Friday, August 16, 2019

Moscow's Push for Russification and Republics’ Inability to Resist Speeding Up Demise of Circassian and Other Non-Russian Languages, Khakuasheva Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 14 – Moscow’s push for the assimilation of non-Russians under the guise that Russian can be the native language of these nations and the inability or unwillingness of republic leaders to fight back is accelerating the demise of Circassian and other non-Russian languages, Madina Khakuasheva says.

            In a 2500-word article expanding on a talk she gave in May, the senior researcher at the Kabardino-Balkar Institute for Research on the Humanities addresses this combined threat to the future of non-Russian languages in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic and more generally (

            Khakuasheva says the notion that non-Russians can give up their native languages and speak Russian without a risk to their national existence, one promoted by Academician Valery Tishkov and accepted by Vladimir Putin, is simply wrong: “In the national republics and regions, the only objective sign of national identity is native language: all other markers are derivative.”

            Tishkov, longtime director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and a nationalities minister in the 1990s, has been pushing this idea for a long time, the Circassian scholar says, most prominently in two articles, one of 2008 and a second from 2017 ( and

            In them, Tishkov makes the following argument: “First, Russia is a state with a population consisting of many nations and in this is its radical distinction from other countries of the world. Second, Russia is a nation state of Russian nation with minorities, the members of whom can become Russian or recognize the state-forming status of the Russians.”

            And “third,” the Moscow scholar says, “Russia is a nation state with a multi-ethnic Russian nation, the basis of which consists of Russian culture and language and in which are included representatives of other Russian nationalities (peoples).”

            “Characteristically,” Khakuasheva says, “all of these definitions are more than doubtful: First, Russia, in ‘consisting of many nations’ hardly differs from other multi-national countries and particularly more ‘radically;” there are more nations in such countries as India, Brazil and Indonesia.”

            Second, what Tishkov says is less a description of existing reality than “an assertive promise of Russification.” And his third point “does not leave any hope for ‘the equality of subjects of the Russian Federation as established and guaranteed by Paragraph 65 of the Constitution.”

            In the 1990s, Moscow did not push for Russianization or Russification in the ways that Tishkov and now Putin want; and the leaderships of the non-Russian republics did what they could to promote the survival or even growth of non-Russian languages by boosting their teaching in the schools and their role in public life.

            But in the last decade, Khakuasheva says, Moscow has been pushing for the expansion of Russian and the contraction of non-Russian languages a la Tishkov and the republic leaders either because they no longer have the chance or resources to defend the titular languages or because they no long want to aren’t resisting pressure from the center.

            To make her point, she offers a variety of statistics about the state of language instruction in Kabardino-Balkaris.  In the 1990s, there were 50 slots at the republic’s leading university for those studying Circassian language and literature. In 2012-2013, that number fell to 38 and now stands at 25. Only 15 were admitted in 2018, and only 17 n 2019.

            Until 2000, there was a special arrangement for the study of these subjects by correspondence, and 50 people each year were enrolled, Khakuasheva reports. But that program has been cancelled. Until 1997, there were four courses for teachers to improve their ability to teach the language. That program has been cut back to an inadequate level.

            As of 2018, the government announced it was opening centers to improve the teaching of Circassian and Balkar at the university; “but they still are not functioning” and no one knows when or even if they will be. Other training courses at the Palace of Pioneers, she continues, “have stopped functioning.”

            The republic government plans to graduate 50 new Kabardin (Circassian) language teachers a year. But it has not admitted any since 2010 or graduated any since 2014.That means that there are no replacements for those who retire or leave the profession, and the teaching of the language is at risk.

            Many comfort themselves with the idea that Kabardin or Balkar are staying alive in the villages, but that is a false hope. Yes, people there retain kitchen versions of the languages but they do not know the literary versions of their native tongues.  Between 2012 and 2018, there were no candidates for best Circassian novel of the year.

            “Without a literature, any language is condemned to degradation,” Khakuasheva says. “This means that at the present stage it is impossible to speak about the full-scale functioning of the Kabardin and Balkar languages even in the villages. Most young people aged 17 to 30 do not read, do not listen to the radio in their native languages and do not visit national theaters.”

            Instead, the scholar says, “present-day young people find information primarily on computers and gadgets which are translated throughout the entire space of the Russian Federation in Russian.” As a result, “in cities,” they show “an ignorance or poor knowledge of their native language and a satisfactory knowledge of Russian.”

            But “in the villages,” they manifest “a knowledge of their native language only at the kitchen level and on the whole an unsatisfactory level of knowledge of Russian.” That means the educational system must offer a different balance of courses for those in the cities and those in the countryside.

            Other statistics on language use are equally or even more dire, Khakuasheva says. Up until 2000, the average textbook in the KBR and the KChR was issued in 6,000 copies. By 2010, that number had fallen to about 3,000; and now it is under 2,000.  Print runs of newspaper in Circassian up to 2000 were 5,000; now they are 2200. And where they were published five days a week, they are now published only three times a week.

            Moreover, the only journal in Circassian (Elbrus) has fallen from a print run of 3,000 in 2000 to 1900 now. Books in Kabardin are issues in print runs of 300 to 500 copies; there is a crisis in the Kabarin theater; and “there is not one functioning movie house in Circassian, Khakuasheva says.

            In 2001, Moscow signed the UN Charter on Numerically Small Languages. But today 18 years later, the Russian government has not yet ratified it. “This means,” the KBR scholar says, “that all this time the state has avoided taking responsibility for the preservation and development of the native languages of its indigenous peoples.”

            In all the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation, the titular languages are in trouble, and the actions of the center and the inaction of the republic governments is making things worse, leading to ‘a sharp fall in the general level of native languages,”  one that points to their demise in a generation or two.

            “The problem of the crisis of North Caucasus languages and cultures can be explained in many cases by general globalization. But in fact, the cause is not so much that than in the distant but destructive consequences of the Russian-Caucasus War, which has become taboo” for many officials, ideologists and Russian scholars.

            According to Khakuasheva, “at present, the problem of a crisis of identity has arisen,” because of the problems those with poor knowledge of their native language have both socially and psychologically when they must deal with those who speak it rather than Russian. Indeed, this crisis has grown into an “existential” one.

            What is to be done? The KBR scholar calls for lobbying the national interests of the native peoples of the Russian Federation at the state and regional levels in the frameworks oof the constitutions” and to speak about “the real advantages” that can be obtained by bilingualism” rather than a shift to a single language.

            Khakuasheva says that at a time of crisis, the peoples of the Russian Federation retain “a saving ethno-centrism which instantly comes into play following an outburst of chauvinism. Ethnocentrism bears a defensive, compensatory character. It is a responsive reaction and a form of resistance” to chauvinist behavior by the majority.

            “At the present time,” she concludes, “compensatory ethnocentrism is being experienced by all the peoples of the Russian Federation, including the Circassian world split apart at the time of the Russian-Caucasus war. It represents an attempt to regain lost national foundations, including a disappearing language, maintaining ethnic integrity, and overcoming the dramatic situation of the Circassians in the historical motherland and diaspora.”

            “The return of democracy is the single real alternative to today’s destructive trends,” she argues. “However, taking into account compensatory ethnocentrism, democracy in all probability will take on a national coloration. Such a prospect is the only chance for the return and preservation of the moral core in Circassian culture.”

            That is because, Khakuasheva says, “over the course of a long historical evolution, [Circassan culture] has governed the development of the people in the framework of adyge khabze, the etiquette of the Circassians, which always presupposed and presupposes now a genuine humanitarian course of development of the individual and society.”

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