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Russia: Altaians Struggle To Save Their Language

After centuries of assimilation, the native people of the Altai Republic in southwest Siberia are seeking to revive their languages. Lily Hyde visited the region recently and reports for RFE/RL on the efforts of one group, the Kumandintsy.

Gorno-Altaisk, Russia; 5 September 2000 (RFE/RL) --

"Long ago, before the flood,

Beyond ancient times

Behind the past

The earth was reborn.

The volcanic mountains were formed

And rivers ran rushing.

Then, drinking from the dipper

Dividing the blood with the ladle

Came the Kumandintsy on a raft."

Valentina Petrushova reads some lines from a heroic epic of the Kumandintsy, one of the six native peoples collectively known as Altaians.

This epic was recorded from her great-great-grandmother. Petrushova is herself a grandmother, and she is one of the few remaining Kumandintsy who can still speak her own language.

Mention the word language in the Altai Republic and you get an impassioned response. The Turkic-speaking Altaians have been part of the Russian empire since the 1700s, but it was not until the Soviet 1950s that their language was actively repressed.

Members of the older generation still recall how, if they spoke Altaian in a public space, they were told to speak Russian. An unwritten rule demanded that all children were given Russian names. And schoolchildren had to learn their lessons in Russian even in the smallest Altai villages where until school age they had only spoken Altaian.

Since their area of southwestern Siberia became an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation in 1991, the Altaians have been trying to revive their language. But as they only make up around 30 percent of the population, they have not been overly successful.

By law, Russian and Altai are both state languages. But in practice all signs on the streets in the capital Gorno-Altaisk are in Russian, and all the assistants in the shops are Russians who do not speak Altaian. Most Altaians, except in the most remote regions, speak excellent Russian. But the percentage of Russians living in the republic who can speak Altaian is tiny.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are six Altaian dialects, split into two groups of north and south Altai. Literary Altai, from one of the strongest central regions, is now the common language taught in school, but many older Altaians, like Petrushova, speak only their own dialect.

The wave of interest in reviving Altaian language and culture has come for many after a lifetime of never thinking about national identity. Petrushova spent all her life speaking Russian outside her family circle and never bothered to explain to people that she came from a distinct ethnic group.

All that changed where she retired, as she explained to our correspondent:

"Why did I come to the conclusion at such an [advanced] age, 62? I looked at my life and the lives of others and realized we were disappearing and there were very few of us left. I decided we have to revive our people. Yes, we are few, but people should know we exist and our culture exists. Our young people have forgotten our culture but my generation still preserve traditions in our memories. We have a very rich language and folklore, fairytales, riddles, it's all being forgotten and we need to revive it."

Oksana Pustagacheva heads the local branch of the Moscow Institute for the Problems of National Education, which is developing teaching methods for Altaian children who cannot speak their own language. She says that about 40 percent of Altaian children are not fluent in their mother tongue, and many are ashamed of their nationality and heritage.

National schools have now been established where all subjects are taught in Altaian until fourth class. After that the language of instruction changes to Russian but Altaian is continued as a separate subject. Out of 202 schools in the republic, 64 are national schools. In other schools, pupils can choose to study Altaian. But very few Russians choose to do so.

Despite a complete lack of Altaian textbooks, and of experts who can develop the language to deal with modern subjects, Pustagacheva hails the national schools as a great step.

"First we adopted the concept of national schools, which recognized the role of Altai language and paid more attention to dialects. There was a law on language use. We've started to educate our children who can't speak Altaian, that's a great victory. People understood that we should teach their children to speak Altaian even if it's difficult. Earlier people just wondered why they should learn Altaian, it is unnecessary and they won't get anywhere with it. Now, little by little, we've returned to the idea that Altaian is necessary. However far we go, we'll always return home and we need our language. Our people have already started to understand that, and that's also a great victory."

The revival may have come too late for the Kumandintsy, who after centuries of assimilation are threatened with extinction. According to Petrushova, there are only 581 Kumandintsy living in the Altai republic, and just over 2,000 in a neighboring region of Russia.

In the last 10 years, only one child has been born to Kumandintsy parents in Altai. In the Turachak region where most live, they are so outnumbered by Russians that there is little chance to learn their own language.

Vitaly Kirkin, 21 years old, grew up in this region and cannot speak Kumandinsky.

"I understand [Kumandinsky] but I can't speak it fluently. At school, most where I lived were Russian-speaking. I live in Turachak, which is our former territory where we lived historically. But now there are few of us. In our class of 25 people I was the only Kumandintsy, so there could be no agreement [on language teaching]. There are Altaians who learn Altaian at school, if they want to. Its hard, though, to learn your own language as a foreign language."

Although the Kumandintsy have now been officially recognized as an ethnic minority, activists get no government help in their cultural efforts. But if young people like Kirkin at least realize what they have lost, perhaps it is not too late for the Altaians to save their language from dying.