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Vitaliy Kostomarov: The recipe is simple: to love Russian language, you should come to love Russia

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Vitaliy Kostomarov: The recipe is simple: to love Russian language, you should come to love Russia


Julia Goryacheva

Prominent Russian linguist, the person behind establishment of the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and its first principle Vitaly Kostomarov recently celebrated his 90th birthday. However he does not quit his scientific researches. The scientist told the Russkiy Mir why Russian continues to be one of the most successful languages in the world and how the Soviet leaders facilitated the fact that we continue to speak the language created by Pushkin and Karamzin two centuries ago.

Vitaly Grigoryevich, you are a well-known linguist who has developed a special scientific field - linguistic and cultural studies, the author of 16 books and about 1000 articles on links between language and culture. What are you doing now?

I still work, now as the president, at the Russian Language Institute, which I established in 1973. At its core, the goal of the Institute is to help promote Russian language and education in Russian throughout the world. But now this task, which once was the main one, has been transformed, because the colossal progress achieved by the Soviet Union significantly diminished following the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, Russian language is still an important tool of global communication in today's world.

Vitaly Kostomarov

When I was seconded to Paris (where I studied how to organize teaching Russian to foreigners quickly and efficiently using the best French practices), I was inspired by the words of General Charles de Gaulle, who had aimed to enhance prestige of French language. He said that restoring prestige of the language as the best one could be achieved by reminding the world that France had “great literature, great music, theater and ballet”. And I immediately thought: Why, haven’t we actually got a lot of such things? We have excellent literature and ballet, which are no worse than French ones, and music is even better! This point significantly helped me in finding the key to motivate students. The recipe is simple: to love Russian language, you should come to love Russia.

Now I'm talking to you as a linguist. Having become a teacher of RFL (Russian as a foreign language - Ed.), I did not cease to be a linguist, who is certainly extremely interested in Russian language in all its manifestations. Stylistics, the love of my life..., my book recently published at the Zlatoust Publishing House, includes stories about my scientific inquiries, a biographical essay and tells, in particular, about various aspects of such interest.

Today, things that do not relate to teaching Russian as a language of interethnic communication are the most appealing subjects to me. The fate of Russian language as a whole is more important. Understanding of how it has been developing over a long time without any revolutions. After all, there has not been any revolution in Russian language since a change of synchrony at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, we have lived within the same language, which is called the literary language. Id like to note that Lenin called it the true Russian language. But it seems to me that it is better to call it "language of education" due to two meanings of the word educate (the first relates to development, cultivation, and the second means to bring up, that is, to make a person educated, knowledgeable).

The scientist talks about his life and work, recalls his colleagues and reflects on linguistics, as well as resolved and the most recent scientific problems in his book Stylistics, the love of my life... (published at the Zlatoust Publishing House in 2019). Photo credit:

Does it mean that we live in the period of Russian language development, which began back in the time of Pushkin? How long will it last, in your opinion?

Synchrony is a period when a language is identical to itself. Its change occurs with accumulation of innovations and frequent changes in the language, comprehended as indicators of the conquering new and outgoing generations in transition periods. Having got a new form, it can be compared with grown up children and grandchildren who look like their parents and ancestors and at the same time look different from them. So the language is natural for young people; and those living their last years believe it is spoiled, funny, and even hardly understandable. People of the current synchrony from Pushkin time to these days, as a rule, understand the Old Russian language of the previous synchrony, which ended in the late 18th century, however they do not admire the poems of Vasily Trediakovsky.

A language is very flexible and sensitive to events occurring in life, thoughts, deeds of its native speakers, and it registers and reflects them in its own way. It is often deposited and kept as ballast, something transient, even accidental and unnecessary. Some little things, turns of thought and fate, claims, living conditions gave rise to customs persistently observed (for example, quick drink before you go or sit down before you go).

Now there are indications that Russian language should transit to a new synchrony.

How can this transition happen? Should we as native speakers of Russian language do something for it?

It is a complex question. Language is a tool of communication between people, and it is people who are the tool of language evolution. For instance, some poets of the Silver Age sought to create a new Russian language. One of them was Khlebnikov. At the same time, he never managed to invent it, except for individual words... But Pushkin and Karamzin had managed to do it. Though their path had been already paved.

What framework is behind such global change in the language you are talking about?

Using language in communication, people adapt it for their needs and for the content being discussed. They do it in a skillful or not so skillful way, after careful consideration or unconsciously, and sometimes by mistake. They treat it as any other tool being sharpened by varying mode and applied effort. At times, some pointlike innovation suits just fine and is accepted by others. During periods of upheaval, splintering, and shifts in pillars of society, such changes reach a critical mass, and language transits into a qualitatively new synchrony of existence, which happens not necessarily by a revolutionary explosion, but more often evolutionarily.

There come talented people who are the catalysts for this process. A good example could be Karamzin, a theorist, or such poet as Pushkin. I am bemused by duration of current synchrony: synchrony of modern Russian has lasted since the era of Pushkin to the present day. How has this happened? Why have standard margins of synchronization been violated? Why did our language seem to ignore the revolutions in the beginning of the twentieth century, the czars demise, the Russo-Japanese, Civil, and World War I, or establishment and collapse of the Soviet Union?

What do you mean by ignore? Then what about numerous neologisms that came up in the first post-revolutionary years?

They come up every day. But they do not "make up" the language. In this sense, I do not agree with those who claim that English is richer and better than Russian, as it has more words and meanings. First of all, it is not true, and for another thing, a huge number of words does not enhance the language.

Judge for yourselves: declensions, gender systems or conjugations have not changed in the Russian language for quite a long. At the same time, the threat of irrevocable death of refined language of culture, education accomplishments, science, statehood, and polite household was virtually great.

It became the custom to call it literary, in honor of classical writers, however, without prejudice to their role, it would be fair to recall the scientists, starting with Lomonosov, and to give credit to all who enhanced and processed in deliberate and skillful way the nationwide foundation. I emphasize once again: it is better to call it "language of education". In any case, today when we say that a person is literate, we do not mean that he/she can read and sign his/her name, or that he/she is a skillful calligrapher, but rather that he/she speaks true Russian language, as Lenin called it. In the English-language tradition, such elite language suitable for all cases is called standard one.

The revolutionaries— the old Leninist guard of the leaders were those who saved us from revolution in the language by propaganda and deeds. Having the university degrees and sensing the threat of losing the great culture, literature and language, their own language, which had won the world recognition for responsive nobleness and philanthropy, they established the atmosphere of fidelity to traditions and took practical actions by brilliantly conducting an educational campaign (illiteracy eradication), and then introducing uniform comprehensive education in the compulsory school, making the USSR a country of thorough literacy.

Illiteracy eradication among the population (educational program) in the USSR. Photo credit:

You mentioned Lenin. What was his role in that process?

As to Vladimir Ilyich, he denied the need to preserve status of Russian as the state language (as if it meant to push into paradise with a stick), ignoring the historically established role of the Russian people and its language as the unifier of the diverse and multinational Russia, which was due to obscure delicacy and contrary to the opinion of the majority of his comrades-in-arms. He believed that the nations of the country (and with the triumph of communism, nations around the world as well) would determine themselves what language was beneficial to speak in the best interests of economic turnover.

However, it is known that Lenin also cared about sociolinguistic and, in particular, linguistic problems. Thus, there is his note to Lunacharsky (Soviet People's Commissar of Education - Ed.) dated January 18, 1920, in which he wrote: Isnt it the time to make a dictionary of the true Russian language, say, a dictionary of words used now and used by the classics from Pushkin up to Gorky? What if we engage 30 scientists for that, providing them the Red Army food rations? His wish was fulfilled later by a group of linguistic scientists led by Dmitry Ushakov; at the same time the dating up to Gorky introduced by him transformed into more reasonable form of up to these days. Lenin also objected to the rogue unsystematic number of abbreviated and absurd in meaning words.

Lenin and Lunacharsky walk by the guard of honor. Photo credit:

Therefore, the fact that we continue to speak the language of Pushkin is attributable to the Soviet leaders, isnt it? Or not to just them?

During the Soviet years, numerous dictionaries were made, including an academic one consisting of 17 volumes, but there were only three scientific grammars. As a comparison, in the post-Soviet 15 to 20 years, there was no a single scientific grammar published, but at least a dozen of great dictionaries! It is clear evidence of our loyalty to the same synchrony of language "from Pushkin ...

But still, the main reasons for language synchrony being continuously extended from "Pushkin up to these days" were political and social ones. Korney Chukovsky and other advocates of language purity preservation fought against bureaucratese and other diseases that attempted to infect our language. Experiencing ups and downs and being imbalanced, the tradition of uniform comprehensive education has been preserved today in secondary schools, lyceums, gymnasiums, Suvorovs and other special educational institutions, even in family education through educational standards and requirements of the Uniform state exam. Russian language undoubtedly owes its long-lasting stability of still current synchrony to the fact that it grew up on classical literature, in nobility and depth, generosity embracing the whole mankind, which no one has dared to doubt and many attempted to facilitate in every possible way.

In your opinion, what are the near-term prospects for development of Russian language?

Uniting Russian and other ethnic groups in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation, the Russian language of education has remained unchanged and in uniform synchrony.

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