Friday, April 12, 2019

Can Ordinary People Save the Non-Russian Languages? Some Activists Think So

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 11 – Vasily Kharitonov and Fyodor Alekseyev, two of the founders of the Country of Languages project, argue that ordinary citizens can in fact do a lot to help save non-Russian languages at a time when Moscow is reducing state spending on them by dropping the requirement that they be required courses in the non-Russian republics.

            But in an extensive interview with the Nazaccent portal, the two point to three problems that need to be overcome, all of which arise from the fact that “language activists” almost always come from urban areas while most of the speakers of non-Russian languages are rural (

            First, the activists focus on the Internet, something almost everyone in the cities is connected to but that many in rural areas are not. Second, their portals focus on issues of the day that may be of interest to urbanites but aren’t to many in rural areas. And third, there is a huge disconnect between the size of the problem and support for it.

            If the non-Russian languages are to be saved, they suggest, activists must build on the remaining speakers and extend their practice into other groups by talking about issues of the widest possible concern. As the two put it, a Buryat site on beauty salons or one on Vietnamese cookery is more useful than one on politics.

            That requires looking beyond the urban milieu from which the activists spring. Otherwise, however much they appear to be doing, they are speaking only to each other and not doing much to promote the spread of the languages they hope to keep alive, Kharitonov and Alekseyev say.

            And they need to find new ways to “monetarize” their Internet efforts, attracting sponsors from the business community. That is the only way forward given the size of the task and the lack of money and support from the government, but it is not something that appears to guide the work of many activists at present, the two say.

            On the one hand, this interview reflects the combined interests of activists in maintaining these languages and of Russian officials in suggesting to the Russian-speaking community – and this interview was not surprisingly in Russian – that private efforts can be sufficient to do the job, thus letting Moscow off the hook.

            And on the other, it is a clear indication of the defensive position language activists have now assumed given the size of the task and the difficulties of overcoming both their own visions which are limited by their urban backgrounds and the end of the requirement for the study of these languages in public schools.

            To be sure, there is much language activists can do to popularize the non-Russian languages; but the task is both larger and more difficult than many of them imagine – and the steps they are taking, the two activists suggest, often look far more impressive than they are, exactly what the Russianizers and Russifiers hope. 

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