Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Putin’s Language Law Radicalizing Russians and Non-Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 1 – Vladimir Putin’s call for making the study of all non-Russian languages voluntary while insisting that the study of Russian remain compulsory has divided Russians and non-Russians for more than a year, but now that the Kremlin leader’s appeal has been embodied in a law passed by the Duma, this divide has only deepened.

            On the one hand, some Russians are now demanding that the government move even further along its Russification path and eliminate the study of the titular languages of the republics in those republics to promote the further integration of the country (

            But on the other, some non-Russian activists are now talking ever more loudly about the need to pursue state independence because of Moscow’s language policies lest, by remaining in Russia, they lose first their language, then their distinctive legal status, and finally their existence as separate nations (

            At present, both these trends remain marginal; but they are a clear indication that the passage of the law did not end the fight over languages but instead raised it to a new level for both sides (, a trend reflected in headlines like “The War over Languages (

            Indeed, to a significant extent, the current situation recalls some of the national movements in the union republics at the end of Soviet times, those, among the most powerful like the ones in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whose members felt that if they did not get out of the USSR then, they would be condemned to disappear in a generation or so.

            But in another and possibly even more important regard, the situation  now could prove more explosive. The Putin regime, far more than its Soviet predecessor at the end, is far more committed to russianization and russification and thus has sent a message that some Russian nationalists now think they can push for even more radical “solutions” to the “national question.”

            To be sure, the Kremlin has gone after some of the more noxious Russian nationalist groups, but it has pursued non-Russian ones which talk about federalism or independence even more harshly. And that too is something Russian nationalists as well as non-Russian ones can easily see and draw conclusions from.

            But there is another group that is also paying attention to the consequences of Putin’s risky action: those in the regime who undoubtedly believe they have the most to lose by such a rocking of the boat. A half century ago their predecessors decided that Khrushchev had to go because of such “hare-brained” schemes.

            Consequently, if the tensions over the language law do continue to intensify, they may take action not to save the Russians or the non-Russians but to save themselves and their ill-gotten gains.



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