Thursday, November 15, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Fight over Languages of Instruction in Non-Russian Schools Heats Up

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 15 – Although verbal sparring about whether Moscow will do away with the non-Russian republics has attracted far more attention, a more immediate but perhaps equally fateful battle is intensifying in the Russian Federation over the question of what languages these republics will be able to require in their school curriculums.

            The stakes of this fight over languages in the non-Russian republics could scarcely be greater. If the non-Russians lose the right to insist that all residents of their republics learn the national language, the non-Russian republics will lose much of their authority, and the future of many of their titular nationalities will in doubt.

            But if Moscow does not give in to the demands of some ethnic Russian parents to allow them to choose Russian rather than non-Russian as the language of instruction in the republics, ethnic tensions between the Russian speakers and the surrounding population will increase, and many Russians will leave, reducing still further Moscow’s influence and control.

                In an article entitled “The Struggle for the Russian Language in the National Republics of Post-Soviet Russia,” Rais Suleymanov, a Kazan-based investigator whose articles about Islamism in the Middle Volga have attracted widespread attention and criticism, reports on a meeting on that subject last week at the Duma (

            The federal authorities have seldom given much attention to this subject, Suleymanov says, and consequently the meeting represented a “rare” and “all-sided discussion” of what he calls “discrimination” against Russian speakers in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Buryatia – and more generally in all non-Russian portions of the country.

            As such, he continues, the session was “a rare case” in which the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking portions of the poulations of the non-Russian republics were able to attract the attention of legislators at the country-wide level and present their arguments that they and not the non-Russians are subjects of “discrimination.”
            Leading off this discussion, Mikhail Shcheglov, president of the Society of Russian Culture of Kazan, told the legislators that this “ethno-linguistic” conflict was “not between the titular and the non-titular population but between the Russian-speaking residents and the regional ethnocracy, which is supported by local national separatists.”

             The leaders of the non-Russian republics, he continued, are not capable of producing genuine bilingualism, but they have been able to reduce the amount of instruction in the Russian language that both Russian speakers and non-Russian speakers receive in schools of the non-Russian republics..

            In Tatarstan, Sheglov said, over the course of ten years of instruction, Russian speaking children in Moscow or Ryazan get about 1200 hours of Russian language instruction, but those living in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan receive “only 700.” And that “500 hour difference” affects the life chances of those students later on.

            Elsa Tarasova, a member of the Education and Russian Language in the Schools of Bashkiria Organization, said that “in practice, the national-regional component in nationality schools takes the place of the federal component of education.”  According to her, “the overwhelming majority” of parents is opposed to this.

            Galina Luchkina, another member of that organization, seconded Tarasova’s comments. She added that in her view, “among Tatar or Bashkir society, there is the stereotypical opinion that Russian language people are against instruction of the national languages in general. This misconception is consciously used by local separatists to exacerbate russophobia.”

            And Victoria Mozharova, a Russian parent from Tatarstan, said that when she and others like her complained to republic issues about such linguistic imbalances, they were “directly told to their faces: ‘If you don’t like something here, then go backto your own Motherland!’” And apparently, many Russian speakers are.

            Vitaly and Olesya Gubeyev from Ufa said that “the outflow of the Russian population from Bashkortostan began precisely because parents want their children to have a complete education, one that includes 1200 hours of Russian language and not the 7000 that they receibe in the schools of Bashkiria today.”

            Those who have left have already had experiences with the impact of that difference. Diana Farsina, one of the creators of the Internet community “The Russian Language in the Schools of Tatarstan,” said that when she and her family moved to Moscow, her son in the 7th class was far behind his fellow students because of Tatarstan’s educational policies.

            Having heard from these and other parents and teachers from non-Russian republics, the Duma deputies at the hearing asked several experts for their opinion.  Olga Artemenko, the head of the Center for Ethno-Cultural Strategy, said the parents were right and that they and not the republic leaders needed to have the right to choose.

            Suleymanov, who not only reported the meeting but spoke to it said that the current ability of the republic authorities to insist on instruction in the non-Russian languages was leading to “the exodus of the Russian population from the republics of the Volga region,” and that in turn “is inevitably leading to the departure from there of Russian statehood.”

            This meeting was clearly stacked to produce the effect on the Duma deputies Suleymanov and his supporters hoped for. It included a few token defenders of the non-Russian languages and a few non-Russians who supported the Russian speakers’ point of view. In this, it recalls meetings on the same subject but at the level of union republics at the end of Soviet times.

            In fact anger about this issue on both sides is even deeper than that expressed by participants in the Duma hearing.  The extreme Russian nationalist National Democratic Party of Russia has denounced what it calls “the forcible Tatarization” of ethnic Russians andRussian speakers in the Middle Volga (  

            And many non-Russians are equally passionate in their defense of their right to insist that people living on the territories of their republics learn some of their national languages not only to promote inter-ethnic communication but to ensure that their nations, listed in the Russian Constitution, will survive into the future.

            In an article posted online on Tuesday, Nail Gildanov, a Tatar who lives in Moscow, said that the non-Russians will defend their linguistic rights because if they fail to do so, they will lose any chance to ensure the flourishing or at least survival of their national communities (

            Now the Duma is planning to remove the requirements for obligatory instruction in the national languages in the republics, Gildanov says, but he notes that “national education is the threat which connects use with our spiritual heritage and contemporary culture of our own people. The loss of national education in fact is the loss of language and culture.”

                More immediately, “genuine federalism for the republics is above all,” he writes, “an independent policy in the area of education and culture.”  Consequently, “the preservation of national republics and national education is the last line of defend which we do not have the right to give up.”

            “Only having united and supporting one another actively expressing our opinion will be able to do so. We must found a single Movement for Federalism and National Education,” Gildanov argues, and non-Russians must remember that “a people like an individual is alive as long as it struggles for itself.”

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