Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Not Content to Let Minority Languages Die, Moscow is Actively Killing Them, Buryat Activist Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, August 20 – “Russia is a country of dying languages,” a Buryat activist says, with “almost all the languages of the peoples of Russia figuring one way or another” in UNESCO’s “Red Book of Disappearing Languages.” But instead of protecting them as that international body hopes, Moscow is doing its best to kill them off.


            The best way to understand what is going on, Radzhana Dugarova says, is to think about what would happen if the Russian government instead of defending animals listed in the Red Book of animals at risk “began to give out hunting licenses” so that people could kill them off (


            That “is exactly what is happening now with Buryat,” she says. Indeed, one has the impression that “someone isn’t happy with the slow extinction of [that] language and wants to finish it off quickly.”  Even more tragically, she suggests, Buryat is far from the only language in Russia where that is the case.


            Dugarova attracted attention as one of the leaders of the effort to block Vladimir Putin’s plans to unite two Buryat autonomous districts with predominantly Russian oblasts rather than rejoin them to the Buryat republic as many Buryats wanted.  For much of the last decade, she has worked and taught abroad but has not taken political asylum so she can travel to her homeland.


Her basic focus now is in improving the conditions under which Buryats can learn and use their language. In the republic capital, she notes, there is “practically” no place for Buryat although she adds that she is happy to report that advocates for the language are “beginning to fill this lacuna.”


Dugarova says that the current Russian law which makes the study of Buryat voluntary rather than compulsory violates the constitution should be overturned as unconstitutional because any fair reading of it would also make the study of the Russian language by residents of the country voluntary as well. That would “destabilize the political and social situation in our republic.”


            “The question of language is a question of power or hegemony,” she says, and argues that those groups which do the most to defend their language will be in the best position to defend their rights in general.  Such “political struggle is part of the normal political process in  a democratic country and respect for minority rights … is a necessary condition of democracy.”


Buryats have been pressing for the restoration of a single Buryat republic since the late 1980s, she points out, even sending an open letter to Vladimir Putin pointing out the ways in which the dividing up of Buryatia and the political repressions of 1937 were closely interconnected. 


Buryat activists have never opposed administrative-territorial reforms as such but only argued that in carrying them out with respect to national minorities, the most important thing to do is to unite peoples who have been divided. The Buryats are one such people; the Circassians another; and there are many others as well.


Dugarova says that Mustafa Cemilev is “a courageous man and a true leader of the Crimean Tatars who have suffered resettlement thousands of kilometers from their homeland but have been able to preserve themselves as a people while living in an alien land for four decades. The Crimean Tatars had no reasons to struggle with the Ukrainian government.”


In conclusions, the Buryat activist says that she is put off by terms like “sovereign democracy.” A political system is “either a democracy or another type of regime,” adding that she “fears that we have passed the stage of authoritarianism and are rapidly falling into totalitarianism,” a tragedy for all peoples and not just the Buryats.





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