Thursday, October 4, 2018

What the Murder of a Language and a Nation Looks Like: The Case of Mari El

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 3 – The former head of the Republic of Mari El began to introduce what is now Moscow’s language policy more than a decade ago, promoting Russian at the expense of the titular language of that Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga.  The results are not pretty and they serve as a warning about what may now happen elsewhere.

            According to the 2010 census, approximately a quarter of the residents of Ioshkar-Ola, the republic capital, are Maris; but only about ten percent of parents “choose” to send their children to schools with Mari as the language of instruction, in many cases not because of their desire but because the government doesn’t make such schools available.

            That is the conclusion, Dmitry Lyubimov draws in a posting on the IdelReal portal of Radio Liberty. In the Mari capital, he reports, there is only a single Mari-language kindergarten; and there are vastly more Mari parents who seek to send their children there than there are places for them (

            Officials say there is only one such kindergarten for “budgetary” reasons; but the result is that many parents who want their children to remain in a Mari-speaking environment are tracked into a Russian-language one from the earliest years. As a result, these children are then continued in Russian schools rather than permitted to go to Mari-language schools.

            As a result, those who lead the Mari kindergarten say, “our children are being lost” to the Mari language and Mari nation after they finish that level of public education.

            Anna Vasiliyeva, one of the class leaders, says that “many Mari families speak Russian at home. Their children who come to the group and speak Mari after a year begin to speak Russian with Russian children. We answer them in Mari, of course, if we are asked questions in that language.”

            Parents who choose to send their children to the Mari-language kindergarten “do so completely consciously,” she continues. “In the main, these are arrivals from the villages. It is certainly easier to send their children to a national group” which is closer to them. But already it turns out that “they do not want their children to speak Mari.”

            Instead, according to her, “parents understand the function of the Mari kindergarten as a means of adaptation to the urban milieu where the Russian language predominates.”

            The situation has not always been like this, Lyubimov says. This kindergarten has existed since 1984 and in 1988 its leaders began pressing for study in Mari.  In the 1990s, most children had some knowledge of Mari, and class leaders hoped to extent this.  But beginning “approximately in 2010,” such opportunities began to contract.

            Mari-language teachers were reclassified as class leaders and replaced by Russian-language instructors, and the number of slots for pupils in Mari programs was reduced, supposedly for budgetary reasons. And that process is now feeding on itself, with fewer slots leading to fewer students and teachers leading to still fewer slots.

            Lidiya Ilina, a class leader in the only Mari-language kindergarten in Ioshkar-Ola, says that because there are no schools in Mari for most children, ever fewer parents want to send their children to Mari-language kindergartens like hers.  But she says many still do, and she works to get them admitted.

            “Parents who want to send their child to the Mari group appeal to me,” and I do what I can, informing them of vacancies when they occur. I know many parents very well; they are now sending to us their second or even third child.  Many acquaintances tell me that they would like to send children to us, but it is too far to travel and the places are all taken.”

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