Thursday, January 23, 2014

Non-Russians in the Russian Federation Fighting a Two-Front Language War

By Paul Goble

The non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation are increasingly fighting a two-front war in their struggle to preserve their languages and national identities. On the one hand, they are seeking to ensure that members of their own nationalities continue to speak their native languages despite all the pressures from the Russian government and the increasingly pervasive Russian-language media environment. And on the other, they are pushing for the governments of their republics to require that all residents study the language of the titular nationality and not be able to opt out if they are ethnic Russians or non-Russians who view Russian as a path to preferment.

These struggles are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months, with the non-Russians in some of the republics winning victories and those in others suffering clear if not yet irreversible defeats. Two republics on the front lines of these struggles are now Buryatia, a Buddhist republic adjoining Mongolia with whose people its nation is closely related, and Udmurtia, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga that has developed ties not only with other Finno-Ugric republics in the Russian Federation but also with Estonia and Finland.

In Buryatia, a group of cultural figures have launched on YouTube an appeal to their co-ethnics to speak Buryat as much as possible ( They have also launched an online petition to Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, the president of the Buryat Republic, to do far more to promote the use of the Buryat language there (

On YouTube, the Buryat writers and artists say that “our language is who we are” and that any failure to use it or to view it as simply a legacy of the past condemns the Buryats to extinction. Significantly, at least from Moscow’s point of view, those making the appeal talk about the Buryats not only in the Buryat Republic but in the two Buryat autonomies that Putin has amalgamated into larger Russian-majority federal subjects.

And in the appeal, which is offered in both Russian and “Mongol,” given the shared language of the Buryats and the Mongols—the Buryats were called Buryat Mongols until the late 1930s, when Stalin changed their name to stress their distinctiveness and isolate them from Mongol influences—provides a more detailed enumeration of Buryat complaints and demands. It adds that if Buryats are deprived of their language, that will also undermine the Buddhist traditions of the people because Buryat is the language of prayer.

It notes that, at present, street signs in Buryatia are typically only in Russian, as are government documents and declarations. “This year,” the authors of the appeal say, Buryats even “were prohibited from writing commentaries and articles in their native language on the Internet,” even though “many national republics in Russia” permit that.

The time to act is now, the appeal continues, because Moscow media often refer to the Buryats as “the most russified nation in Russia.” Given that Buryat is a government language in the republic it says, that situation must be changed, and a necessary first step is to make the study of Buryat compulsory and the use of Buryat equal to that of Russian in all public spheres.

That is what the Buryat residents of the republic want, the appeal says, noting that at present some 15 to 20 young people compete for each space in the few Buryat-language schools and that demand for Buryat-language publications far outstrips demand. At least ten additional Buryat-language schools need to be opened, local television must increase Buryat-language programs, and the republic government should follow Tatarstan’s lead and give bonus pay to officials who know Buryat. Tatarstan currently pays officials who know Tatar 16 percent extra. In Buryatia, the appeal suggests, the figure could be 10 percent.

But perhaps the most intriguing demand the appeal makes is to ask for the introduction of lessons in schools in the Old Mongolian script, something that would open the common Mongolian past to Buryats today, and for the establishment of free courses in Buryat for all in the republic who want to learn it.

These are ambitious demands, and the Buryats are unlikely to have all of them satisfied. One indication of that is in Udmurtia where local nationalists have been pressing for making Udmurt a required subject for all students in the republic ( Russian parents have actively opposed that idea, arguing that none of their children need to know Udmurt and that any time spent on Udmurt is wasted given that students must pass university entrance examinations in Russian.

According to reports this past week, the Russian parents have won, and the Udmurts have lost. In February, Udmurt officials will promulgate a law that says no one has to study Udmurt, an action that is likely to spark new protests there and elsewhere (

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