“Sharks of the quill”

Posted on January 20, 2017


“Sharks of the quill”

If you are a Russian with a sense of history – that’s most of us – there are some words and phrases, which carry uncomfortable echoes of our troubled past…

Here is the wording used to announce the expulsion from the Russian PEN centre of well-known liberal journalist and writer Sergei Parkhomenko: “…for provocative activities incompatible with the aims and remit of the Russian PEN-Centre, and for pronouncements injurious to the honour and dignity of the individual.”

Parkhomenko’s expulsion ignited a scandal that has now been raging for several days in the ranks of the Moscow intelligentsia. The PEN centre – an organisation many Russians hadn’t even heard of before this all started – is fulminating. Numerous other famous writers and poets – Boris Akunin and Lev Rubinstein, to name two – have left the club in protest. We should note that Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s Nobel literature laureate, is among their number.

We could spend any length of time trying to figure out what the Russian PEN centre actually is, and why it was founded towards the end of the perestroika era. We could wonder what all those writers were doing there over the course of almost three decades, and what exactly the essence of the organisation boils down to. We could ask why, in the wake of the second Maidan, Crimea and so forth, they didn’t simply become active in politics – signing petitions both for and against and joining in demonstrations – but actually splintered into several factions. Or why the “conservative” faction (let’s give them that label) ultimately won out. Or, finally, why it was that they needed to get rid of Parkhomenko in the first place: were they being pressured to do so by, say, the Kremlin, or was this merely a local confrontation between opposing clans?

If you really wanted to, you could find answers to all of these questions. Then you’d know all about the squabbles and infighting in the ranks of the old Moscow intelligentsia; you’d know, too, that all is not well when it comes to the spiritual life of Russia – just as bad, in fact, as it was under Brezhnev. But certain other aspects of this affair are more interesting to analyse. The wording itself, for one, deserves examination. In addition to the lines quoted above, Sergei Parkhomenko is described in that same document as “the Bolotnaya Square provocateur.”

You’re reading this article in English, and certain stylistic nuances may well elude your grasp. Let us explain.

In a period extending from the Stalin era to the 1970s or 80s, a certain brand of journalese gained traction in the Soviet Union before ultimately becoming endemic in the country. It consisted almost entirely of stock formulae and shibboleths that often married high and low communication styles, and sometimes assumed the form of pseudo-poetic images or metaphors. Why such a linguistic strategy was pursued, nobody knew exactly, but the result was a highly recognisable (and, for the regime, convenient) style of news delivery. For instance: instead of writing that so-and-so was “working for NATO,” Soviet hacks would invariably accuse the said so-and-so of “pouring water on the water-mill of imperialism.” Western journalists were always referred to as “sharks of the quill”, while American military personnel were “Pentagon hawks.” The populace would hear these formulae hundreds – thousands – of times, and simply become inured to them.

Then perestroika came along, and the Soviet Union fell apart. The new Russian journalism – spearheaded by the business paper Kommersant, re-established after a seventy-year absence – seemed, once more, to be reinventing the Russian language.

But towards the end of the noughties, and certainly during the current decade, the country was struck by a stylistic zombie apocalypse that reached its apotheosis in the wake of Putin’s Crimea adventure. All those half-forgotten linguistic monstrosities reared their ugly heads once more. And it’s no accident that they did: the federal channels, together with presidential administration personnel tasked with determining the latter’s messaging guidelines, consciously resolved to revive the old Soviet journalese (and specifically World War II-era rhetoric: pro-Russian fighters versus Ukrainian fascists, etc.).

Why was this done? Here’s a plausible hypothesis: reviving the linguistic and rhetorical modes of days gone by serves to encourage old behavioural patterns as well: be afraid, be compliant, be like everybody else. It might be a subtle subliminal hint that Russia has partially returned to the Brezhnev era of stagnation. And this “new old” messaging style is by no means geared solely towards older generations; wafting in the media air, the formulae and shibboleths are regularly uttered by twenty-somethings born after the USSR’s collapse. All that’s needed now is for those writers and other cultural figures to keep a suitcase packed, ready in the hallway – for that knock on the door in the middle of the night.

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