Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mari El – Now ‘a National Republic in Name Only’ -- Shows Where Putin is Heading, Theater Director Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – Many people assume that the situation with non-Russian languages in the non-Russian republics was just fine before Vladimir Putin began his campaign to make the study of non-Russian languages there voluntary while insisting that the study of Russian be compulsory.

            But in fact, in none of them were the non-Russian languages being adequately supported by the authorities; and in some, the language of the titular nationality was being actively suppressed by those in power.  Perhaps the worst case of all was in Mari El, a republic where Putin’s proposed policy in fact was put in place already 18 years ago.

            In 2000, Vasily Pekteyev, the director of the Mari National Theater, recalls, Leonid Markelov became republic head. He “simply hated the Maris” and did everything he could to destroy the language and culture of its people. Now, he is in prison but not for this greatest of crimes (

            Regions where there were no ethnic Russians but only Mari nonetheless were compelled to drop the Mari language as a compulsory subject and use Russian instead from kindergartens on up. And the republic government over the last 18 years has further threatened the survival of the Mari language and people by not supporting the study of the language at all.

            There is now no agreed-upon method of teaching it, Pekhteyev says; and in the courses where pupils do study it, they are given good grades even when they do not deserve them so that the authorities can argue that there is no need for instruction because as Putin’s supporters like to insist, they are learning the language at home.  That is unfortunately not the case.

            “In Mari villages, instruction in kindergartens takes place in Russian, in part because of the lack of foresight and passivity of parents. There can’t be a single Russian in these villages, but instruction in the kindergartens and schools is in that language,” the Mari theater director continues.

            “It seems to me,” he says, that there is no countrywide nationality policy. In some republics, such as Chuvashia or Tatarstan, things have not gone this far. They still have kindergartens, schools and media in the language of the titular nationality. But Mari El, since the arrival of Markelov, shows where things are heading.

            “Before his appointment, the names of villages and towns in the republic were written in two languages. Now, all names are only in Russian. You go into any school in a Mari village, where Russian is not a native language for any child and find that all information in the school from ‘welcome’ at the entrance to everything else is in Russia

            According to Pekhteyev, “some schools have dropped Mari altogether. This happened 15 years ago.” That creates “an unhealthy situation: many Maris would like their children to study Mari from kindergarten on.” They aren’t happy that the children now can’t. “This is always a precursor of future conflicts.”

            “The national idea cannot be that everyone will become an [ethnic] Russian,” he says. (emphasis supplied) “It seems to me that there must be a respectful interaction among people and that we must remember the full name of our country: the Russian Federation, a federative state.” It should be one in which conditions will exist for all peoples to keep their language and culture.”

            Neither the Maris nor the ethnic Russians in the republic parliament will speak up. Both want to keep their jobs. The Maris fear they will lose their positions if they do, and the Russians are mostly happy to go along with what the powers that be want so they can keep getting their salaries, he says.

            What this means is that “Mari El is already not a national republic. It is just called that. Instead, it is one of the oblasts, a region like others. We are the 12th region. [All Russian regions are numbered by Moscow.] We have no national television; there is only Russian TV of ‘the 12th region.’”

            The people Moscow sends to run the non-Russian republics have never worked there. “They perhaps are good administrators, but they are from a Russian milieu having worked in Russian oblasts. They’ve never encountered the problems of the national republics.” And there is no one who can honestly advise them.

                Those Maris who do cooperate with the regime are “more accustomed to fulfill directives from above than to ever have their own point of view. These are completely unprincipled but very good executors. As they say, command people.” If they ever spoke out, they know they would be fired or otherwise placed on “’black lists.’” 

            As for the Mari people, it is “unorganized. Everyone is focused on his own immediate tasks. Now people are focused on issues of survival.” And they keep quiet as the bosses want. For the latter, “the most important thing is that there be no problems. And if with us, everything is quiet, that means that everything is fine.”

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