Most people in the Caucasus feel they are facing a cultural onslaught, equating the bill to the policy of former Russian emperor Tsar Nicholas II, who wanted Russian to be prioritised over other native languages.
Imagine finding yourself in a predominantly mountainous region full of different-sounding languages. Between the Caspian and the Black Sea, there are several linguistic hotspots – the Caucasus – also known as ‘a mountain of languages’.
To the north is the western part of the Eurasian steppe, to the south is the hill country of northern Mesopotamia. This place always had a unique structure and socio-political set-up, in which ethnicities, nations and languages thrived and moved between Asia and Europe.
Seventeen-year-old Fatima was born in Daghestan, a little-known republic of Russia ringed by mountains in the North Caucasus, where 36 nationalities, including Avars, are found.
“An ancient legend says: when God distributed languages to people, he got them out of his magic bag. Lastly, when he reached the Caucasus, he just shook all what was in the bag over the mountains,” Fatima says, breaking into laughter.
Ossetic, Talysh, Abkhaz, Ubykh, Chechen, Ingush, Svan and Avar are just a few of the indigenous languages spoken in the Caucasus. More than 40 languages and hundreds of dialects are spoken in this part of the world. However, in total, more than 131 languages within the Russian Federation are considered endangered by the UNESCO.
Fatima is one of few students who is trying to build awareness that their language is becoming extinct due to the community pressure to integrate with the Russian state. On June 19 2018, the Russia’s federal assembly adopted a bill on studying native languages and regional ethnic languages in schools. Except Russian, the bill made education in 34 of Russia’s 35 official languages optional, Even before the first reading, the bill caused widespread public outcry.
Fatima smoothly and spontaneously, with a sign of pride emanating from her tone, recites a poem in Avar tongue from a famous Daghestani poet, Ramsul Gamzatov:
“May other tongues cure other men, in their particular way, but if tomorrow Avar (language) dies, I’d rather die today!”
For her, Gamzatov’s poems reflect the richness of the world of vision inherent to bilinguals. Cultural and linguistic awareness were deeply ingrained within Fatima’s personality through the poems and songs her grandmother would recite.
“I am lucky to be raised in both Avar and Russian language. We should not have duality or contradictions between these two languages. However, with this law not only did Russian become the official language, but also acquired the status of a ‘native’ (language), by making us feel less Avar,” says Fatima, emphasising her fear of losing her Daghestani culture.
“We have fascinating geography full of mountains. Have you ever thought that mountains shape human languages and the way we speak?” Fatima suddenly asks, with a tone of excitement.
According to her, the reason for such diversity is mountains isolating populations into remote valleys, giving rise to different languages. The rugged landscape, high peaks and dense rivers marking the ‘Mountain of Languages’ have given the region a brilliant and intricate linguistic legacy.
In her best-known book Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time, Johanna Nichols, Professor Emerita at the University of California, explains why there are so many languages in the Caucasus. Many languages of various families have been preserved in different, often high-altitude mountainous ‘residual zones’, leading to the occurrence of different sounds and phonological form throughout the myriad languages of the Caucasus.
“Just imagine, we cannot understand neighboring mountain villages due to the geographical isolation and formations of diverse linguistic families,” says Fatima.
Some political analysts and linguists have deemed this bill as a policy of Russification. As many as 87 linguists from different universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Italy contacted the State Duma with a demand to reject the draft law. The Russian President argued that it was wrong to force someone to learn a language that is not their own and that the Russian language was “the spiritual framework” of the country that “cannot be replaced with anything”. Stopping mandatory lessons in native languages by Vladimir Putin was seen as a move to “build one identity in Russian society” in the country, predominantly in the Caucasian Mountains.
Last year, Fatima studied Avar language for about five to six hours per week. With the new ruling, she’s only able to study the language for maximum of one hour per week. “This law is a threat to this linguistic diversity,” she says, her words betraying frustration. “How can they put limits on our education and deprive us of studying our own language?”
With the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the mid-19th Century, individual ethnic groups such as Circassians, Ingush and Chechens were exposed to the cultural assimilation process under Alexander III. This policy, also known as Russification, was designed to force them to give up the culture and language of non-Russian communities in favor of the Russian one. By changing one’s ethnic self-label and identity, the Russification policy tried to establish a united national image and rearrange local social structures.
Not much changed with the creation of the Soviet Union. Even though Soviets were considered as having a relative linguistic ‘liberalism’, they embarked upon their own type of linguistic Russification. In 1917, Soviet authorities decided to abolish the use of the Arabic alphabet in native languages in Central Asia, the Caucasus and in the Volga region of Tatarstan, replacing it with a Cyrillic script. Gradually, Russian language instruction intensified in the 1920s and became a compulsory learning language in 1938. Most universities require non-Russians to pass an entrance examination in Russian language and literature, so the incentive for learning Russian grew gradually.
Locals perceive the new law as a revival of Russification. It has created tensions not only in the Caucasus, but also in other Russian federal states. The first imposition of this law took place in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, as a result of which teachers of the Tatar language were fired, making language a highly sensitive political issue. All autonomous regions responded positively to the language bill, except Tatarstan.
Fauziya Bayramova, Tatarstan’s outspoken activist, writer and leader of the Tatar national movement, is among the critics who complain that this new legislation represents a profound threat to the Tatar identity. She warned that the bill would endanger their language and history. She suggests that it is a part of a misguided effort to simply “make everyone Russian”.
“We are all witnessing cultural genocide, because language is what keeps nations alive. Today we will not be able to notice it, since we have a generation that speaks, reads and writes in the Tatar language. However, imagine what will happen after 10 years. The new generation will no longer be able to express themselves in their native language,” Bayramova tells TRT World, her voice filled with anger and frustration.
According to her, Putin has continued to view the non-Russian populations as a potential threat to the Kremlin’s authority and so-called ‘stability’. National minority languages in the North Caucasus were already under threat, but the last law has opened the door for greater suppression and restrictions on expressing their identity fully.
“As the national intelligentsia of Tatarstan, we are aware of what we are losing. Schools are the only institutions to systematically teach native languages of the ethnic groups. With this law Tatars will lose everything: national television, national literature, national theatre- because everything functions with the language,” Bayramova argues.
The Kremlin is increasingly framing a programme of cultural homogenisation by removing support for the curriculum with ethnic-regional education, minority languages and their history. According to Bayramova, the Kremlin intends to use a free choice of language teaching as the means of assimilation to advance its nation-building agenda.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, with Chechen and several other Caucasian languages on the list. However, as the new bill was tabled in the Duma, not a single North Caucasian representative voted against it. North Caucasus has always been kept under a high-security control as every move against the Kremlin’s decision is considered as ‘separatist’ or a ‘threat’. Most of the representatives from that region had been picked for their loyalty to the Kremlin and keeping ‘stability’ in the region. As Bayramova comments: “Chechens, Ingush and Daghestanis are deceiving themselves. They assume that speaking native languages at home will be enough. However, gradually the language will die out.”
While on the other hand Chechnya’s minister of communications, Dzhambulat Umarov tells TRT World that nothing is wrong with the law and it must be fulfilled by all students.
“I have no doubt that the nations of the Russian Federation had, have and will have the right and desire to learn their own languages. It is understandable why people do not want to learn the language because our subjects are multinational, and representatives of other nationalities do not want to learn additional languages of the indigenous peoples of the subject. This is their right. The law does not violate the rights of the nations of the Russian Federation. They only reaffirm their commitment to the leadership of the Russian Federation on democratic principles,” says Umarov.
Understanding the Russian government’s attitudes and policies towards ethnic minority groups has become critically important since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its hybrid warfare campaign. Russia’s efforts to influence and reintegrate all ethnicities under a common language and history urges us to ask if Moscow seeks to return to the Russification policies of the Tsarist era.