Staunton, December 22 – Events in Ukraine have intensified concern among both Russians and non-Russians in the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation about the role their respective languages should have with each side now viewing any concession to the other as potentially damaging not only to its linguistic concerns but also to its ethnic interests.
In November, Natalya Fyodorova recounts in the current issue of “Sovershenno-Sekretno,” disputes about languages in Ukraine prompted a congress of Russian educators to demand that Russian be given the status of a native language in addition to that of a state language in Russia (http://www.sovsekretno.ru/articles/id/4505/).
That change would mean that Russian speakers in the non-Russian republics would have even more chances to opt out of non-Russian language instruction in the schools and to challenge the requirements in some republics that those seeking government jobs now the language of the titular republic involved.
Speaking to the Moscow meeting, Mikhail Bogdanov, the vice president of the St.Petersburg Parents Committee, said that this had to happen becaue the current situation is one which has been giving rise to problems for a long time and may soon create a crisis “on the background of what is occurring in Ukraine.”
As it has been on so many issues, Tatarstan is both the bellwether of changes in nationality policy and the place where conflicts over it have tended to break out earlier and more clearly than in other smaller non-Russian republics, according to Fyodorova who said that is why she has been examining the situation there.
“Like all langauges with the exception of Russian, the Tatar language suffered a great deal in Soviet times,” being driven out of official life almost completely. At the moment of the dissolution of the USSR, there was only one Tatar gymnasium. But then the situation began to change with Tatar officials seeking to promote Tatar in ways that Russians felt threatened Russian.
One pro-Russian analyst in Kazan, Rais Suleymanov, described this as “a period of national revenge.” “If under Soviet power, Tatar was studied in city schools only as an optional subject, now just as much time is devoted to Tatar as to Russian” and that is something most Russians and some Tatars oppose.
On the one hand, as Tatar scholars like Rafael Khakimov acknowledge, the Tatar textbooks are very poor, having been written by linguists rather than educational specialists: there simply weren’t any of them available and few are being trained. And on the other, parents of children of both nationalities worry about the consequences of this shift on future prospects.
The reason for such conerns, Fyodorova says, is tha the introduction in 2008 of a standard graduation examination in Russian meant that those who had gone to school in predominantly Russian oblasts and krays had a certain advantage over those who had studied in non-Russian republics like Tatarstan.
The former were given more hours of Russian instruction and thus were able to do better on these tests. Most Russians, even those sympathetic to the minorities, did not want to see their children’s prospects suffer as a result of such language policies. And many non-Russians preferred to see their children get ahead rather than spend time on a language they might not use.
Not only did such Tatar parents recognize that their children could easily live in Tatarstan, at least in the cities, their entire lives without having to speak a word of Tatar, but they recognized that Tatar, thanks to the Soviet system, lagged behind Russian in absorbing new foreign words from English.
Thus, Tatar and other non-Russian languages as well have been subject to a double hit, but precisely because they have been many nationalists are arguing that the system has to be changed to ensure that their languages and thus their nations do not die. That in turn has provoked some Russians and now, thanks to the Ukrainian events, it is moving toward the boiling point.
Proponents of each side are digging in: the Tatars because they see their language under threat – in 2012 only 43 percent of Tatar pupils studied in Tatar, down from 48 percent in 2009 – and Russian speakers because they see their children’s prospects restricted if Tatar instruction is maintained or increased.
And while Kazan officials and activists insist that ethnic peace is more important to them than anything else, the situation that is emerging there and likely in other republic capitals as well suggests that keeping the peace is going to be increasingly difficult – especially given what is happening in and being said about the situation in Ukraine.