On May 19, President Vladimir Putin addressed a joint meeting of the Council for Interethnic Relations and the Council for Russian Language. “The preservation and development of the Russian language and all the languages of the peoples of the country are essential for the harmonization of inter-ethnic relations, ensuring civil unity, strengthening the state sovereignty and integrity of Russia,” he declared. Putin boasted of Russia’s unique effort to preserve the languages of minorities, saying that Russian scholars had invented scripts for dozens of ethnic groups that did not have a writing culture prior to being conquered by Russia. According to Putin’s statistics, today 193 ethnic groups in the Russian Federation speak nearly 300 languages and dialects. While praising the country’s ethnic diversity, in the second half of his speech Putin said the government should pay greater attention to the Russian language since it is the cultural device that holds the country together (Kremlin.ru, May 19).
In the 19th century and later, Russian or foreign linguists in the service of the Russian government, indeed, invented scripts for dozens of ethnic groups that had been conquered by the Russian Empire. Such endeavors were invariably funded and directed by the government with the primary purpose of governing and controlling these peoples. Of course, the conquered peoples also benefited as a result. However, the benefits came with a high price tag. Currently, the United Nations’ agency for education, science and culture, UNESCO, estimates that practically all languages of the North Caucasus are on the path to extinction (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 25, 2009). Given the fact that the North Caucasus is the place where indigenous ethnic groups in the Russian Federation have best preserved their national consciousness, the languages of other ethnic groups in Russia are in an even less enviable situation.
Vladimir Putin often uses public speeches not to reveal the government’s intentions, but to hide them. Once the Russian president raised the issue of preserving the languages of ethnic groups in Russia, it was clear that a new crackdown on ethnic minorities was imminent. In his speech, Putin indicated the direction the crackdown would take when he identified what he called a “systemic problem” in the country’s schools. “Since the Russian language is included in the larger entity of Philology, when the number of hours of ethnic [non-Russian] languages is increased, it is at the expense of Russian language hours,” Putin said. The Russian president proposed designating Russian as a special subject, which would not fall under Philology and thus not be subject to reduced hours (Kremlin.ru, May 19). This would give the Russian language even greater influence than it already has and be practically the death knell for minority languages, which are on the path to extinction anyway. On May 20, the government announced the allocation of $150 million to support the Russian language without explaining why the language of the majority needs to be supported at all (RIA Novosti, May 20).
Three days earlier, on May 17, a group of Russian activists had paved the way for this government allocation by calling on the government to intervene on behalf of the Russian language. “Feeling deep concern and sadness about maintaining the integrity of Russia and its fundamental values, we call your attention to the plight of the Russian language and literature in the schools of the national republics of our country, as well as growing ethnic tensions over the adoption of regional laws that do not have the support of a majority of the population, and call on you to fix this unnatural situation,” the appeal read. Its authors insisted that ethnic Russians residing in the ethnic republics of the Russian Federation should be entitled to claim Russian as their mother tongue and study it instead of the republican language, as is mandatory in some republics. The well-known Russian nationalist figures Mikhail Delyagin and Konstantil Krylov signed the appeal along with Russian activists in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Buryatia and the Republic of Komi (Svpressa.ru, May 17).
While this appeal appears to be fair and based on human rights principles, the other side of the problem is not mentioned. Ethnic Russians who reside in Tatarstan are demanding their language rights be recognized, but ethnic Tatars who reside outside the republic of Tatarstan are not given the opportunity to study their mother tongue. For better or worse, language studies at schools have been territorial in Russia, and Russian activists are demanding rights for themselves greater than those for other ethnic groups of the country. They primarily appeal to the issue of national security, saying that the Russian language ensures the unity of the country and should be maintained across the country by government power. However, no evidence is provided showing that the study of languages other than Russian lowers the Russian-language proficiency of students.
Rather than stemming from genuine concerns about Russian-language proficiency, the call to support the Russian-language issue appears to be nothing more than a political move. Waving the flag of Russian nationalism and attempting to further undermine minority languages are likely to produce a backlash among non-Russian ethnic groups, who will try even harder to preserve their distinct cultural identity.