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Homeland in Danger

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Homeland in Danger

25.05.2008

When commuter train operators outside Moscow went on strike in early May, executives from Russian Railways appealed to the courts with a request to stop “an illegal protest that presents a threat to the country’s defense and to state security.” In a formal sense, everything in the request was true, as labor legislation prohibits railway employees from going on strike. Whether such a prohibition is reasonable or not is another question. More interesting, however, is the language used by Russian Railways – “the country’s defense and state security.” How difficult it will be for strikers to talk about low paychecks and other social woes if this case goes to court. It’s easy to knock down any social activity with the “defense of the country” card.

Valery Gribakin, head of the center for public relations at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, recently produced the same card after it had become completely unacceptable to remain silent when asked about police abuse of power (this spring was quite rich in terms of news about all possible forms of abuse people face at the hands of police. Recently, in Izvestia, for example, there was an engaging story – “A Case of Agreement” – about two photojournalists from the publication who were taken into custody by unknown police officers during the recent March of Dissent. A court then sentenced them to six days imprisonment. “A frightful force,” wrote one newspaper about the police, despite its strong loyalties to the government. “It’s simply solidarity. Most are against them. We, if you will, “agree.”).

In speaking on the usual rumblings in the press and among social commentators, General Gribakin said that the “Ministry of Internal Affairs does not intend to tolerate slander directed against it” and that “individual citizens and social organizations that aren’t very popular are trying to attract attention to themselves by carrying out various far-fetched protests and not infrequently organizing provocation against police officers responsible for ensuring security at these events.” Two phrases already bring the discussion to a completely different level. By talking about abuse of power by police, one is already making life difficult for “individual citizens and public organizations,” and that itself is a consequence.

It’s unlikely that anyone would argue with the notion that Levitan reading the news on the radio today would be funny, to say the least. The news is not what it was then, and neither is the audience. People relate to radio broadcasts much differently today than before. Every era has its own voice, its own intonation. If today someone began speaking in the voice of sixty years ago, then bewilderment would be the only reaction that would ensue. It seems, at least, that we only see a response from people when stories appear about strikers threatening the country’s security or individuals carrying out antipolice provocation. But then, one could copy a press release from a 1937 issue of Pravda, make it a headline story, and nobody would notice. Nothing matters to anyone.

While certainly not the most important, a very vivid episode occurred in the first weeks of the Great Patriotic War during Stalin’s famous radio address on July 3, 1941 – “brothers and sisters, my friends.” It’s possible to write and speak about these words to this day. One might believe that Stalin adopted the language of religious sermons, scared at the defeats suffered by the Red Army. Another might disagree and be certain that it was a matter of patriotism and spirituality on the part of the Soviet leader. In reality, it is likely that Stalin changed his rhetoric because “ordinary” words about enemies, threats and defense against these evils had become so often used by numerous orators, songwriters and publicists by July 1941 that Stalin’s “ordinary” speech at that time simply wouldn’t have been heard – or it would have been heard, of course, but it wouldn’t have made a single impression at all.

It’s the same today. If our country really finds itself in danger, it will be extremely difficult to find the words to convey the reality of this danger. “Defense and security” have been overused with reference to the railway workers, and “provocateurs” with respect to the police. Even such peaceful drinks as kvas are advertised in Russia using the language of war manifestos.

The anti-Estonian and anti-Georgian utterances speak for themselves. Over the last year and a half or two, they have been made so frequently that if Russia suddenly finds itself faced with a true enemy, the president and state-run television will have to start swearing in order to be heard. All the other words have been used up already.

Last year, when one of the new entertainment centers used a slightly altered phrase from a famous poster by Iraklij Toidze – “Your Motherland Calls to Kick Back!” – many were offended by the blasphemy and desecration. The scandalous advertisement quickly disappeared from billboards. In reality, there was no blasphemy; people simply had a feeling for the trend. And this trend comprises the very same danger that truly faces us today.

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