In May, a few days before the 100th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov wrote a long post on his Telegram Channel about his overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame. He wrote about the heinous murder of a woman in Bucha: …пришли люди из моей страны — те, кто говорит со мной на одном языке, и убили её (…people came from my country — people who speak the same language as I do — and they killed her).
He didn’t write that the murderers had the same passport, or had the same upbringing, or looked like him, or dressed like him, or had sung the same songs and read the same books in childhood. For him, the pain was acute because the people who committed these terrible crimes spoke the same language as he does.
Russians have a very particular relationship with their language. Russian speakers write paeans to their language; English-speakers write jokes. Perhaps the most quoted saying about English is attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” But it might be outdone by this commentary from Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland: “English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.”
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