Sunday, February 4, 2018

Some Minority Languages in Russia have Already Died, More Are Dying, and Still More Will if Putin’s Policies are Followed, Ingush Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 4 – At least five languages have died out in the Russian Federation in the last 25 years; many more are at the brink of extinction; and still more will disappear in the coming decades if Vladimir Putin’s insistence that only Russian be taught as a required language in Russian Federation schools, according to Amil Sakarov.

            Academician Valery Tishkov, an architect of Putin’s policies, argues the massive dying out of languages many fear is not a problem and that Russian-non-Russian bilingualism among non-Russians is a good thing but suggests that a parallel bilingualism among Russians isn’t required ( and

            His views have now been challenged by Sakarov, a scholar who works at the federal university in Ingushetia. Not only does he show that at least five languages have died out in the Russian Federation alone in recent years but argues that this is not “the natural process” Tishkov insists it is (

                With regard to Tishkov’s dismissive comments about those who say languages are dying out in Russia, Sakarov cites the research of Aleksandr Kibrik and Olga Kazakevich who document that five have died already and more are at risk. (“Small Languages in the Post-Soviet Space,” Small Languages and Traditions (in Russian, Moscow: 2005, pp. 13-39).

            Sakarov also points to another part of this change which Tishkov ignores: speakers of the languages that have died out have not shifted to Russian or primarily to it. Instead, they have begun using other non-Russian languages instead. 

            According to the Ingush scholar, those languages now facing extinction because they aren’t being transmitted from parent to child are “much more numerous” that Moscow wants to acknowledge and their numbers are “only increasing.” In the eight years between the last two censuses (2002 and 2010), for example, the number of Karel speakers fell by 50 percent.

            That was not an exception. In the course of this intercensal period, “the number of people knowing the language of their nationality fell among all Russian peoples, and almost all of them experienced an absolute decline in the number of the speakers of their own language even when their peoples were experiencing growth.”

            Tishkov, Sakarov says, doesn’t want to take note of the fact that the slight improvements achieved among non-Russian languages in the 1990s have disappearance; and he is among those who insist that “the transition to Russian does not mean the loss of ethnic identity or ‘the death of the ethnos’ as ethno-nationalists or simply language romantic sometimes try to assert.”

            In support of his idea, the Russian academician cites the case of the children of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who grew up in the US without knowing Russian but who nonetheless remain Russian in terms of culture and identity.  Such an argument is “very strange,” Sakarov continues; it might have been appropriate if these children had lost Russian and begun to speak Yakut.

            As for non-Russians learning Russian, Tishkov insists that this is an entirely “natural process,” one driven by the fact that “by means of Russian, [non-Russians] receive the education they want, acquire Russian and world culture and advance in their careers.” He does not consider, Sakarov says, that this process is anything but voluntary.

            But Russian linguistics expert Vladimir Neroznak who was behind the Red Book of Languages project, says that such arguments simply serve as a cover for those who are using various forceful means to get people to stop using their own languages and adopt another, an “ideological” notion that he says serves those favoring “linguicide and ethnocide.”

            Ethnographer Sergey Abashin who works in the Moscow institute Tishkov used to head agrees, particularly with respect to current Russian policy.  “The Kremlin has in fact cancelled the constitutional norm that Russian citizens are a multi-national people, not a Russian speaking but a multi-national and therefore multi-language.”

            The Russian constitution, he writes on his Facebook page, “guarantees the preservation of native languages.” But Russian policy now is directed “against the idea of the federation and involves obvious discrimination by nationality. It creates distrust and dissatisfaction with the state which has proclaimed openly assimilation as its ideology.”

            “This is [in short],” Abashin says, “an example of a crude, aggressive and destructive policy which affects our common rights to equality, justice, mutual respect and peace.”

            Tishkov for his part points to “the prestige” of Russian even as he ignores the constitutional and legal guarantees for other languages that are now being flouted.  That dismissive attitude toward the non-Russian languages is what is driving the prestige of the non-Russian languages lower, not something inherent in any of them.

            But for the Russian academician, “non-Russian monolingualism (the knowledge of only the language of one’s own nationality) is bad for a Russian citizen,” but, Sakarov points out, “Russian monolingualism in the republics and in places of the compact settlement of non-Russian peoples remains without [his] assessment.”

            If Tishkov’s views prevail – and today he certainly has the ear of the Kremlin – Sakarov concludes, “there cannot be any chance for the future of languages of the peoples of Russia.”

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