Sunday, October 1, 2017

‘Colonists’ and ‘Natives’ Square Off in Language Fight in Komi Republic

Paul Goble
            Staunton, October 1 – The language issue is riling public life even in places where public politics has been largely absent in recent years. Among such locales is the Komi Republic, where the fight has heated up to the point that one commentator suggests one can speak of two competing groups, “the colonists” and “the natives.”

             In a commentary for the regional affairs portal 7X7, Viktor Vaykum says that in that Finno-Ugric republic, “some parents do not want their children to study Komi because they would prefer they receive instruction in foreign languages (primarily English)” (

            But other parents in the republic, he continues, “not only want [Komi] to be studied but also want to see the revival of Komi language schools that have been closed by Soviet and Russian imperialists” so that these schools can be “an instrument for the preservation of restoration of their own culture.”

            As a result, Vaykum continues, “we can observe a conflict consisting of two protest groups – the colonists and their descendants on the one hand, including those who live in cities … and the autochthonian population … for whom was initially established this territorial unit, earlier called an autonomous oblast and today nominally having the status of a Republic.”

            On this issue, the two groups are far apart, he says; but they have one thing in common: Moscow takes almost all of the earnings of the republic and gives back almost nothing, something officials and residents have long complained about. (For an example, see

            The language dispute appears likely to make it impossible for the two sides to unite into “a powerful opposition movement of the republic level.” Indeed, he implies that may be one of the reasons behind the Kremlin’s current campaign. But there may be a way forward nevertheless.

            Vaykum suggests three possible resolutions of the language dispute in Komi.  The first or “European” variant, he says, would require both languages to be studied as requirements, an approach whose only major downside is that it would likely accelerate the outmigration of people who don’t want to learn Komi.

            The second or “American” variant would require the study of one of the state languages but not both, something that would do little to solve the current dispute unless somehow each side came to an agreement. And the third “libertarian” variant” would “completely delegate the language choice to schools, parents, and pupils.”

            Vaykum says that in his view, the best variant is the European one, modified to the extent that instruction in any one language would require that at least 10 percent of any one school’s pupils spoke it, even though that might open the door to official manipulation of the figures to promote one or another outcome.

            He adds that “as a Komi native and European,” he is most opposed to choosing only one language because it is or should be “impossible to ignore the interests of almost a third of the population of our region in a democratic state.”

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