Monday, November 19, 2018

Putin’s Language Reform Unexpectedly Giving Republics Chance to Promote Regional Identities

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 19 – Vladimir Putin and most Russians certainly expected that his new language policy, one that makes the study of Russian a requirement while the study of the titular languages in the non-Russian republics completely voluntary, would result in a simple shift away from the republics toward the country as a whole.

            But Russians in the republics are discovering that the situation is not so simple because even if republic ministries of education can no longer require the study of the titular languages, they can and do insist that students study local history and geography, subjects that in many cases promote precisely the regional and even republic identities Putin wants to destroy.

            According to Anna Smirnova of the Nakanune news agency, “the transition to the voluntary study of languages has become a real test for the Republic of Bashkortostan. Some schools have been able to free Russian-language children from Bashir; others have replaced it with new subjects: local studies, Ufa studies, and the history and culture of Bashkortostan” (

            And still a third group of schools has refused to change the existing arrangements and have given “an ultimatum” to parents: “study Bashkir or go somewhere else.”  Some of this reflects the speed with which the Russian government has sought to introduce the Putin-ordained voluntary study of languages other than Russian. 

            But it means that now and perhaps for some years to come, Russian-speaking children will be freed from studying the titular language of the republic but will be required to study local history and culture, likely taught by many of the teachers who had earlier taught Bashkir and reflecting their views.

            Many Russian parents are unhappy with this situation, Smirnova says; but her report suggests that Moscow will have to double or quits, imposing far more control over curricula than it does not in order to make the shift in language use achieve what Putin clearly has indicated he wants.

            If that doesn’t happen, the non-Russian republics have options to promote knowledge about themselves even among those who don’t want to study their titular languages – and that in turn means that the impact of the shift in language, while profound, may not be as unidimensional or quick as Moscow would like.

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