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Russia: Daghestan Scholars Sound Alarm For Indigenous Languages

A folk festival in Makhachkala in 2005 (ITAR-TASS) August 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Participants at a recent roundtable discussion in Makhachkala expressed concern that Russian is fast becoming the sole state language in Daghestan, even though the republic's constitution ranks Russian equal with the languages of 13 other nationalities. They called on President Mukhu Aliyev to take urgent measures to reverse the ongoing decline of smaller languages, some of which they fear may otherwise become extinct within 10-15 years.

Unique among Russia's 85 federation subjects, Daghestan has no fewer than 14 titular nationalities (Avars, Aghuls, Azerbaijanis, Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, Lezgins, Nogais, Rutuls, Tabasarans, Tats, Tsakhurs, Chechens, and Russians), all of whose languages are designated in the constitution as state languages.

Given that these languages are all not mutually comprehensible or even inter-related, it is Russian, which is taught even at kindergarten level, that serves as the vehicle of communication between members of different ethnic groups.

The director of a school in the village of Andikh in Shamil Raion in west-central Daghestan, told RFE/RL that his school cannot buy new textbooks for students in 10th and 11th grades, and that teachers comb villages in the hope of buying old ones.

True, during the Soviet period, most of the titular languages -- Avar, Azeri, Dargin, Kumyk, Lak, Lezgin, Nogai, and Tat -- were taught in schools alongside Russian. And according to the British scholar Robert Chenciner, in the 1990s it was decided to create written languages for, and begin the formal teaching in schools of Rutul, Aghul, and Tsakhur (all of which belong to the Lezgin group of languages), even though according to the 2002 Russian Federation census those three ethnic groups each accounted for less than 1 percent of the republic's population, numbering 24,298, 23,324 and 8,168 people, respectively.

Soviet Legacy

The Soviet Union took a dual and even contradictory approach to the teaching of minority languages, promoting the creation of literary languages for small ethnic groups, and encouraging writers who chose to use their native language, however obscure, as part of the broader ideology of Friendship of Peoples.

But at the same time, the Soviet leadership relentlessly implemented a policy of requiring non-Russians to become fluent in Russian, to the point that mastery of the Russian language became the key to career advancement.

For that reason, many parents opted to enroll their children in schools where Russian, rather than their native language, was the language of instruction. Yet whether as a result of the emphasis on preserving minority languages, or as a conscious statement of national identity, many non-Russians still identified the language of their nationality as their native language.

Data from the 1979 Soviet census show that more than 90 percent of Daghestan's 10 largest indigenous native groups designated the language of that ethnic group as their native language. By contrast, the percentage for the native peoples of Siberia and the Far East averaged 61 percent, and for some of those small ethnic groups it was as low as 30 percent.

No Money For Books

The collapse of the Soviet system demolished the ideological rationale and the hothouse conditions, including generous state subsidies, that existed for encouraging the use and teaching of small languages. At the same time, a knowledge of Russian as lingua franca remained crucial, especially within a multiethnic society such as Daghestan, where, in addition, unemployment is high and competition for jobs intense.

Moreover, Daghestan's government, which as of 2005 depended on subsidies from Moscow for 80 percent of its budget, was forced to revise spending priorities, with education getting short shrift. This has led to chronic shortages of school textbooks in languages other than Russian.

Even the language of Daghestan's largest ethnic group, the Avars (who numbered 758,438 people in 2002, or 29.4 percent of the republic's population), is under threat, and has been for some time.

In 2002, a language teacher in Kaspiisk told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that several factors were contributing to the decline in the use of Avar: a lack of qualified teachers and up-to-date textbooks (not all schools had an adequate number of textbooks, and the limited number available were up to 20 years old); the lack of an up-to-date Avar-Russian dictionary; and, crucially, lack of interest among school students in studying their own native language. Some wealthy businesspeople sponsored the publication of language textbooks, but those textbooks were not always approved by and coordinated with the republic's Pedagogical Institute.

The situation does not seem to have improved greatly over the past five years. In 2003, a new Avar-Russian dictionary was published, the first for over 50 years, but native speakers say it is not of outstanding quality, and the print run was only 3,000 copies.

And the problem of school textbooks remains acute. Magomed Gazaliyev, the director of a school in the village of Andikh in Shamil Raion in west-central Daghestan, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in July that his school cannot buy new textbooks for students in 10th and 11th grades, and that teachers comb villages in the hope of buying old ones.

"We have been without books for more than 10 years," he said.

Gazaliyev said the republican Education Ministry claims it does not have sufficient funds to finance the publication of a new series of textbooks. He said the ministry is apparently hoping that a private sponsor might be found.

Study Time Reduced

Gazaliyev further complained that the number of hours devoted to the study of Avar in schools is being reduced, but did not specify how drastically. In rural schools, instruction in all subjects is in Avar for the first four grades. From fifth to ninth grade, instruction is in Russian, with two hours per week devoted to the Avar language and two to Avar literature. In 10th and 11th grades, two hours per week are devoted to the Avar language.

"They are reducing the time spent on teaching the native language and literature and increasing the number of hours spent studying other subjects at their expense," Gazaliyev told RFE/RL.

Radio and television broadcasting in languages other than Russian has also been subjected to cuts. Republican television now broadcasts exclusively in Russian, although there are still daily radio programs in the 13 other titular languages, in addition to Russian. The number of hours broadcast is directly proportional to the number of speakers of a given language, with Avar and Dargin having the most and Tsakhur the least.

All these factors serve to undermine many Avars' commitment to their native language. And the decline in the use of Avar is not confined to urban areas with a multiethnic population, but extends to districts where the population is almost exclusively Avar.

A correspondent for RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service recently quoted Bata Aliyev, a resident of the village of Mesterukh in Akhvakh Raion, as saying that with every year that passes, it becomes clearer that members of the local Avar population are losing respect for their native language.

"The raion administration, the local education board, schools, and local television are contributing to the gradual decline of the Avar language, because the Russian language is used everywhere," Aliyev said. "Very little time is devoted to the study of the Avar language in school."

The published summary of the July 12 roundtable discussion in Makhachkala did not give any indication whether participants came to the conclusion that some languages are in greater danger of becoming obsolescent than others, and if so, which.

The participants said much of the blame for the decline of Daghestan's indigenous languages lies with the Education Ministry. They characterized many of the ministry's staff members as having no relevant expertise and implied they are indifferent to the issue of teaching small languages

They contrasted the situation in Daghestan, where high-school students spend a maximum of four hours per week studying their native language, literature, and history, with that in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the comparable figure is 36 hours.

The roundtable participants appealed to Daghestan President Aliyev to take urgent measures to reverse the decline in the use of small languages. But even if the republic's leadership could secure funds for programs to promote the study of Avar and other state languages, it could take years before such programs yielded the desired effect.

(Magomedgadzhi Gasanov and Uma Isakova of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)

Russia's Changing Face

Russia's Changing Face
A mosque in Baksan, in the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (RFE/RL)

THE COMING MUSLIM MAJORITY: On February 28, Russia expert PAUL GOBLE, vice dean of social sciences and humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia, gave a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Goble said ethographers predict Russia will have a Muslim majority "within our lifetime." Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent, Goble said, rising to some 25 million self-declared Muslims. He said 2.5 million to 3.5 million Muslims now live in Moscow, gving Moscow the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe. Russia today has more than 8,000 mosques, up from just 300 in 1991. By 2010, experts predict, some 40 percent of Russian military conscripts will be Muslims.
Goble noted that these changes have been accompanied by a "rising tide" of anti-Muslim prejudice. Public-opinion surveys reveal that up to "70 percent of ethnic Russians" express sympathy with xenophobic slogans. Goble warned that heavy-handed state efforts to "contain Islam" could backfire and cause groups to move underground, "radicalizing people who are not yet radicalized."


Listen to the entire briefing (about 85 minutes):
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See also:

Muslims Oppose Bill To Add Chaplains To Army

Russia: Muslims Upset By State Symbols

Russia's Muslims Move Toward Greater Unity

Rights Groups Say Muslims Are Unfairly Targeted In Fight Against Terrorism

Fact Box: Muslims In Russia

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia's North Caucasus, click here.

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