Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Can the 50 Smallest Nationalities of the Russian Federation Be Saved from Extinction?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 29 – The Russian Human Rights Council is appealing to Vladimir Putin to take immediate action to save “the approximately 50 peoples of the Russian Federation” that “today are under threat of disappearing,” an appeal that highlights a problem the Kremlin leader has given lip service to in the past but in general has done nothing to address.

            One of the authors of the report, Andrey Babushkin, told Ekaterina Trifonova of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that the possible loss of these peoples “is not only a cultural but a political problem” because it threatens the multi-national nature of the country, something enshrined in the 1993 Constitution (ng.ru/politics/2016-11-29/1_6871_etnos.html).

            Drawing on official statistics, the report notes that of the 156 languages spoken by indigenous peoples of Russia in the 19th century, “seven have already died out, and the same fate now threatens several others.”  Yug, a non-literary paleo-Asiatic language in the Yenisei valley, for example, had 131 speakers in 2002, but “today already no one speaks it.”

            Babushkin blames this pattern on “the low effectiveness of state policy in support of numerically small indigenous peoples” despite Putin’s “repeated” talk about “the need for the preservation of ethnic multiplicity.” However, “the majority of the ‘dying’ languages as before have not been given regional or even local status.”

                According to the Human Rights Council, “the Russian authorities are not interested in the preservation of national dialects” because they believe that children who study them will find it more difficult to achieve their personal goals in a Russian-dominated country and will be “subject to discrimination.”

            That attitude which is behind the closure of Karel language kindergartens in Karelia “ignores international experience with bilingualism,” Babushkin says. But because of it, “among children of the numerically small indigenous peoples of the North only 47 percent study their native language as an independent subject and only three percent as an optional one.”

            Moreover, officials have refused to create an official Red Book of indigenous numerically small peoples as many other countries have.  And despite numerous calls, they have blocked the inclusion of such groups as the Pomors, the Karaims, and the Krymchaks on semi-official listings of ethnic groups in trouble.

            The Human Right Council is calling on Putin to push for a law “on the preservation of the national and linguistic multiplicity of the peoples of Russia” that would, among other things classify the smallest groups in terms of the threats they face to their survival now and in the future.

            The first of these groups would be those at risk but still having more than 10,000 members/speakers; the second would include those at risk but having fewer than 10,000 in them; and the third would include those having 100 to 1000 members/speakers and thus being at risk of disappearing if nothing is done immediately.

            The fourth group, those which are dying out now, would include groups having fewer than 100 members/speakers.  The Human Rights Council would like more to be done for all these groups but especially for the last, “but only,” the Moscow journalist notes, “if they do not conduct an amoral way of life.” 

            For those language communities at the edge of extinction or that have already died out, the Council calls for special efforts to collect and preserve linguistic and ethnic data and to identify those who may be linked with these groups who could then be offered subsidies in order to revive these languages.

            In addition, Trifonova reports, the body is calling for a number of other measures: the inclusion in the list of numerically small peoples of Russia of the Pomors, Ainu, Karaims, Krymchaks “and others;” the creation of a special advisor to governors on the defense of minority language rights; the establishment of a register of those who could teach these languages; the setting of special quotas for minorities to get into universities; and the preparation of textbooks.

            Few of these proposals are likely to be adopted at a time of budgetary stringency and one when the Kremlin is celebrating the unity rather than the diversity of “the Russian nation.”  But this appeal highlights something some Moscow experts and officials deny: numerous languages and the nations which speak them are dying out in Russia even though they could be saved.

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