Sunday, March 10, 2024

In Putin’s Russia, Language Alone Defines Nationality, Komi State Council Deputy Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 7 – In Soviet and immediate post-Soviet times, officials acknowledged that the number of those identifying as members of a nationality and that of those who speak its titular language may vary, with some people continuing to identify and sometimes even more strongly with a nationality after they have stopped speaking their national languages.

But in Putin’s time, “language alone defines nationality membership” and so “what language you speak” is your nationality, according to  Yekaterina Dyachkova, a KPRF deputy in the Komi Republic State Council   (

Dyachkova first attracted widespread attention when she spoke in Komi at a session of the State Council last fall and was told by the speaker of that body that she needed to remember that she wasn’t on some collective farm but in an important state body and therefore should speak Russian.

She continued to garner attention when she attempted without success to push through a law earlier this year to give those who want to speak Komi in the State Council a sufficient amount of extra time to allow for translation into Russian for those of the council’s members who don’t know the republic language.

As her comment to the Horizontal Russia portal demonstrates, the Komi deputy clearly wants members of the Komi nationality to speak Komi in order to keep their language and identity alive and believes that her language and nationality are at risk because of the Russianizing and Russifying policies of Vladimir Putin.

But her suggestion that under Putin, language and national identity are the same, raises issues far beyond what Dyachkova has raised directly. From Soviet times until now, Moscow has counted both the number of people who declare they are members of a nation and the number of those who say they speak the titular language of their nation.    

In almost all cases, except perhaps for the numerically dominant ethnic Russians, the number of people who say they are members of a particular nation and the number of those who say they speak the language of that nation are different, with the latter being lower and often significantly lower than the former.

Putin clearly believes that language is central to national identity and that is why he is pushing the Russianization of non-Russian nationalities so hard. If he succeeds in that effort, the next step could well be to stop counting the number of people who say they are members of a nation but only enumerating the number who say they speak a particular language.

That would not only represent an expansion of his current attacks on the non-Russians but could become the basis for doing away with ethnically based republics and other ethnic institutions and thus putting another nail in the coffin of the multi-national nature of the population of the Russian Federation.

But because such an intention is so obvious, it is likely that other non-Russians will now take up Dyachkova’s observation and respond  by using their own language more often, viewing such a step as the last and best defense they have against a future in which they will cease to be viewed as nations at all unless they speak the titular languages of those communities.

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