Saturday, July 24, 2021

Can a Single Collection of Stories Save a Minority Language in Russia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 17 – It is a mark of the precarious existence of some of the numerically small languages in the Russian Federation that some officials and commentators are prepared to suggest, as they have just now, that the publication of a single collection of stories in those languages “gives a chance for the preservation of the numerically small languages” there.

            That is the claim made by Svetlana Makhmudova, a Daghestani philologist and ethnic Rutul, who has been collecting stories from her nation since childhood and has now published the first collection of them. She points out that Rutul did not have an officially recognized alphabet until the 1990s (

            And she says the book could not have appeared without the efforts of Gilles Authier, a Sorbonne expert on the languages of the North Caucasus, who has gathered materials from Rutul communities in Daghestan and in northern Azerbaijan, and of Rutuls studying at Dagehstan State University.

            At present, Makhmudova says, “even in distant mountain Rutul settlements, children now speak Russian.” But the positive reaction to the book suggests that there are many among the 35,000 Rutuls of Daghestan who want to save their language and see this collection of stories as a way to do that, even though the UN has identified Rutul as a language at risk of disappearing.

            There have been several scholarly studies of Rutul in recent years; but she says that her book, as one directed at the population, can do a lot to help keep the language alive not only for the Rutuls of Daghestan for the approximately 20,000 Rutuls who live across the border in Azerbaijan.

            Authier adds that unfortunately “not only Rutul stories but those of other small peoples of Daghestan have not been studied as much as they should.” For some of these, the French scholar says, publishing collections like this one may come too late but that doesn’t mean that those who care about such people should not try.

            Davud Suleymanov, a deputy in Daghestan’s Popular Assembly who provided the funding for this publication, says he is “certain that the collection will help preserve the Rutul language.” It has already attracted interest not only among the Rutuls of Daghestan and Azerbaijan but further afield as well.

            Shaban Mazanayev, a philologist at Daghestan State University, agrees. He calls for using these collections to support programs on television and the Internet to reach a larger number of people and thus support the survival of the Rutuls. And he argues that the publication of such collections should be extended to other languages at risk.

            This report provokes two reactions. On the one hand, it is an indication that there are people in the Russian Federation who are prepared to devote themselves to the continued existence of minority languages. But on the other, it is a sign of just how precarious the status of many of them now is given that experts are prepared to say a single book can save a people.

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