Staunton, November 10 – More than a million fewer Kazan Tatars declared that they spoke their national language in the 2010 census than had done so eight years earlier, a “catastrophic decline” and one especially disturbing because their situation is better than that of many other non-Russian groups under Vladimir Putin, according to Ramazan Alpaut.
Almost all of this loss is among Tatars living beyond the borders of the Republic of Tatarstan in places where their language does not receive official support and where the share of the population speaking it is small as opposed to in the republic itself where the language has official support and where Tatar speakers form a large share of the population.
But even in Tatarstan, Tatar is under threat because of the “asymmetric” use of the language in public and because of the impact of the Unified State Examination that those leaving school must take in Russian, the North Caucasian ethnic activist and analyst says (onkavkaz.com/news/439-kak-ege-podryvaet-jazyki-narodov-rossii.html).
And that is a tragic mistake on Moscow’s part, he continues, because as Russian-language knowledge and use is declining in the Central Asian countries, the Russian government could use Tatar as it did more than a century ago as a bridge to those Turkic-speaking nations and thus transform what it now sees as “a risk” into something potentially valuable.
Alpaut begins with statistics: In 2010, there were 5.3 million Tatars in the Russian Federation as a whole of whom 4.3 million declared that they spoke Tatar. The latter figure, he points out, was 1,066,988 fewer than the one registered only eight years earlier, just under 20 percent of the total.
Almost all of that decline came outside of the republic: In 2002, there were 2,000,116 persons of Tatar nationality, while slightly more of the residents of the republic – 2,014.597 – said they spoke Tatar. Eight years later, there were 2,012,571 Tatars in the Republic of Tatarstan, and 1,965,498 of the republic’s residents said they spoke Tatar.
Why are Tatars outside of the republic speaking Tatar or at least declaring that they speak Tatar so many fewer in such a short time while Tatars inside the republic are holding their own? The answer, Alpaut says, reflects the policies of Moscow, on the one hand, and of Kazan, on the other.
Within the republic, Kazan is able to intervene in education, and even today “about half” of the schools have Tatar or one of the other Middle Volga languages as the language of instruction. Beyond its borders, however, there are almost no such schools because Moscow doesn’t support and allow for support of Tatar language education there.
But even within the republic, Moscow’s unified educational examination which must be taken in Russian and the public space where Russian dominates many areas are pushing parents to have their children educated in Russian so that they will do better on the test and have greater job prospects, Alpaut says.
Marat Gibatdinov, an expert on education in Tatarstan, says that “Tatars are not against the test as such but against the prohibition of giving the test in the native language for those who finished schools with their native language of instruction.” Earlier that had been possible, but now Moscow has banned such non-Russian versions of the test.
But as unfortunate as things are for the Tatars as a nation, Tatarstan as a republic as faar as “the defense of regional languages” is concerned “long ago became the driving force and example for the other regions of Russia,” Alpaut says.
He notes that specialists on Finno-Ugric languages like Konstantin Zamyatin say that “Kazan defends certain Finno-Ugric languages represented also in the Republic of Tatarstan much more effectively than where the speakers of these languages are members of the titular nationalities.”
Moscow had been under some pressure from the Council of Europe to be more supportive of non-Russian languages, but Russia’s turn away from the West has reduced the impact of this pressure significantly and left the non-Russian languages in a significantly worse position than they were earlier.
Alpaut concludes that “Russia, being a federative state, should revise its language policy regarding regional languages” and thus transform what it typically sees as a problem into an advantage as the experience of other bilingual or multilingual countries shows is not only possible but desirable.