A Moscow university is calling on its own professor to ‘disavow’ comments about the Russian language. Here’s how that happened.
In a post on his Facebook page, Higher School of Economics philologist Gasan Gusejnov writes about the Russian language, calling it ubogyi (miserable) and kloachnyi (despicable or foul).
In the post, Gusejnov asks, “Why do some Russians feel that Russians in Ukraine can’t even handle learning Ukrainian in addition to their own Russian [native tongue]?” He offers the following explanation: “Because when they arrive, for example, in Berlin, these intelligent people aren’t surprised to see newspapers at newsstands for sale not only in German but also in Russian and Turkish, Serbian and French, Greek and Polish, English and Italian. Whereas in Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and Chinese and Germans, you could look all day and it’s impossible to find anything but the miserable, despicable Russian language, which is what this country speaks and writes now.”
Russia’s news media devotes significant attention to Gusejnov’s remarks, which are also shared widely on social media. Gusejnov later tells the website RBC that his criticism wasn’t aimed at “the language as a whole.” “It’s about how people use this language. How the mass media, politicians, lawyers, and law-enforcement agencies use it, mocking the language,” he explains.
Higher School of Economics Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov writes his own Facebook post, saying that he’s read Gusejnov’s text and the “polemics” surrounding it, saying, “I think Gusejnov as a philologist should have addressed this issue a little more calmly. Annoying slang and linguistic borrowing, the impoverishment of the language — this is all a problem that every country in every century faces.”
The rector adds that “a university instructor should think when going into the public space — and Facebook is a public space — about that fact that his behavior online affects his colleagues’ reputation.” “We all have the right to emotional statements, but a well-mannered person tries not to offend others. Seriously-argued positions are expected from professors, and it’s undesirable to permit so many ambiguities as we see in this case,” wrote Kuzminov.
The university’s press service later informs the news agency RNS that the council decided to express the view that the school’s instructors should “be extremely responsible with any, even private, online speech.” At the same time, the council members “stressed their commitment to the principles of academic freedom and the freedom of expression, as well as the Higher School of Economics’s declaration of values, which states that the university welcomes “the free exchange of opinions and ideas, based on the principles of rigorous science, mutual respect, and partnership.”
The Kremlin holds a session of the Presidential Council on the Russian Language, and later that night a video and transcript of the event are published online. President Putin addresses the council, calling the Russian language part of Moscow’s “soft power,” comparing it to a tool “that must always be in working order.” The president says the state’s “two equally important tasks” are ensuring a decent level of fluency among Russia’s citizens and helping to spread the Russian language abroad.
“It’s not just cave-dwelling Russophobes declaring war on the Russian language, and I think it’s no secret that we’re also seeing different kinds of marginals working actively, as well as aggressive nationalists. Unfortunately, in some countries this is practically becoming official state policy,” Putin says.
The Higher School of Economics publishes the minutes of its academic council’s ethics commission, but for the entire university — not just its humanities department. Professor Maxim Krongauz, Gusejnov’s department colleague, writes on social media that he learned about the commission’s meeting from Facebook.
The ethics commission’s minutes state that it received an appeal from the “Higher School of Economics’s management about alleged violations of the university's academic ethics code by Gasan Gusejnov in public statements in October and November 2019.”
After reviewing Gusejnov’s remarks, the commission recommended that the professor “make a public apology for deliberately disseminating ill-conceived and irresponsible statements that inflicted damage on the university’s professional reputation,” and urged him to “disavow” his remarks.
Gasan Gusejnov refuses to act on the commission’s recommendations, declining to disavow or apologize for his statements.
In an interview with the website Gazeta.ru, Gusejnov says, “I’m not sure it would be ethical on my part to respond to decisions regarding my person that the ethics commission decided to share with me through the mass media.” He also expresses regret that his colleagues have had to spend so much time discussing the situation.
The Free Word Association and PEN-Club, which represent writers, journalists, and bloggers, express their support for Gusejnov, writing in a joint statement: “We are concerned about the current damage to the Higher School of Economics's reputation because of a decision by the academic council’s ethics commission. But even more disturbing is the fact that such appeals — to repent, disavow, and next thing you know disassociate yourself [from certain figures] — are becoming ubiquitous in our present-day political reality.” Several hundred people, including writers, journalists, fellow philologists, and translators have endorsed the letter of support.