Friday, February 22, 2019

Kremlin’s Strategy for Non-Russians: Make Their Languages and Then Their Speakers Unnecessary

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 22 – Vasily Nikolayev, the founder and moving spirit behind the Estonia-based Mari language website MariUver, says that the greatest threat to his Finno-Ugric nation is not the direct attacks on its language by making its study voluntary but rather the ways in which Moscow works to make the Mari language “unnecessary” to its speakers.

            As Maris find that they can live their lives without using their national language, he says, they first give it up and then give up their national identity and begin to assimilate exactly what the Russian authorities want and something that presages the approaching death of the language and the nation if nothing changes soon (

            Some of these Russian efforts are blunt like making the study of Mari voluntary or requiring school-leaving examinations be taken in Russian. Others are more subtle like higher prices for Mari language publications than for Russian ones because the latter can take advantage of higher print runs and more advertising.

            But in the end, all too many Maris conclude that it is just easier to use Russian and go along, not recognizing that giving up their language is another step to giving up their national identity and their status as the titular nation of a republic. If this process continues, there will be no Maris in Mari El.

            His MariUnver portal, Nikolayev says, is intended to slow this process and encourage Maris to recognize the threat and take action to reverse it.   But web portals cannot turn the tide in the face of all the other weapons the Russians deploy. And census data show that at the present time, the Russians are winning and the Maris are not. 

            Nikolayev’s points apply to other non-Russians as well. In an article in today’s Caucasus Post, Vlada Kirilllina says that Putin’s decision to make the study of non-Russian languages of the republics entirely voluntary “emasculates” the ethnic dimension of the regions (

                And that in turn, she and other ethnic activists in the North Caucasus say, has the ultimate effect of eliminating the justification for the republics as such and even the survival of the nations themselves.  Ever more non-Russians recognize this threat, Kirillina suggests; but they are fighting an unequal battle against a center that wants to make their languages and them “unnecessary.”

            Just how great a threat this is was underscored yesterday by Ildar Gilmutdinov, the chairman of the Duma’s committee on nationality affairs. He says that 25 languages in Russia are already “at the brink of disappearing” and another 25 are approaching that state (

            Russian officials typically play down this threat, saying as Valery Tishkov does that no non-Russian nationality has disappeared in Russia in the last century or reporting as does the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs that over the last 150 years the country has lost only “14 rare languages,” figures that many scholars would dispute.

            Gilnutdinov says that there is currently “a crisis in the nationality schools.” Many textbooks need to be written, and for some languages, writing systems need to be developed. “The regions themselves are not able to cope with these challenges, and in this case, the federal center must come to their assistance and provide support in this work.”

            Unfortunately, the Putin regime is moving in exactly the opposite direction, cutting support for most non-Russian programs and thus doing what it can to make the languages those programs support “unnecessary” for their speakers, a clear signal to them that as far as the Kremlin are concerned, they are “unnecessary” too. 

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