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A Common Language: Russia's 'Ethnic' Republics See Language Bill As Existential Threat

Russian elementary school children take a Tatar language class. A draft bill that aims to make such lessons optional has drawn the ire of ethnic activists. (file photo)
Russian elementary school children take a Tatar language class. A draft bill that aims to make such lessons optional has drawn the ire of ethnic activists. (file photo)

KAZAN, Russia -- The elder sons of Timer Tyapkin, vice president of the Chuvash National Congress, do not speak Chuvash.

"In the early 1990s, even our teacher told us, 'No one needs Chuvash outside the town of Kanash,'" Tyapkin told RFE/RL. "But nonetheless my wife and I gave our younger daughters Chuvash names. My wife spoke to them in Chuvash even before they were born."

She sang them Chuvash lullabies, he says, and the youngsters addressed them as "Anne" and "Atte," Mama and Papa in Chuvash.

"We have to raise Chuvash patriots through our history, philosophy, faith, and the teachings of our ancestors," he added. "Our people have never lived in greenhouse conditions. Today, the people are more worried about the price of gasoline and sausage. But we have to preserve our ancient language."

Tyapkin is among the critics -- particularly within the country's so-called ethnic republics that comprise sizable populations of ethnic non-Russians in areas that were among those regions granted some self-rule after the Soviet collapse -- who complain that new legislation snaking its way through the State Duma represents a profound threat to the traditions and languages that make up the very fabric of the Russian Federation.

Some suggest it is part of a misguided effort to simply "make everyone Russian."

The draft law, which lays out a blueprint for the teaching of native languages in Russia, cleared its latest legislative hurdle with the Duma's passage in a first reading on June 19.

As passed, the bill would prevent regions from requiring the study of and teaching in minority languages and making such study voluntary at the request of parents. At the same time, the study of Russian language and culture would be part of the required curriculum. Many in the ethnic republics fear the change would mean fewer opportunities for minority-language speakers and would represent a major intrusion by the federal government into an area previously delegated to the regions.

Duma deputies have vowed in response to the latest criticism that the bill will be "fundamentally altered" before its second reading.

And crucially, Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Duma's Education and Science Committee, said the final bill will list the national languages of Russia's so-called ethnic republics as "obligatory" school subjects.

"There have been fears that the languages of various peoples will not be in the obligatory section of [the national educational] curriculum," Nikonov said during the debate over the bill. "They will be there. The necessary changes will be made to include them in the obligatory section."

He added that Russian will be among those "native languages," and that students' parents will be allowed to choose "the language of study or native language as a subject of study."

'Bureaucratic Chicanery'

Deputy Alyona Arshinova, who represents Chuvashia and is one of the co-authors of the controversial bill, agreed and told her fellow legislators that the decision to grant that choice to parents was made "on the basis of written requests."

"Before the second reading," she said, "we understand that the wording can be improved. We will speak not only of the preservation of native languages but about their development."

But many people in the ethnic republics -- where the titular ethnicity is significantly represented, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chuvashia -- argue that the bill aims at weakening non-Russian cultures and the country's nominal status as a federation.

Theater director Vasily Pekteyev (file photo)
Theater director Vasily Pekteyev (file photo)

"They say that we need a national idea in this country," Vasily Pekteyev, director of the Mari National Theater in Ioshkar-Ola, told RFE/RL. "But the national idea can't be that we all were turned into Russians."

"What we have here is a clear example of bureaucratic chicanery aimed at overshadowing the anticonstitutional nature of these initiatives," wrote historian Timur Aloyev of the Kabardino-Balkaria Humanitarian Institute in an open letter to President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials. "Attempts through legal acts to block the guarantees written into the federal and republican constitutions are literally undermining the federal structure of the Russian Federation."

The proposed law is a result of a statement made by Putin in 2017 to the effect that no one should be forced to study non-native languages. His statement responded to complaints by ethnic Russians in Tatarstan about their children being compelled to learn Tatar in school. After Putin's comment, both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan changed their laws to make the study of their republican languages optional.

After the draft bill was submitted to the State Duma, the State Council of Tatarstan passed a resolution asking lawmakers to reject it. The World Bashkir Assembly sent the Duma a letter opposing the bill and proposed that Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chuvashia unite in their efforts against it. Former Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev has said the measure violates the Russian Constitution.

But the bill has also revealed divisions within these republics. It was co-authored by two deputies purportedly representing Chuvashia – Arshinova, of the ruling United Russia party, and Oleg Nikolayev, of the pro-Putin A Just Russia party. Virtually all of the Duma deputies representing the ethnic republics voted in favor of the bill in its first reading, when it passed by a vote of 373 to three.

'Threat To Security'

A group of activists from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Buryatia sent an open letter in support of the initiative, saying the practice of requiring students to learn the native languages of the regions they live in is "a threat to the security and integrity of Russia."

The letter was co-authored by Mikhail Shcheglov, chairman of the Society of Russian Culture of Tatarstan; Viktor Afanasyev, an official of the Assembly of Russians of Bashkortostan; Eduard Nosov, chairman of the Committee to Protect the Rights of Russian-Speaking Parents and Students of Tatarstan; and Galina Luchkina, deputy head of the Parents Movement for the Voluntary Study of the Buryat Language.

It called for deputies to resist "the pressure of nationalist-separatist forces."

In May, many of the same figures signed a similar letter that essentially called for the elimination of the ethnic republics altogether.

"We would like to see equal status for all territories of the Russian Federation," that May letter said. "The absolute majority of the 'non-titular' population is indifferent to the status of the republics. That status means nothing to us and gives us nothing but unnecessary complications in educating our children."

Tatar activist Ruslan Aisin (file photo)
Tatar activist Ruslan Aisin (file photo)

On the other hand, native-culture activists from nearly all the ethnic republics gathered in Moscow in late May and agreed to form the Democratic Congress of Peoples of the Russian Federation. The new NGO aims to oppose the proposed language-instruction law and to resist "projects to alter the administrative structure of Russia," according to Tatar activist Ruslan Aisin.

What many people in republics like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan fear is already happening in Mari El, a central Russian ethnic republic on the northern banks for the Volga River, argued Mari National Theater director Pekteyev.

"In Mari villages now, all the instruction in kindergartens is in Russian," he told RFE/RL. "There might not be a single ethnic Russian in a village, but all the lessons in kindergartens and schools are in Russian."

He claimed events in Mari El are the result of long-running policies under Leonid Markelov, who headed the republic from 2000 to 2017. "[Markelov] simply hated the Mari people, and all of this was done intentionally," Pekteyev said.

He noted that road signs that previously were bilingual have been replaced by ones only in Russian.

"You can walk into any school in a Mari village, even places where there is not one child whose native language is Russian, and all the information and signs will be in Russian, beginning with the 'welcome' sign on the door," Pekteyev said. "And this was happening with us long before Putin's statement [about the unacceptability of compelling students to study non-native languages]. Some schools stopped teaching Mari altogether as long as 15 years ago."

According to the 2002 census, there were slightly more than 312,000 Maris in Mari El and 254,000 Mari speakers. In the 2010 census, there were just more than 290,000 Maris and only 204,000 Mari speakers.

Pekteyev said the frustration experienced by many parents who are unable to raise their children as fluent Mari speakers inevitably contributes to social unrest in the region. This is particularly true, he said, because they get little sympathy from their Duma deputies and republican officials, most of whom are ethnic Russians.

"They are afraid that they will be forced to study Mari themselves," he said. "In short, Mari El has already ceased to be an ethnic republic in anything but name. We are just another oblast."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondents Dmitry Lyubimov and Ramazan Alpaut. RFE/RL correspondents Vadim Meshcheryakov and Timer Aktash also contributed to this report.

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