Warning to Kremlin: Its non-Russians likely to become the Irish of the 21st century

Chuvash children celebrating Akatuy, the Chuvash ancient festival of land fertility (Image: gov.cap.ru)

Chuvash children celebrating Akatuy, the Chuvash ancient festival of land fertility (Image: gov.cap.ru) 

2016/10/05 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

Russian officials have long operated on the assumption that if they can force non-Russians in their country to use Russian rather than their native national languages, such Russian-speaking non-Russians are well on their way to complete assimilation by the Russian nation.

That is why Moscow has used so many carrots and sticks to get non-Russians to make this transition.

In some cases, the Russian authorities may be correct: the loss of language does lead directly to a loss of nationhood. But in others, they are certainly wrong, and some Russian-speaking non-Russians may have a stronger sense of national identity than their ancestors.

That should not be a surprise to anyone who has considered the rise of national identities and nationalism. The Irish did not become nationalistic until they stopped speaking Gaelic and spoke in many cases only English, the language of their imperial overlords; and the same pattern has occurred elsewhere.

It was especially true in Soviet times when

those non-Russians who learned Russian well became more attached to their nation either because they recognized that they were frequently the objects of discrimination not because they did not have the skills, linguistic and otherwise, to fill a particular position but only because they were members of a despised minority.

This is not to say that defending national languages against Russianization and national cultures against Russification is not important. Too many nations inside the borders of the Russian Federation are too small to hope to survive if they lose what is one of their most important markers.

But other non-Russians and their supporters should recognize that Moscow’s policies in this regard are likely to play an evil trick on the imperial center, with some Russian-speaking non-Russians becoming more nationalistic even when they give up speaking their national language and with the likelihood they, again like the Irish, will seek to recover their language in the future.

Hèctor Alòs i Font, Catalonian linguistics expert studying minority languages in Russia (Image: RFE/RL)

Hèctor Alòs i Font, Catalonian linguistics expert studying minority languages in Russia (Image: RFE/RL)

Hèctor Alòs-i-Font, a Catalonian linguistics expert who has been living in Chuvashia for the last seven years, provides evidence that points in this direction in the course of an interview with Ramil Safin of Radio Liberty’s IdelReal portal.

The Catalonian scholar notes that there is much discussion about languages in Russia, but despite that, “the issue of the use of the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation has been little studied.” That in turn leads many to draw false conclusions about what is happening in many places, including Chuvashia.

Using census data, people say that there are a million Chuvash speakers; but the reality, Alòs-i-Font points out is very different. “Half of the Chuvash live in cities. In Cheboksary, for example, 63 percent of the population is Chuvash, [but] only one to two percent of Urban Chuvash speak with their children primarily in the native language.”

“In urban schools,” he continues, Chuvash is taught only as a non-native language (two to three times a week), and there is not a single urban school where instruction is in Chuvash.” Alòs-i-Font said he tried to find one for his children but was told that “there is no such possibility.”

The explanation is simple: “the majority fears that their child will not master Russian if they speak Chuvash with him at home. They fear there will be an accent, that he won’t be able to play with other children or visit a hospital.” And since “urban schools function only in Russian,” it is easier for the children if Chuvash parents use that language at home as well.

The situation outside of the cities is different, but it is becoming ever less so, the linguistics expert says. “Forty percent of the Chuvash live in small villages. Until 2005-2006, instruction in the schools of the small villages (those with fewer than 3,000 residents) at least in the beginning classes was conducted in Chuvash.” Parents thus used the language.

“In principle,” Alòs-i-Font says, “everything was fine.” But with the introduction of the educational examinations that could be taken only in Russian, the schools in the villages began to make the transition to Russian; and parents of pupils in those schools followed suit, much as their urban counterparts have.

The last two Russian censuses have reflected this.

Between 2002 and 2010, the number of Chuvash speakers fell from 1.3 million to 1.0 million, with a decline of 32 percent among those outside the republic and a decline of five percent of those within it. Many saw this as the beginning of the end of the Chuvash nation.

“Undoubtedly,” Alòs-i-Font says, “language is one of the factors of identity,” but its role varies from one people to another. “For example, for the Irish, knowledge of the native language is not all that critical. Even when speaking English, they feel themselves Irish and in the eyes of other peoples remain such.”

Kazan Tatars protest against the state-imposed policies of Russification. Tatarstan, Russian Federation, circa 2013. (Image: social media)

Kazan Tatars protest against the state-imposed policies of Russification. Tatarstan, Russian Federation, circa 2013. (Image: social media)

The Kazan Tatars are in a similar situation. Their religion and their names provide a support for their national identity even if they become Russian speakers. But the Chuvash would seem to be in a much worse position. They don’t have a similar set of non-linguistic markers as they are Orthodox in religion and have Slavic names.

But the reality is very different, he points out, citing the patterns of identity change among children of mixed Chuvash-Russian parentage now as compared to Soviet times. “In the time of the USSR, 98 percent of Chuvash-Russian marriages led to the russification of the children.”

“In the 1990s, this figure fell to 80 to 90 percent, But now it is all of two out of three. That is, despite language not being passed down, Chuvash are not ceasing to feel themselves to be Chuvash. Beyond doubt that is connected with the fact that over the last 25 years, the status of being a Chuvash somehow has gone up, and they have begun to respect themselves more.”


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Edited by: A. N.

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