Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Could the Internet be the Salvation of Non-Russians Living Beyond the Borders of Their Republics?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 3 – Non-Russians within the current borders of the Russian Federation have devoted enormous attention to the fate of their republics and languages and culture within those republics. But they have devoted far less to that of the large numbers of non-Russians who live beyond the borders of those ethnic territories.

            That is especially unfortunate because those who live outside the republics seldom have any state-funded support in the form of schools, media, or activities to support their languages, culture or identity and thus are far more subject to assimilatory pressures than are those within the republics, however much attention the latter do receive.

            And because in many cases, such as the Tatars of the Middle Volga, more of the members of the nationality live beyond the borders of their republics rather than within them, this lack of attention and support means that these peoples are increasingly at risk even if they manage to survive in the republics themselves.

            Moscow at present has no interest in supporting the linguistic or cultural needs of these groups. (In the first decades of Soviet power, it created numerous “national rural soviets” beyond the borders of the non-Russian republics but has since disbanded all of them.) And the non-Russian republics have neither the resources nor the permission of the center to act on their own.

            Indeed, many non-Russians in the republics have effectively written off their co-ethnics outside the republics, however much the former recognize the size and importance of the latter and however much they wish they could do something.  Thus, Bashkirs worry about Bashkirs elsewhere and so on.

            But there now may be a means for the non-Russian republics to reach out and support their co-ethnics beyond their borders: the Internet. Non-Russians living outside the republics may not be able to have schools or traditional media in their own languages, but they can use the Internet to maintain their language and culture.

            As Internet use expands, ever more people can get the support of their languages and cultures via the world wide web – and do so at remarkably low cost. After all, once a program is put online, it matters little how many people turn to it.  The Russian government is fully cognizant of these possibilities for Russians. Now some non-Russians are recognizing them.

            One recent example is from the Finno-Ugric Middle Volga republic of Mari El, a place known to be subject to enormous assimilatory pressures within its borders and whose co-ethnics beyond them are under even more enormous pressure to give up their national languages and cultures.

            In recent weeks, the Mari National-Cultural Center Maryi Ushem under the presidency of Raisiya Sungurova has been organizing online conferences to reach out to Maris across the republic and beyond, something an NGO like Maryi Ushem would have been able to do without the Internet (siapress.ru/conference/88100).

            Other non-Russian nations are doing the same, including in particular the Tatars, the Bashkirs, and the Circassians, to name but three.  Most of this activity has remained below the radar screen: those engaged in its likely don’t want Moscow to focus on what they are doing and inevitably try to stop it.

            But it deserves the attention of analysts concerned about the future of the Russian Federation and especially about the future of non-Russians within it for two important reasons. On the one hand, there will be feedback from the audience beyond the republics – and nationalists in general emerge not at the center of where a nation lives but outside.

            And on the other, this new technology may be the salvation of peoples who have long been written off by Moscow, their co-ethnics inside the Russian Federation, and Western analysts focusing on the nationality question there.   

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