Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Moscow Wants to Strip Republic Languages of ‘State’ Status’ and Make Them Only ‘Official’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 1 – A speaker at an online conference on Russian language policy have called for forcing the non-Russian republics to stop referring to their titular languages as “state” languages and instead reduce them to the status of “official” ones, something that would open the way to further reductions in their use.

            On February 16, the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Federation, held a meeting at which the only speaker, Dmitry Bondarenko, a senior scholar at the Federal Center for Education Law, made this proposal ( in Tatar; now available in Russian at

            In the course of a three-hour presentation, Bondarenko said there is no need and even harm in having so many languages declared “state” languages and that in his view there should be a new law that would establish a single “state” language (Russian), “official” languages for the titular nations of the republic and other languages of numerically small peoples.

            “Today,” he continued, “our scholarly community is beginning to understand that the presence in one country of 34 state languages can be a potential threat to state policy” and that this threat must and can be eliminated because there is no need for more than one language to be a “state” language.

            No other country on earth has such a number of languages with differing statues, Bondarenko said. Russia has 193 peoples who speak 277 languages and dialects, a school system in which 81 are used, and a complete absence of laws regulating this for the country as a whole. Instead, each republic and region deals with this issue in its own way.

            Part of the reason for this, he argued, is that the laws governing such questions are out of date, having been adopted in 1991 and 2005. What is needed now is a new law that will establish a single matrix for the resolution of such questions, one that will leave Russian as the only “state” language.

            Such legislation would also help overcome two other problems. It would eliminate a situation in which all languages except Russian are referred to as “native,” and it would end any notion that the languages of the republics have a status at all comparable to that of Russian, the single state language of the country.

            Bondarenko suggested that such a law would also eliminate something he finds objectionable. In Ingushetia, the republic constitution specifies that the Ingush language, along with the hymn, coat of arms and flag are defined as symbols of statehood. “Why should such a status not be established for the Russian language in the Constitution?” he asked.

            The Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Liberty asked two experts for their reaction. Rafael Khakimov, a prominent Kazan historian and former advisor to the Tatarstan president, says that “Moscow is continuing its games with languages” and that “depriving Tatar of state-language status would lead to a return to Soviet times.”

            “First a law on the impermissibility of the forced study of native languages was adopted,” he says, “and now, Moscow wants to reduce the status of the latter relative to Russian in order to justify less support for non-Russian languages and an expanded drive toward Russianization and Russification.

            And Midkhat Farukshin, a scholar at the Kazan Federal University, says that may very well be what Moscow would like to do but that to reach that point, it will have to amend the Russian Constitution because that document gives the republics rights with regard to languages that Bondarenko and those who agree with him want to take away.

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