Russian Legislators Move to Undermine Status of Minority Languages

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Russia’s State Duma is expected to pass a law on how languages are taught in the country’s state schools. The proposed changes may have a significant impact on the ethnic republics within the Russian Federation. Intentionally diminishing the use of languages of minorities in Russia is likely to exacerbate existing ethnic cleavages and pit minorities against the Russian central government. 

This fall, Russia’s parliament will consider new legislation on teaching languages in school. If it becomes law, the legislation will practically render learning the native languages of ethnic minorities in Russia unnecessary. “The Russian language has no status of a native tongue,” the chairman of the Duma’s Committee for Nationalities Affairs, Gajimet Safaraliev, told the website. “So, children in the schools of national autonomies cannot choose the Russian language as their native language. Thereby, the number of hours and the volume of learning of the Russian language decrease. This happens despite a clear directive by the president to improve Russian language instruction, to study it as a mother tongue” (, June 16). 

Safaraliev did not mention that Russian is still the language of instruction in schools across the Russian Federation, and that even ethnic non-Russians are taught the Russian language as a subject in school. Most ethnic minority groups that reside in the ethnic republics have their native languages as an additional subject in school, which does not undermine the Russian language in any way. Yet, Russian policymakers appear intent on pressing ahead with further unification of the schools across the Russian Federation and squeezing all non-Russian elements out of state-funded schools.

Quite surprisingly, Tatarstan and North Ossetia, two Russian republics that have relatively friendly relations with Moscow, have come out against the proposed legislative changes allowing schoolchildren to choose Russian as their mother tongue. Rafik Mukhametshin, the rector of the Islamic University in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan, told “Knowledge of the Russian language on the part of ethnic Russians and Tatars is much higher in our region than in other places. Isn’t our federation built on respect between peoples? How can ethnic groups respect each other if they do not have any knowledge of each other’s languages? If we remove the study of minority languages, the whole nationalities policy will be destroyed” (, June 16). 

In Tatarstan, for example, everyone regardless of ethnicity is required to learn the Tatar language in state schools. The concern is different in North Ossetia, where the regional authorities are worried that ethnic Ossetians will choose Russian as their mother tongue, if they are allowed to do so. A North Ossetian activist, Taimuraz Pliev, told “Ossetian children should learn the Ossetian language as the mother tongue and Russian as the state language.” The sorry state of minority languages in Russia is not limited to North Ossetia. Tatyana Achigirina, an activist from the Inuits, one of the ethnic groups in northern Russia, said: “We have a tragedy with mother tongues. Even in the capital of Chukotka region we do not have a single school where the Chukot language—the language of the titular people—is studied. The mother tongues of the Chukchi, Eskimos, Evenks are taught only in small villages; they are not used in everyday life in families” (, June 16).

The language issue appears to be a highly sensitive issue for the republics within the Russian Federation. Ironically, the unstable republics where anti-Russian sentiment is probably the strongest have said little about their opposition to proposed changes in language policies, while those republics that are relatively stable and presumably more pro-Russian have protested publicly. This paradox may be explained by the fact that the unstable regions have largely shed their ethnic Russian populations and have little to worry about when it comes to retaining their distinct ethnic identity. Conversely, the republics that are relatively stable also tend to have relatively large ethnic Russian population and therefore feel more threatened by Moscow’s pressure on their languages.

The republics are not entirely powerless, of course. In a remarkable move that was a setback for Moscow’s efforts, the Maisky district court in Kabardino-Balkaria decreed on June 23 that the names of several municipal institutions in the district must be inscribed in the Kabardin and Balkar languages in addition to Russian. The court decision said that by displaying signs only in Russian on those schools, municipal enterprises and other facilities, the district authorities had violated the 1994 republican law on languages. Even more remarkably, the republican prosecutors, who are usually tightly controlled by Moscow, initiated the probe into the violations of the republican law on languages, which mandates creating equal opportunities for the development of the Kabardin, Balkar and Russian languages (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 26). Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky district is overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, so the district authorities had apparently ignored the concerns of other ethnic groups, which resorted to a legalistic approach in order to uphold the status of the Kabardin and Balkar languages.

The language issue is a barometer indicating that tensions are rising between ethnic Russian nationalism and the nationalisms of Russia’s minorities, specifically those minorities that are organized into republics and feel most threatened by Moscow’s proposals. Even though Moscow is offering to make the study of Russian and minority languages equal in the state schools, in reality it is seeking to undermine the minority languages. Acquiescent on many other issues, the republics within the Russian Federation appear to be more opposed to Moscow’s proposals on language usage, viewing language as pivotal to their survival.