Russian imperialist policies in ice-hockey
A recent scandal concerning the name transliteration raised by a prominent Russian ice-hockey star Alexei Kovalev who has been transferred from the NHL club Pittsburgh Penguins to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) club Atlant Mytishchi raised many issues on the discriminatory policies applied by the Russian-based KHL officials. Kovalev successfully protested against the KHL rules which prescribe to write his surname as nothing but “Kovalyov” (he insisted that the only correct way of writing his surname is Kovalev). A reader should be reminded that apart from Russian teams the KHL has four non-Russian franchises: Barys Astana, Dinamo Riga, Dynama Minsk, Lev Poprad. Additionally the affiliated Russian major league has two non-Russian teams: Donbas Donetsk and Kazzinc-Torpedo Öskemen.
This story prompted me to look more thoroughly into the KHL regulations on name writing. Another reason for that was the continuous “Russification” of the surnames of Belarusian players of the KHL club Dynama Minsk as well as the same practice applied by other KHL clubs toward Belarusian players drafted by them. These regulations are set for 2011-2014, available online on the KHL website and are thus easily accessible for familiarization. They deal with the name writing of Russian and foreign (i.e. all non-Russian, incl. also Belarusian) names, as with providing rules how those foreign names should be transliterated into Latin letters and written in Russian. Thus, these two aspects will become the main focus of our analysis.
The regulations are unanimously applicable to everyone involved in the KHL activities, namely players, coaches, referees, clubs and the League management and other personalities (art. 1). Moreover, these regulations are obligatory for all structural units of the KHL holding (art. 2), including the Minor Hockey League (MHL) which includes two Belarusian clubs – Dynama-Šy?nik Babrujsk (previously known as Minskija Zubry Minsk) and Junactva Minsk.
The KHL officials recognize that the name writing according to these “regulations” may not always comply with other documents, for instance those issued by the Russian Federal Migration Service (art.3). The basic principle applied by the KHL is thus the “practical transcription” so that foreign names are transliterated according to the historically vested orthographic system of the Russian language so that the method of including words from one language in another may preserve an approximate profile of those words and so that the writing in original and the settled traditions are being considered (art. 5). Any dispute that may arise from those regulations is a subject of a conclusive decision of the KHL officials (art. 6).
These provisions imply that the KHL applies its own provisions that might be different from the official documents. Hence, potentially a huge difference may be created between the official name writing in the original document and on the KHL shirts of a certain player. It implies that the regulations create new personalities different from those known according to the official documents. This was one of the major arguments of Alexei Kovalev who argued that a person with the surname “Kovalyov” is just another person but not him. This is just a discrepancy within the transliteration system of the Russian language itself but it might be even greater if we deal with other languages.
The regulations distinguish between the Latin- and Cyrillic-based languages and apply different practices toward each group of languages in the case of writing relevant personal names in the KHL-related documents in Latin letters. Hence, names derived from some foreign languages (“Latvian, Finnish, Czech, etc.”) are put as in the originals with the omission of any kind of possible diacritics (ex: Ozoli?š vs. Ozolins, art. 9) which still enables a considerable recognizability of this concrete personality. Another practice is used toward the personal names originating from languages based on the Cyrillic letters (“Belarusian, Ukrainian, etc.”) which should be transliterated only according to the rules of the Russian language (art. 10). Hence, we get such personalities as “Kostyuchenok”, “Meleshko”, “Ugarov”, “Goroshko”, and the way of transliteration significantly alters the original Belarusian names (Kastsiuchonak, Mialeshka, Uharau, Haroshka – note: here we apply Belarusian LOC as Belarusian passport issuing authorities do by default). Hence, we see per se discriminatory double standards practices when the Cyrillic-based languages (first and foremost Belarusian and Ukrainian, and also apparently Kazakh) are openly considered as subjects of Russification. These double standards are secured in art. 11 which stipulates that Russian personal names of the foreign nationals should be transliterated according to the titular language of their country of origin. The regulations provide an example of an ethnic Russian (or Ukrainian) Latvian national Aleksandrs ?i?ivijs whose surname should thus be transliterated as “Nizivijs” but not “Nizhivy”. Hence, this favours Latvian (and any other Latin-based) language before Belarusian (or Ukrainian and any other Cyrillic-based) language.
The same approach is related to the usage of the personal names in the Russian language. This issue is ruled upon the recommendations of three manuals listed in the regulations (art. 12). Here we face the same double standard-approach between the Latin-based and Cyrillic based languages. While the Latin-based languages imply the transliteration to the Russian language thoroughly considering the exact name-writing including possible diacritics (art. 13), the Cyrillic-based languages (“Belarusian, Ukrainian, etc.”) are simply a subject of Russification (art. 16).
Thus, in the KHL practice the Cyrillic-based languages are subjects of Russification. Different approach toward Latin-based and Cyrillic-based languages in the KHL interpretation is a blatant example of the open discrimination — which means that no Belarusian player drafted by any KHL club is allowed to write his name either in Latin or Cyrillic scripts according to the rules of the Belarusian language. For Dynama Minsk it implies that its players are forbidden to use Belarusian language or use Belarusian transliteration of their names on their shirts and in the official KHL documents. This look even more ridiculous since Dynama Minsk is positioned as the representative of the Republic of Belarus in the KHL and the club’s Belarusian-language anthem sung by the well-know Belarusian folk-group “Palac” is being performed at every home game of the team. Hence, this discrepancy raises the question whether Dynama Minsk which is supported by the Belarusian officials of various levels as well as by the leading Belarusian businesses is in fact a Belarusian club or just a Belarusian-based Russian ice hockey franchise. Another important aspect is the non-conformity of this blatant discrimination with the provisions of the Belarusian constitutional legislation. Since the KHL games take place on the territory of Belarus, it implies that we face the situation when the Belarusian language is discriminated or even nearly banned on the territory of Belarus. A logical question might be raised than whether the above mentioned double standards of the KHL officials toward the Belarusian language should be tolerated and whether their efforts might be regarded as an attempt to impose the Russian cultural domination in the post-Soviet area, resulting in Belarusian being treated as the second-class language at the most?
This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 23, No. 3.
© 2011 The_Point Journal/Belarusian Review
Keywords: ice hockey, Kontinental Hockey League, National Hockey League, Alexei Kovalev, Dynama Minsk, Barys Astana, Dinamo Riga, Lev Poprad, Pittsburgh Penguins, Belarusian language, Palac