Staunton, January 13 – Moscow’s decision to make Crimean Tatara state language even though it is written in Latin script, a violation of Russia’s language law, should open the way for Karelian, which is also written in Latin script, to gain that status, according to Aleksey Tsykaryev, deputy chairman of UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Languages.
At the present time, Karelia is the only republic within the borders of the Russian Federation, the titular language of which does not have that status, Tskaryov, who is also a member of the Council of the Nuroi Karjal (“Young Karelia”) organization, points out in comments to Vadim Shtepa (rufabula.com/articles/2015/01/12/karelia-or-petrozavodsk-region).
Shtepa, a major advocate of regionalism and federalism in Russia, cites Tsykaryov’s remarks in the course of discussing the current linguistic and political situation in Karelia, one that has attracted some attention recently because of charges by a republic LDPR deputy that shadowy “’separatist forces’” have emerged and seek to break off that republic from Russia.
The deputy, Sergey Pirozhnikov, made those charges on the basis of his misreading of a portal which has not advanced any separatist ideas but simply asked “why of all the republics of the Russian Federation does Karelia remain the only one in which the local language does not have state status” and requested that this situation be corrected by the wider use of Karelian.
Clearly, Shtepa writes, “what is permitted to the Tatars, the Yakuts, and the Komis is not permitted to the Karelians,” and any request for equal treatment will be denounced as “’nationalist’” and “’separatist,’” likely because Karelia unlike the others is located on the border of Russia and has a complicated history.
“Of all the current Russian republics,” Shtepa, who lives in Petrozavodsk, says, “Karelia has almost the most unusual history.” It came into existence as a result of the 1920 Treaty of Tartu between the RSFSR and Finland in which Russia was obligated to provide self-administration to Eastern Karelia.”
In 1920, the Karelian Labor commune was created and then in 1923, a Karelian Autonomous Republic established. From 1940 to 1956, it was elevated to the status of a union republic, something which “has left a special trace in regional consciousness” even though Stalin did that in hopes of absorbing Finland via the Winter War.
Some Karelian writers in the 1990s, Shtepa recalls, even talked about “an alternative history,” one where “if the Karelo-Finnish SSR had survived until the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it would automatically have become an independent state as did all the other union republics.”
But in reality, Shtepa continues, there were no separatist attitudes in that “semi-legendary ‘16th republic’” because it was dominated by “’Red Finns’” who had lost the war in Finland and had “no particular desire to unite with a country which they considered as their political opponent.”
“Nevertheless,” as many recall, from the 1950s to the 1980s, much of the union then autonomous republic gave the impression of being “half if not more” Finnish. At that time, in fact, “even Soviet passports in Karelia were bilingual – in Russian and in Finnish,” something that led some Russians to view Karelians “almost as ‘foreigners.’”
Finnish was widely distributed, Shtepa says, because “it was understood by representatives of the various Karelian dialects.” Efforts by Moscow to promote “a single Karelian language” and even more to shift it to the Cyrillic script “were not crowned with success.” Instead, “the literary language remained Finnish.”
But since 1991, despite the adoption a year earlier of a Declaration of State Sovereignty of Karelia, “which guaranteed ‘the rebirth of the national uniqueness of the indigenous peoples,” Finnish language signs and Finnish in passports disappeared. In 2006, the republic adopted a law calling for the use of the language, but it did not have much effect either.
In 2012, Shtepa notes, “many national organizations of Karelia welcomed the appointment of Aleksandr Khudailenen from Leningrad oblast as head of the republic – but they received an unhappy surprise.” While he was the first Finn to head the republic since Kuusinen, he has pursued a thoroughgoing policy of Russification.
He closed the only Baltic-Finnic faculty in a Russian university. He reorganized the Karelian State Pedagogical Academy so that there are no longer any higher educational institutions in the republic which bear its name. And he reduced the number of issues of the only Finnish language journal in Russia, “Carelia,” from 12 to two a year.
Those are the actions which have prompted Tsykaryev and others to look to the Crimean Tatar case with hope and to seek the revival of Finnish in Karelia. All of them point out that concern about “the status of a state language is in no way about separatism but rather about the possibility of preserving and developing the language of the [titular] people.”
“The chief argument” against that position is demographic: only 7.4 percent of the residents of the republic called themselves Karels in the 2010 census. And that demographic reality reflects in part the decision of many Karels to emigrate to Finland since the 1990s, Shtepa says.
Their emigration means that “the ethnographic balance in the republic is completely different than it was in Soviet times,” the regionalist writer points out. But that is irrelevant if Russia is to be a real federation as the Constitution requires – or whether in fact the LDPR will achieve its dream of “liquidating all Russian republics.”
“It is of course possible to unify the state structure and rename Karelia the Petrozavodsk oblast. But as soon as that happens, as world experience shows, really separatist attitudes will arise precisely in those regions which the center is trying to forcibly deprive of their face by suppressing their ethno-cultural specifics.”
“Perhaps,” Shtepa speculates in conclusion, “that is the secret strategy of doctor of philosophy Zhirinovsky and his adepts?”