Friday, March 10, 2017

Can Beauty Save Chuvash? The Prospects are Better than One Might Think

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 9 – A group of Chuvash activists in Moscow are seeking to save their native language through a series of small steps, unsupported either by their home republic or by its permanent representation in the Russian capital, including perhaps most dramatically drawing Chuvash letters on their faces much as some African women do.

            That effort, Mariya Koshelova says, is one that dramatically attracts the attention of all who see these letters and who are thus led to ask about the language, something that is critically important for a small and, what is more important, extremely widespread community which lacks many of the structures more concentrated ones have (

                Organized by the AvanClub in Moscow, this project goes by the name "ТУРĂ ПАЛЛИ – ТУРĂ ПАНИ,” Chuvash for “the sign of god is the gift of god.”  Koshelova says that some Chuvash support her work but that the Chuvash representation in Moscow doesn’t. “It is a dead structure where nothing happens.”

            (Such offices, which trace their origins to the first years of Soviet power, sometimes matter a lot in national rebirth and sometimes are only effectively travel agencies for officials and students from the republic they represent.  Many of those representing union republics before 1991 subsequently became embassies.)

            Koshelova says that for her, the survival of Chuvash, a Turkic language in the Middle Volga, is “an open question.” Thanks to Catalonian expert Hector Alos-i-Font, there is some information on the status of Chuvash in Chuvashia, but “no one is investigating the situation in Irkutsk or in Bashortostan” where many Chuvash live.

(On Alos-i-Font and his ground-breaking research, see  

            What makes Koshelova’s work so interesting is that she did not grow up speaking Chuvash. Instead, she spoke Russian in the home. But now, she says, she tries to use her national language every day in conversations with her parents and with her children so that “the chain” of language and culture will remain unbroken.

            Building on her use of Chuvash letters as body decorations, she and other Chuvash in Moscow are now organizing lectures in Chuvash (with Russian subtitles) in order to demonstrate that “in our language, it is possible to speak on complicated and interesting things.” So far, this has not gone beyond social networks, but she says they plan for more steps in the future.

            What will be interesting to see is how Russian officials and cultural guardians will view such efforts given their obsession with the hijab. But the painting of Chuvash letters on as makeup is perhaps one of those below the radar screen actions that Russian assimilationists won’t notice until too late to matter.

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