what would have been happening domestically.
YOUNG: Well, Kimberly Marten, you said another reason that Putin was doing this is that he's throwing his lot among the Russian elite with the ethnic nationalist faction. It would seem that given that, that these aren't the people who are living abroad and sending their money abroad. They are more ethnic and more nationalistic.
MARTEN: I think you're absolutely right about that, and that's why sanctions would be so difficult to have any impact because it would be very hard to target the people who really have this Russian ethnic nationalist mindset. We know who the people are that are at the top that have expressed similar things. They're people who are associated with the most conservative faction of the Russian Orthodox Church. They're some of the people who are associated with the KGB and former KGB agents. But it's not clear that the West has any leverage to target them.
YOUNG: Fascinating. Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University, thank you so much.
MARTEN: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: So, your thoughts, especially if you are a Russian speaker. Did you also notice a switch from Rossisski to Russkii? Did it chill you, as it obviously has her? We'd like to hear from you. Leave a comment with this story at hereandnow.org, or you can tweet me, @hereandnowrobin. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.