Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Joseph Stalin and Problems of Linguistics

This month marks an ominous anniversary in light of the headlines that now flash across our screens: 100 years ago, on April 3, 1922, Joseph Stalin succeeded Vladimir Lenin to become the leader of the Soviet Union, a position he held until his death in 1953. After assuming leadership he quickly consolidated power to become a dictator by the 1930s. His regime is associated with mass repression, ethnic cleansing, wide-scale deportation, systematic executions of his enemies, and starvation for millions.

It’s not likely that Stalin pops up on your linguistic radar, no matter how finely tuned it may be. In fact, he took an active interest in language and in 1950 he published an article in Pravda, a publication that he had edited for five years before he came to power. The article–or book if you like, it’s more than 13,000 words–is translated as Marxism and Problems of Linguistics. The book includes his original essay, and his responses to subsequent questions submitted by readers, mostly linguists, asking him to clarify some points.

Image: Goodreads

He begins in a creepily humble way, noting that he is responding to a request for his opinion and stating that he is “not a linguistic expert and, of course, cannot fully satisfy the request of the comrades.” But he fails to state (of course) that by this time in career, no one who valued their life dared to oppose him publicly in word or deed.

Stalin set out to answer some theoretical questions about language that his “comrades” had posed. He is mainly intent on making it clear that (in Marxist terms) language is not a superstructure that grows out of a society’s economic base (and would therefore reflect and protect the interests of the ruling class). He argues instead that that language is a tool that can be used by all to facilitate communication, regardless of their place in society.

It’s particularly interesting, and a little spooky, to juxtapose Stalin’s views about language with the insidious ways he used it, and the way it is used today in disinformation campaigns, in which Stalin’s heir in spirit, Vladimir Putin, is an expert. Since he came to power at the turn of this century Putin has worked to rehabilitate the memory of Stalin and portray him as a great leader. Given the facts, this can only be accomplished using the twin engines of persuasion–censorship and propaganda–of which both Stalin and Putin are masters.

Stalin created the equivalent of a government agency, Glavlit, whose job was "to ensure that the correct ideological spin was put on every published item." He also gradually upped the price for anyone who publicly deviated from official propaganda: denial of work, loss of citizenship, prison, labor camps, punitive psychiatry, or execution, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

A recent Fresh Air interview with New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen reveals that Putin has Stalin’s playbook open on his desk. Gessen says there is “a new law which makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread what [the government] calls false information about the special operation in Ukraine. Now, what they have classified as false information is any statement that calls it a war or an act of aggression or an invasion.”

We read a statement like this and we have no trouble believing that it’s true. What’s harder for us in the West to get our minds around is how so many Russians who strongly support Putin could be taken in by a view of the world so starkly at odds with ours. But is it really such a stretch of the imagination?

Our great vulnerability as a species, evident throughout history, is the ease with which we are duped–not just individually but collectively. Language, our great unique invention, sets us apart from all other species in our ability to fashion narratives. Other species live by their constant interaction with their worlds, in which they can modify their behavior (or not) in order to adapt to changes, with a view to surviving. Of course we can do this too, but we have the ability to live not only by direct interaction with our world, but also by interaction with the world of narratives that we have created: the stories we tell ourselves about what is true in the world. There is no requirement that these narratives be true; they only have to be credible in a greater system of narratives that is propagated by those in power.

In a recent New Yorker article, the Russia expert Stephen Kotkin is asked how it is that Putin’s  regime can exercise such influence over the minds of Russians. Of course it is partly accomplished through repression and terror. But he also says:

They have stories to tell. And, as you know, stories are always more powerful than secret police. . . . Stories about Russian greatness, about the revival of Russian greatness, about enemies at home and enemies abroad who are trying to hold Russia down. . . The aspiration to carry out a special mission in the world, the fear and suspicion that outsiders are trying to get them or bring them down: those are stories that work in Russia.

Stories that work. It’s a phrase that we can all ponder, as we reflect on how it is that people can believe narratives that are not supported by facts. If we were a solitary species it’s not likely that this would work so well, but we are a social species. We acquire a strong sense of belonging when we can share our narratives with others who believe them as ardently as we do. And here Stalin had a clear insight (emphasis added):

Language exists, language has been created precisely in order to serve society as a whole, as a means of intercourse between people, in order to be common to the members of society and constitute the single language of society, serving members of society equally, irrespective of their class status. A language has only to depart from this position of being a language common to the whole people, it has only to give preference and support to some one social group to the detriment of other social groups of the society, and it loses its virtue.

I’m with Stalin all the way here, but I’m astonished that he expresses concern about a language’s loss of virtue as a result of its being used manipulatively. For surely he and his modern counterpart Putin succeed largely by putting a spin on reality, via language, that clearly supports one social group to the great detriment–even destruction–of another.

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.