Saturday, July 4, 2015

To Save Their Threatened Languages, Non-Russian Governments Call for Changing 26 Federal Laws

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 4 – Many languages in the Russian Federation are “disappearing,” something that won’t be reversed simply by articulating a new language policy, according to Mikhail Todyshev, the Moscow representative of the Chukotka Autonomous District. Instead, it will require specialists from all aspects of life and the rewriting of 26 federal laws.

            Todyshev’s statement to a meeting of the All-Russian Seminar Conference on Language Policy in the Sphere of Education is a reminder of why agencies for nationality policy like the new one Vladimir Putin has created seldom achieve much because they lack the power and authority to change all the policies that affect the issues they are concerned with.

            As Todyshev, an ethnic Shor, pointed out, the survival of many of the languages with the fewest number of speakers is “directly connected with the preservation of the traditions, customs, and traditional way of life” of these peoples. Consequently, “you can’t solve anything” if it is approached only as an issue of “interethnic relations” (

            For the peoples in his region, he said, specialists in forestry, land management and subsoil issues must be involved because our compatriots “are losing their access to natural resources. And as a result, this affects issues of culture and languages lose out. There must be changes in 26 federal laws.”

            The situation with regard to language instruction in Chukotka is not too bad, he continued. In 30 of the 42 general education schools Chukchi, Evenk and Eskimo are being taught. Books are being published in these languages. And there is a Chukchi Institute for the Development of Education which has a special department for ethno-pedagogical technologies.

            But recently, Todyshev said, things have been going in the wrong direction.  This year, the republic was forced to end its program of training teachers of Shor language and literature.  That was part of a reduction in the status of the Novokuznets Pedagogical Institute to a Center of Pedagogical Education, a change driven by budgetary shortfalls.

            Tatyana Gamaley, nationality policy minister in Daghestan, told the meeting that Todyshev’s “emotional” words are entirely justified: many non-Russian languages are in trouble, including some of the 14 identified as “official” in her republic alone, and that can spark precisely the kind of conflicts that everyone wants to avoid. 

            Yury Dorofeyev of the Crimean Republic Institute of Post-Graduate Pedagogical Education, talked about the language situation in occupied Crimea. Russian is gaining in popularity as it should, he said, in a region where there are 15 Ukrainian language schools, 15 Crimean Tatar schools, but “more than 500 Russian ones.”

            He said that “all the Crimean Tatar schools have been preserved and are continuing to work. The number of Crimean Tatar classes has even increased somewhat.” But Dorofeyev acknowledged that “there are now practically no Ukrainian schools. Classes remain, but the number of those studying Ukrainian after the referendum fell sharply.”

            Reflecting the spirit of Putin’s times, some of those taking part in the meeting suggested that people should not simply be calling about defining Russian as a native language but thinking about how to “save” it as well.   Zhanna Zubova, a language specialist at Orel State University, noted that “the destruction of a language is a sign of the destruction of an ethnos.”

            And she argued that she is disturbed by “the disparaging attitude toward Russian both among government employees and journalists,” even among ethnic Russians. She pointed to what she said was “a symptom” of this: Her university has reduced the number of paid slots for students in Russian language even as the government is spending more to prop up businesses.

            It simply isn’t the case, she said that these businesses can play the same role in saving the nation as the Russian language can.

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