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Russia's State Duma OKs Controversial Bill Allowing Government To Standardize Indigenous Languages

Children in a nomadic school in Yakutia (file photo)
Children in a nomadic school in Yakutia (file photo)

The Russian parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved in its third and final reading a controversial bill that would allow the government to regulate the basic pillars of minority languages in the country, including indigenous ethnic groups from Siberia and the Far East.

Lawmakers say the bill, approved on June 1, will help save some languages from extinction by speeding up the process for approving orthography norms, but many groups promoting indigenous languages, culture, and history in the Russian Federation see it as part of move to increase control over the teaching of such subjects in Russia's many ethnic republics and regions.

"I think the bill is strange and it will not stop the dying of some languages, unfortunately," Marina Gyrgolchaivyna, a well-known linguist and a teacher of the Chukchi language, told RFE/RL. "The process [of the disappearance of some languages] could be stopped if the indigenous languages were mandatory and not optional at schools. The study of indigenous languages at schools must be increased. Currently, such languages are taught for just one hour per week at the most."

Controversy over mandatory classes of indigenous languages in Russia's ethnic republics and regions has been an issue since President Vladimir Putin said in mid-2017 that people must not be forced to learn a language "that is not their mother tongue" and ordered prosecutors to determine whether that was happening.

Putin's statement and order were followed by calls from Russian-speaking parents at schools in the ethnic regions -- where indigenous, non-Russian ethnic groups are well represented -- to abandon mandatory studies of languages other than Russian.

That sparked protests in several such republics and regions, especially in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Udmurtia, and Chuvashia, where local languages are officially state languages, along with Russian.

In September 2019, Udmurt scholar Albert Razin, died after he lit himself on fire in Izhevsk, the capital of the Republic of Udmurtia, protesting the Russian government's move to cancel mandatory Udmurt language classes.

The new bill must still be approved by the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, and endorsed into the law by Putin.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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