Saturday, May 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Law Likely to Kill Off 70 Percent of Russia’s Indigenous Languages

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 11 – Seventy of the 100 smaller indigenous languages of the Russian Federation are likely to die in the coming years in large measure as a result of the provision of President Vladimir Putin’s law that says no non-Russian language should be taught if doing so might haves a negative impact on competence in Russian.

                According to the law, which Putin signed on New Year’s eve, supporters of the minority languages say, “teaching of non-Russian languages should not be promoted or implemented if this damages the teaching of the Russian language” ( and

            Anja Salo, one of those activists, says that it is uncertain just how the new law, scheduled to go into effect on September 1, will be applied, but its provisions “are “a matter of deep concern because they “could be a real setback for the revitalization of indigenous peoples’ culture and the languages of the Russian north.”

            One of those already worried is Nadezhna Petrovna, who teaches Vepsian in Petrazavodsk and who told “Barents Observer” that she is very much afraid that “our language will die” as a result of the new law (

            The teacher has only four students in her Vepsian class, and many of them say that their parents have already forgotten that language. At present, there are some 6,000 Vepsy in the Russian Federation, of whom 4,000 live in Karelia, mostly in rural villages along the Finnish border.

            According to Petrovna, many Vepsy who live in Petrozavodsk “don’t want their children to learn the native indigenous language” because they “don’t understand how Vepsian language can help their children get a good job in the future.  They just don’t see the value in learning a small language” when school exams and jobs require Russian.

            “If interest continues to fall,” she said, “we are afraid that we won’t be able to teach the language at all. My biggest fear is that the language will die.”

            The obstacles to the survival of Vepsian in Russia are enormous.  “To be able to study Vepsian at the university,” the teacher points out, “you need to pass an English exam, but if your first language is Russian, your second is Vepsian and your third is Finnish, it is extremely hard to get a good mark in English as well.”

            Declining enrollment in Vepsian classes led officials at the University of Karelia to close the Vepsian and Karelian faculty last year, but at the end of last month, they agreed to set up in its place a combined Faculty of Finnish, Vepsian and Karelian.”

            But Petrovna is guardedly optimistic: “I still think that the Vepsian language has a chance to survive. The youth are interested in learning the language [and] some of them have started a theater group in Vepsian,” a step that is critical for making “kids interested in learning Vepsian in the future.”

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