Saturday, September 14, 2019

Udmurt Scholar’s Self-Immolation Highlights Increasing Despair Non-Russians Feel Under Putin Regime

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 10 – Albert Razin, 79, an Udmurt scholar, set himself aflame in front of the Udmurt legislature building today in order to call attention to what he said on a placard and in two open letters he distributed to passers-by was the destruction of his language and his nation as a result of Moscow’s policies. He died in hospital shortly thereafter.

            There is no tradition among the Udmurts of using suicide as a form of protest, but Razin clearly felt that this was the only way to attract attention to the situation created by Vladimir Putin’s making the study of non-Russian languages completely voluntary and one in which the non-Russians have few ways to fight back (

            Razin’s action did attract attention – Yandex lists more than 100 stories about his self-immolation and the issues of russification he raised.  In that sense, the Udmurt’s protest succeeded; but in another, it may have failed. Even in Udmurtia the authorities are trying to portray him as mentally unstable – and Moscow shows no sign of being willing to change.

            On his Facebook page, Razin described himself as “a teacher and sociologist, a candidate of philosophical sciences, a student of humanity and the peasantry, and a Tolstoyan” (Альберт-Разин/100034013405252). For 50 years, he had been a widely respected scholar who focused fo rural life in Udmurtia and on the Udmurt language, and for 30 years he had been at the forefront of the Udmurt national movement. 

            When Razin came arrived at the square in front of the Udmurt State Council, he was carrying a placard bearing the words of Daghestani poet Rasul Gamzatov -- “If my language will be forgotten tomorrow, I am prepared to die today” -- as well as two letters detailing his concerns about his nation and his program for addressing its needs (

            In addition, Razin was carrying two letters, copies of which his friends and associates distributed to people in the square.   The first, an eight-page missive t the State Council declared that “the Udmurt ethnos is disappearing [but] it is in our power to save it.”  In the 1920s, all Udmurts spoke Udmurt; now, only a third do, the letter said.

            And the future looks even more bleak as a result of Putin’s approach to non-Russian languages and republics. He called for the reversal of Putin’s decision to make the study of non-Russian languages in the republics voluntary, and he also demanded that Udmurtia send only a third of the taxes it collects to Moscow, using the rest to save the language and the villages.

            The second letter was addressed to Udmurtia’s representatives in the Russian State Duma and the chairman of the Udmurt Republic State Council Aleksey Prasolov. In it, Razin reminded them that “all empires are doomed to fall apart” and called on the elites of Russia and Udmurtia to adopt the approach to nationality problems Finland, Switzerland and other countries have.

            In many ways, these two letters and even his act of self-immolation was the natural culmination of a life devoted to defending a small nation against the depradations visited upon it by Moscoow.  Razin was born in 1940 and wrote a dissertation on the problems of the formation of the personalities of rural workers.

            According to his friend and colleague Leoonid Gonin,  Razin was deeply conservative and wanted to save what he could of the patriarchal society of the Udmurt past.  He believed that the Udmurts had a very ancient tradition in which they should take pride and use as a defense against those who would destroy the nation by russification.

            “His dream” in retirement, Gonin said, “was to make a trip to Israel and study how a kibbutz functions and works. One can say that the was a ruralist.” After his retirement which was occasioned by the destruction of the special group he formed to study the peasantry, Razin devoted his time to the Udmurt Kenesh national movement he had helped establish in the 1980s.

            Most of his friends and colleagues are in shock at his suicide and few of them think it will force Moscow to change curse, although they do believe that it will lead to move discussion about the problems of language and identity among non-Russians. (For indications this is happening, see among others,,,,,,, and

            But the senior officials in Moscow and Udmurtia who have commented on Razin’s actions so far have been dismissive, suggesting this was the step of a very old and possibly deeply unsettled individual and that the ideas Razin had put forward were without foundation (,  and

            Such attitudes are what one would expect in the Putin era, but the protest that Razin’s self-immolation represents is certain to be remembered long after they and the system they represent are long gone. At least, no one will be able to doubt that the non-Russians are not only angry about the Putin regime but are prepared to take extreme actions to protest against it. 

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