A Celebration of Russia’s Indigenous Languages

            The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019). As we come to the end of this year-long celebration of linguistic indigeneity, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on a space not often associated with contemporary debates on indigenous and minority languages in the Anglophone world: Russia. The British Library’s collections in and on the indigenous speech communities of Russia are small but incredibly unique and useful resources to understanding one of Europe’s most multilingual countries.

The United Nations does not provide a clear definition of an indigenous language on the website devoted to IYIL2019. What we can say, roughly, is that it is a unique language or dialect spoken by a community of people recognized as Indigenous. The use of the capital I in Indigenous often implies that something – such as occupation, annexation, and colonization – has occurred to foreground the indigenous nature of a particular speech community. So, we might say that French is indigenous to Île de France, but Arawak is an Indigenous language of French Guiana, having been present prior to European contact and displaced by France’s colonization of the region (see here for the history of the United Nations’ recognition of and work with Indigenous Peoples). In the case of Russia, dozens of languages can be considered minority indigenous languages. Since the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow under Mongol vassalage in the late 13th century, the Slavic state has conquered and either assimilated or integrated communities of a wide variety of linguistic and ethnic traits into its political, economic and cultural fabric. The Finnic peoples closest to Moscow were the first groups to be subjugated by this nucleus of the Russian state. Over the centuries, however, the Russian Empire gradually came to rule over communities that spoke a plethora of Uralic, Turkic, Slavic, Baltic, Caucasian, Iranic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Eskimo-Aleut and other dialects and languages.

            Today, Russian is the official language of the Russian Federation. It is used at all levels of government and taught in schools across the country. In addition to it, a further 35 languages are official in various other subjects of the Federation. The most widely spoken of these other official languages is Tatar, official language of the Republic of Tatarstan and the native tongue of some 5.2 million people. In total, more than 100 minority languages are spoken in Russia, many of them by small communities; approximately 10 are severely endangered or nearly extinct. Although many languages have been documented and fully parsed by linguists over the 20th century, it is only in recent years that some of these communities have benefitted from concerted efforts towards revitalisation among a new generation of speakers.

            Interest in these languages was part of a much broader European pursuit for knowledge of the Other. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German, Swedish, Finnish, Russian, French, British and Hungarian scholars all undertook expeditions across the Eurasian landmass in order to document and hypothesize linguistic diversity. Many saw language as one piece of a broader descriptive product aimed at capturing and knowing entire communities, their history and their customs. This study of the Tungus and Sakha of Siberia, published in Leipzig in 1882, is a case in point. Their expeditions and endeavours continued up into the 20th century, helping to solidify Russia’s position as a fertile space for the collection of linguistic data. It was only the First World War and ensuing Revolutions and Civil War that put a dent into this practice, closing off the territory for all by a few scholars.

Once the Red Army has solidified Moscow’s control across the majority of the former Russian Empire after the Russian Civil War, the rules of the game changed considerably. No longer was research on indigenous languages an objective or supposedly ideologically neutral occupation (as many had told themselves it was). The Soviet state began to implement a new policy of language documentation for minority communities. This was a complicated process motivated by a number of different factors: the desire to control a Russian nationalist streak deemed “chauvinist” by Lenin; the need to retain support for Soviet authorities among the non-Russian communities within its sovereign territory; and an ideologically-motivated belief in the need to bring the “lesser-developed” groups up to speed with the USSR’s majority nation. Stalin himself proclaimed in 1922 that it was necessary to respect the national sentiments of “the Tatars and Bashkirs, the Uzbeks and Kirghiz, the Turkmens and Tajiks… peoples retarded in their cultural relations.” (From his “Наши задачи на востоке”, pages 109-111 in this history of the formation of the Kazakh ASSR).

            The Soviet state began this process by endowing languages with writing systems. Some communities had long-established traditions of writing in particular alphabets: Armenians; Georgians; Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles; Orthodox Slavic-speakers; Jews; and Muslim groups who made use of the Arabic script. Add to this pre-Revolutionary attempts at producing missionary and educational materials for non-Russian speakers in the Cyrillic alphabet, and it is easy to see just what a minefield this was. The group of communities employing the Arabic script proved to be highly problematic for a number of reasons. For one, the Arabic script was not used in a standardized fashion, and some stakeholders deemed it to be unsuited in its original form to reflect the linguistic make-up of non-Semitic languages. Moreover, the use of Arabic also carried a heavy ideological component, one that pointed to the unity of the community of believers, the majority of whom lived outside of Moscow’s grasp. Although languages as diverse as Tatar, Kazakh, Avar, Kurdish and even Lithuanian and Polish had been written in the script, Soviet bureaucrats decided, in 1926, to replace it with the Latin alphabet. It was believed to be more neutral than Cyrillic, which some Bolsheviks believed might court accusations of Russification. It was applied across the board, from languages with long literary traditions, such as Tatar, through to those newly introduced to the realm of writing, all of them now constrained by a system seen as scientific and precise.

            The 1920s and 30s saw a surge in publishing in the indigenous languages of the Soviet Union. For one, literacy and propaganda were great ways of expanding Moscow’s writ over peoples who did not necessarily look to it and the Soviet model as authorities. Many works produced were translations from Russian, but the expansion of Soviet education to all citizens of the Union also implied that more and more native speakers of indigenous languages were able to write and read in their languages in ways that would allow them access to Soviet publishers. For members of communities with established literary traditions, this sometimes meant the transition from one form of creative production to another. Thus, we see Tatar, Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, Crimean Tatar and other intellectuals who appeared prior to the Revolution popping up once again, this time espousing more “orthodox” Bolshevik views in addition to their original fields of interest. We also see new writers, formed in the Soviet mould, making use of the new venues of expression. Together, they all increased the output of European-style literature and non-fiction in their respective native languages.

            Stalinist repression brought about a considerable reduction in the freedom to create, and, through the Great Terror, in the sheer number of creators alive and free enough to write. The Second World War had mixed effects on this process. On the one hand, local nationalisms and religion were occasionally utilized as mechanisms for binding non-Russians to Moscow, rather than allowing them to fall prey to Nazi promises. On the other hand, perceived collaboration with the invading armies results in wholesale deportations of entire nations. The Crimean Tatars are a well-known example, but many other nations, including the Chechens and Ingush, suffered similar fates. Cultural production in these languages was thus difficult to maintain in the homeland in the 1950s and 60s, although some attempts were made in the destination of deportation. In those nations that did not suffer forced migration, the post-Stalinist period saw a regularization of cultural production. The British Library’s collections attest to some of these dynamics, thanks to exchanges with official bodies and national libraries in the Soviet Union, but there still likely rich literary and creative histories across indigenous Russia to which European and American readers have yet to be introduced.

            While Russian was clearly the “international language” in the Soviet Union, and the preferred means of higher education and social advancement, at least nominal support for indigenous languages was also maintained. Titular and non-titular minorities had access, at times, to publishing in their own languages. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, following the independence of many of the Soviet Socialist Republics, and the reorganization of Russia’s constitutional framework, proved to be a massive shock to this system. In some cases, the changes meant an indigenous language could be supported in the face of Russian. Plans for de-Russification were developed and implemented, with varying success. In other cases, the legal support for continued usage of a language in official circles began to weaken, and Russian benefited from its dominance in the mass media and official institutions to erode the position of indigenous linguistic communities. Add to this the economic shocks of the 1990s, and we’re faced with a decade that radically altered the position of the indigenous languages across Russia and the former Soviet Union.

            Today, the situation is far from settled, or even easily comprehensible. Outside of Russia, titular indigenous languages of the former Soviet Republics are thriving in print and online, thanks to state support. Arguments about scripts and Russification continue to pop-up – especially Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – but these are substantially different from those that arose in the 70s and 80s. A more contentious battle rages inside Russia proper, where the use of indigenous languages is facing a significant reversal after a period of relative stability. In 2002, the Duma required that all official languages in the Russian Federation be written in the Cyrillic alphabet. While this did not necessarily inhibit the production of literary or other works in indigenous languages in the country, it did underscore the point that language policy and development is still very much dependent on the (Russian-dominated) Duma. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that Russian citizens living in regions with another official language in addition to Russian should not be forced to learn the titular language if they are not of the titular nationality. In other words, he called for Tatar to be an optional subject of study for non-Tatars in Tatarstan, Bashkir to be optional for non-Bashkirs, and so on.

            What does this mean for publications in indigenous languages across Russia? In the short term, there’s likely to be a drop in the marketability of books in these languages. Already, many communities produce books that are intended for very small circulation amongst native speakers, preferring to employ Russian for productions of greater reach. For educational publishers and the larger linguistic groups, including Tatar, this likely implies that recouping costs has become even harder for books intended for mass audiences. In the long run, however, something a bit more dangerous might be happening. With the explicit message that indigenous languages are for intra-community usage, rather than inter-community communication, it is Russian that becomes the prized language for any topic that might reach beyond the parochial. This doesn’t mean immediate death for smaller- or medium-sized languages. It does mean an impoverishment, a banishment of them towards the realms so frequently deemed appropriate for intimate expression: folk literature; songs; children’s works. The complex and rich worldviews encapsulated in these linguistic structures, worldviews expressing unique approaches to science, history, gender, and a host of other topics, are thereby truncated, and the ideology incorporated in Russian comes to dominate.

            Whatever the cumulative effects of these dynamics on Russia’s indigenous languages in Russia, we haven’t seen the full brunt of them just yet. Books continue to be published in these lects; they find a home in online media; and digital technologies are helping to preserve the sights and sounds of these languages for future generations. What remains to be seen is if this is enough to buttress these communities against the onslaught of linguistic homogenization.  

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