Staunton, May 22 – Matvey Neronov, a Karelian, is studying his own national language precisely because the Bolsheviks imprisoned or even shot his ancestors after forcing them to re-identify as Russians and then shooting those who continued to speak the Lyudik dialect he is now learning.
But the number of Karelians following his lead remains small and has not been enough to keep the Karelians and their language from declining to the point that their future remains bleak. Between 2010 and 2021, their number fell from 60,815 to 32,422; and specialists say the disappearance of their language is now almost inevitable (severreal.org/a/po-paltsam-odnoy-ruki-chislo-karelov-za-11-let-snizilos-pochti-v-dva-raza/32412880.html).
Indeed, the head of the Karelian Congress says that the decline of the Karels and their language under Putin has been greater than the losses to each during World War II. In short, they have been victims of what can only be described as an undeclared but ongoing war against them (karel.mk.ru/articles/2013/06/13/868629-bolshe-ne-hozyaeva-na-svoey-zemle.html).
Karelian language activists who admit they are few in number especially among the young see only two possibilities for recovery. On the one hand, they say, Russia needs to change how it defines nationality. Today, if one doesn’t speak a national language, census takers and even the people themselves don’t identify as such.
That needs to change because many people still seek to identify as members of nations like the Karelians even though they do not speak the language. If it were more acceptable to declare themselves members of that nation even though they now speak Russian, their numbers would be greater and their chances of national survival greater as well.
And on the other hand, the Russian government itself has unwittingly given the Karelians a chance. Because they have fallen below 50,000 in total, they qualify as a numerically small people who in principle qualify for special benefits and support of their national language and way of life.
Natalya Antonova, a language activist, says that “now the Karels can count on certain economic preferences as a numerically small indigenous population.” She and others have called on Moscow to officially declare the Karelians members of that category, but gaining that status is not automatic.
The Karelians face three problems that other numerically small peoples do not. First, their language is written in Latin script, something Russian law does not allow for any minority language. Second, they have their own republic; but that republic is the only one in which the titular nation does not have even official status.
And third – and this may be the most important obstacle – Moscow is in no hurry to follow its own law in this case. The Wepsy, another Finno-Ugric nation, had to fight more than a decade to get the status of a numerically small nation deserving benefits; and there simply aren’t enough Karelian activists now to carry on that fight.