Monday, June 5, 2017

Russian Officials Must Protect Endangered Languages or Nationalists Will Exploit Their Failure to Do So, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 5 – Despite the denials of some in Moscow, many non-Russian languages are in trouble or even threatened with disappearing altogether as the increasingly urbanized youth under the influence of the media and educational testing in Russian stop speaking their native language and use Russian instead.

            Many ethnic activists are calling for society and the state to take steps to reverse this process, one that many in the Russian capital not only see as natural but as a welcome contribution to the integration of non-Russians into Vladimir Putin’s Russian world and civic Russian nation.

            But that Moscow-desired outcome is threatened by two things. On the one hand, some scholars have pointed out that many ethnic communities become more nationalist after they lose their historically native languages because they are then in a position to compete and feel discrimination more clearly on an ethnic basis (

            And on the other, to the extent that Russian officials simply allow non-Russian languages to continue to decline, they effectively cede the field to nationalists who often mobilize non-Russian nations against the center on the issue of language use even if these nationalists cannot stop but only slow losses in the number of native speakers.

            As a result, some officials, especially in non-Russian areas, are taking up the issue of language survival more actively as in Kalmykia, the Buddhist republic adjoining the North Caucasus where officials have been cooperating with activists to talk about ways to boost the number of Kalmyk speakers (

            Such cooperation is important not only to help these languages survive but also to prevent a nationalist explosion. Indeed, Vitaly Arkov, an Elista political scientist says that “the authorities of Kalmykia have already successfully solved one important task: not to allow the language issue to be seized by local radical nationalists.”

            Whether Arkov is correct or not is hard to say, but the mere fact that some in the Russian establishment are now thinking in these terms may provide an opening for non-Russians to expand their demands for more support of their native languages, threatening if they do not get it to turn to the nationalists the center has good reason to fear. 

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