Russia’s linguistic imperialism is at the heart of dozens of diplomatic spats between ex-Soviet states and the West, as well as hate campaigns in the Kremlin-controlled media.

In early 2014, a popular uprising in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, ousted a pro-Moscow president, and the new government annulled the law that made Russian a “regional” language in eastern and southern regions.

 “While that could have been a cause for a legitimate concern for the rights of the Russian minority, it was instead used by Russia as a way to justify the annexation of Ukrainian territory in violation of international law,” said Diyar Autal of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, when he spoke to TRT World.

 In retaliation, Moscow backed a separatist uprising.

 “This is the matter of securing the legal rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking nationals,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in April 2014, shortly after the secession of the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The separatists were ecstatic about Putin’s support – and mad at the new central government that pledged to root Russian out of schools, mass media and government institutions.

“Why are they forcing me to abandon the language of my forefathers? If I speak Russian, does it make me a second-rate citizen?” the separatist militant, Konstantin Kornienko, said in April 2014.

Wearing old-fashioned sunglasses and black gloves with cut-out fingers, as well as clutching an AK-47, the small-framed coal miner stood in front of the Donetsk city hall in front of a grey skyscraper, surrounded by tents, barbed wire, heaps of tyres and caricatures of US President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders.

Weeks later, he was killed in the conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. The smouldering trench war still claims several lives a month even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But Kornienko’s opinion is echoed by millions of Ukrainian Russian-speakers – who often detest Putin and make a clear distinction between the Russian culture and the Kremlin’s nationalism.

“For them, the study of Ukrainian is like a fall into a civilizational abyss. Russian is the language of high culture, and Ukrainian is rustic, lowly,” Germany-based researcher, Nikolay Mitrokhin, of Bremen University's research center for Eastern Europe, told TRT World.”

Language as a weapon

Czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia has always used its language as a soft power tool.

One of the six official languages of the United Nations, Russian was widely taught in pro-Moscow nations of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa before the 1991 Soviet collapse. The Mongolian alphabet is still based on the Russian Cyrillic script.

Since Putin’s first election in 2000, the “protection of the Russian language” has become a pretext to dozens of diplomatic spats with ex-Soviet states and the West, as well as nationwide hate campaigns in Kremlin-controlled media.

Moscow has repeatedly complained to the United Nations, the European Union and international bodies about the rights of Russian-speakers in the Baltic states, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

One of these nations is Uzbekistan, a mostly Muslim Central Asian republic of 33 million people, where ethnic Russians barely account for two percent of the population. But Russian remains “a language of inter-ethnic communication” mostly spoken in urban centres.

In mid-May, Moscow bristled at Uzbekistan after Uzbek authorities proposed to fine officials for the exclusive use of Russian.

"There is an impression that if Russian is kept in official use, it would fully reflect the spirit of history and the current quality of our relations, and, most importantly, the interests of many Uzbek citizens who often choose to study or work in Russia,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on 14 May.

The word “work” was a veiled threat – at least one million Uzbeks work in Russia. Under Putin, Moscow detained and deported thousands of nationals of ex-Soviet Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan after their governments had a falling out with the Kremlin.

Uzbek authorities are aware that the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks, may trigger unrest in their overpopulated, unemployment-riddled homeland.

But these migrants often want their children to study in Russian-language schools – while Uzbeks raised in the Soviet era were not given the choice.

“Had I worked as a state official, I would have spent my entire salary on fines for bad knowledge of my native Uzbek,” the human rights activist, Shukhrat Ganiyev, who is based in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara, told TRT World. “But in the USSR, I could not make a career and even get a decent education without the knowledge of Russian.”

Banking a language

Since last August, one of Uzbekistan’s largest banks could not provide a customer service agreement to Elyor Nemat.

The documentary photographer and graphic artist wanted the contract in Uzbek, but the Capital Bank could only offer it in Russian. Bank clerks repeatedly snubbed Nemat’s request.

“I felt disgusted, felt a pain inside, a discrimination,” said Nemat, who considers Uzbek and Russian his mother tongues and also speaks English and Tajik, a sibling of Farsi.

“They laugh at you and say, 'I can translate it for you [orally],' to them, it’s a sign of illiteracy,” the 32 year-old told TRT World.

Nine months later, the bank still could not provide Nemat with the Uzbek-language contract, he said.

The bank’s press service was not available for comment.

The Crimean conundrum

More than a hundred ethnicities live in Russia’s 83 regions, and the largest ones have regional autonomies and can educate children in their mother tongues.

“Objectively, in Russia, ethnic minorities have many more real rights and opportunities than those in neighboring nations,” says Bremen University’s Mitrokhin.

But the Soviet-era alphabets developed for their languages are Cyrillic-based. This deprives some of these groups access to their pre-Soviet literatures, religious and secular texts.

Buddhist Kalmyks couldn’t read their scriptures based on translations from Sanskrit and Tibetan, and the Muslims of the Caucasus and Central Asia no longer understood their writings in Arabic-based scripts.

Under Putin, the Kremlin dusted off the forced Russification.

In 2017, Moscow made classes in Tatar - a Turkic language spoken by Russia’s second-largest ethnic group - non-mandatory in the Volga River region of Tatarstan, an area that had tried to secede in the 1990s.

The move triggered a domino effect in other regions, including annexed Crimea.

The Black Sea peninsula was once dominated by Crimean Tatars, who share linguistic and historic ties with Turkey. These days, Tatars amount to about 15 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million.

Many resisted the annexation, and the Kremlin paid back by jailing or banishing activists and outlawing many civil groups and ATR, a television channel that partially broadcasts in Tatar.

New history textbooks describe Crimean Tatars as ruthless pillagers who raided Russian lands enslaving tens of thousands. Many Tatar-language kindergartens and schools are now bilingual, and in other schools, Tatar classes are no longer mandatory, activists say.

“The problem of the linguistic imperialism looms big in Russia,” Zair Smedlya, a top election official of the informal Tatar National Council, told TRT World.

He pointed at Putin’s speech delivered in November, in which he urged officials to “preserve, develop and spread the Russian language and literature.”

“It was understood as a command to push out regional languages,” Smedlya said.