Saturday, June 18, 2016

Rapid Dying Out of Russia’s Smaller Language Groups a ‘Politicized Myth,’ Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 18 – Predictions by UNESCO and others about the rapid withering away of the majority of the smaller language communities in Russia and elsewhere are “a myth,” and campaigns to save them are “strongly politicized,” according to Academician Valery Tishkov, former Russian nationalities minister and former director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology.

            In a new article, “Languages of the Nation” (in Russian, Vestnik Rossiiskoy Akademii Nauk, 86:4 (2016), pp. 291-303; at, he says that no language (but “two or three dialects”) died in Russia in the 20th century and that few of the 116 languages spoken in the Russian Federation that UNESCO has identified as being at risk in fact are.

            Tishkov’s statements are important because of his continuing influence in Russian political and academic life, and consequently, it is important to note not only his sweeping and, from the point of view of many, highly ideological judgment about the UNESCO findings but also his specific statements about the situation in Russia today.

            Among his most important observations are the following:

·         “In the course of the colonization of Siberia and other regions of the empire variants of aboriginal languages could disappear but it is hardly possible to agree that a hundred years ago, there were in this region significantly more languages than now.”

·         With the absorption of ethnic groups into Russia, there has been “the transition of a significant part if not the majority of representatives of numerically small peoples to Russia” and, with a few exceptions, this process has been a “voluntary” one.

·         A “one-sided concern” with preserving language spoken by relatively small numbers of people contradicts the interests of the currently existing civic nations in preserving their linguistic unity and defending the status of ‘big’ (dominant) languages.”

·         “One must and can speak about the equal rights of languages but not about their equality.”

·         The Russian language now serves as a barrier to the untrammeled spread of English among speakers of the numerically small languages.

·         “For the majority of the non-Russian population of Russia the chief language of knowledge and communication … is the Russian language and not the language which corresponds to the ethnic identification of the individual.”

·         “With the formation of the new Russia, the old federalism in the republics and autonomous oblasts and districts acquired new content but its essence remained” as in Soviet times.  Thirty-five non-Russian languages have obtained the status of state languages on the territory where they are primarily spoken.

·         Approximately a quarter of the population of the Russian Federation is the product of ethnically mixed marriages and typically speaks at least two languages.

·         “The growth in the number of ethnic categories of the Russian population (128 in 1989, 157 n 2002, and 193 in 2010)” was not only the result of greater freedom of choice but “also of group ethnic lobbying, an increase in the number of immigrants, and corrections in the way census forms were processed.

·         “In my opinion,” Tishkov says, the majority of those languages in Russia that UNESCO says are at risk of disappearance aren’t.

·         Having a territorial republic in which the titular nationality is dominant is the best predictor of high levels of native language retention.  The most Russianized of the republic nationalities are the Karelians, the Kalmyks, the Udmurts, and the Mordvins.

·         Local officials often reidentify members of very small nationalities into larger ones in order to boost the standing of the latter.  Thus, “the Avarization and Darginization of almost 20 peoples” has occurred in Daghestan. 

·         In Daghestan, there really are nationalities at risk of disappearance. They include the Akhvakhs, the Botlikhs, the Godoberdis, the Gunukkhs, that Kaytagis, that Karatis, the Kubachis, and the Tindalis. 

·         Among the numerically small peoples of the Russian north, “about 20” language communities are now so small or their remaining speakers so old that they are at risk of disappearing.




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