Monday, January 27, 2020

Decapitating a Nation: Not a Single Historian in Komi Speaks National Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 22 – Most evaluations of whether a non-Russian nation is losing or retaining its language are based on global figures, on the share of the total number of the nation which still speaks or has stopped speaking its native language. That is an important figure, but it is not as important as the loss of native language competence among key elites.

            That is because if the elites stop speaking the native language, the nations involved lose the intellectual and political leadership they need to survive or alternatively are forced to become either an ethnic group that is increasingly part of the dominant nation or alternatively a nation that speaks the dominant language but retains or even recovers its national identity.

            The first of these trends is what Moscow wants; the second is what some non-Russians hope for, convinced that they have the chance to become “the Irish of the Russian Empire,” given that the Irish not become nationalists until they gave up Gaelic and spoke English (

            The Irish option may be the only one left for some nations now within the current borders of the Russian Federation. But ever more non-Russians there are worried about the loss of their languages generally and especially about the loss of the use of their national languages by intellectuals and elites.

            The latest example is a discussion that took place this week in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, about the state of the Komi language among scholars. Organizers say it will be followed by sessions on Komi language by other professional categories in the population (

            What sparked interest in this subject, Komi scholars say, is that the last Komi folklorist was kept as a graduate student 19 years ago, and because of a recent death, there no longer remains a single historian in the republic who speaks Komi.  What that means, of course, is that the Komi and their history can be studied only indirectly and in the most superficial fashion.

            Aleksey Rassykhayev, a scholar at the Institute for Language, Literature and History of the Komi Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that all the fields in his area are experiencing serious problems with finding new cadres who know the national language and who are prepared to use and publish in it.

             That is the result of the declining number of pupils who study in Komi – last year only 160 graduated from secondary schools with that expertise – the ever smaller number who continue to study in university – last year only ten graduated with such degrees – and the ways in which those who do enter scholarly careers are forced to use Russian rather than Komi.

            The most prestigious journals are in Russian and an individual’s career depends on publishing there because that will mean his or her work will be attended to or at least cited by the community of scholars across the country or even more broadly. Those who publish in Komi will isolate, even ghettoize themselves.

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