On the day last month that hundreds paid their last respects to Albert Razin, the 79-year-old activist who burned himself to death in support of his native Udmurt language, the Moscow newspaper Izvestia published an op-ed column by a prominent scholar and Kremlin adviser on minority issues.
The author, Valery Tishkov, called Razin’s death a tragedy. However, he also all but called Razin — and the issue that Razin felt so passionately about — wrong.
“The transition to a state language is a natural process,” Tishkov wrote. “That is how our emigres in France, Germany, or America act. And no one condemns them for this. [Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn’s children grew up in Vermont and almost forgot Russian. Because with migration, an ethnic language can be preserved no longer than a generation or two.”
“In our country,” wrote Tishkov, who briefly served as minister of nationalities in 1992. “It would be better to study the language of a big people.”
The column attracted attention in certain circles in Russia — and not just for its timing. The commentary turned up the heat on a debate that has simmered in Russia for decades, but has approached an open boil in recent years.
In a sprawling country with more than 180 indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups, what do you do about the scores of languages — other than Russian — that are spoken around kitchen tables, in village lanes, and on local school buses, and that are enshrined in poems, songs, and literature?
For Razin, this was an existential question, as it continues to be for many activists and advocates for Russia’s smaller languages, whose native speakers are dying out with each passing generation.
And as Tishkov’s column indicated, for many top Russian officials, and many Russians themselves, it’s also an existential question — albeit for different reasons.
The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was hastened, or even caused by, dormant nationalist movements in the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and Central Asia bursting into the open. In the years that followed the collapse, other, smaller ethnic groups throughout Russia began to assert their identities, promoting their own languages and cultures distinct from Russia’s.
The trend worried the Kremlin, which feared a disintegration of the country. The First Chechen War resulted from Chechen separatists declaring independence in 1993. Mintimer Shaimiyev, who ruled Tatarstan for 19 years, carved out substantial autonomy for his region and secured legal recognition for Tatar as one of the region’s two official state languages.
In the 20 years that President Vladimir Putin has been in power, talk of outright separatism has been largely quelled, even as non-Russian ethnic groups have sought to keep their languages and cultures from dying out.
But in 2017, Putin said that children should not be compelled to study languages that are not their mother tongues and that are not considered official state languages.
There are approximately 35 languages that are considered “state languages” in addition to Russian in various regions, including Tatar. More than 100 others spoken in the country do not have official status under Russian law.
National languages are “an integral part of the indigenous cultures of the country’s peoples,” Putin said at the time. “The right to learn national languages is guaranteed by the constitution, and it is a voluntary right.”
But the message was clear: in regions where a substantial minority, or even a majority, spoke a language other than Russian, activists reported an uptick in inspections to ensure that only official languages were being spoken, and taught, in public schools.
In Bashkortostan, a Volga River region where Bashkir is spoken and is an official state language, regional prosecutors issued a warning to schools in 2017 that essentially said: don’t force children to study Bashkir.
“The law establishes the right, and not the obligation, to study the native languages and state languages of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation,” the statement said.
“In weaker republics, as we say, it was immediately clear, it was immediately felt, the resonance from Putin’s comments,” said Timur Aloyev, a Russian Academy of Sciences historian in the North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria and author of several articles about Russia’s smaller languages.
The following year, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed legislation ending the mandatory teaching of indigenous languages, even those with official status.
That prompted howls of protests from activists in places like Kabardino-Balkaria and other North Caucasus regions like North Ossetia and Daghestan, where more than a dozen languages are spoken. In Bashkortostan, Bashkir activists have been vocal in their opposition to Moscow’s policies.
In Tatarstan, which has a much larger and politically powerful ethnic constituency and where both Tatar and Russian were mandatory in schools, the law created immediate problems.
Shortly after the legislation was adopted, Tatar was removed as a mandatory subject for all students, and it is now taught only as an elective after a written request by a student’s parents.
In smaller regions with less politically powerful constituencies, like Udmurtia, the effect of the legislation was more severe. In the region’s main city, Izhevsk, as well as in rural towns and villages, there were a spate of reports of conflicts between native Udmurt and native Russian speakers.
Dying To Keep A Language Alive
On September 10, Razin, a scholar and activist who was a longtime vocal advocate for his native Udmurt language, staged a protest on the main square outside the regional legislature in Izhevsk. He held two placards reading: “If my language dies tomorrow, then I’m ready to die today” and “Do I have a Fatherland?”
After standing there for hours, he doused himself with a flammable liquid and lit himself on fire. He died a short while later with burns over his entire body.
“He always said, ‘it can’t get any worse’ during the Soviet era, when children were forbidden from speaking their native language among their own families,” Razin’s widow, Yulia Razina, said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “Teachers would come to homes and request that families only speak in Russian.”
“He was desperate,” she added. “He just threw up his hands. When you understand that this world is no longer for you…”
Two days after his death, Razin’s coffin was displayed at the Udmurt National Theater in Izhevsk, where hundreds came to pay their respects.
That same day, in his Izvestia commentary, Tishkov argued that “voluntary language assimilation is the norm, an inalienable right.”
But he also argued for a “transition to a state language,” and he suggested, at least in Russia, some languages were more equal than others.
“Languages must be equitable, but they cannot be equal in their use, capabilities, and status,” Tishkov, an adviser to Putin on nationalities issues, wrote. “In Russian, a significant part of the world cultural heritage has been created, such as, for example, the works of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Therefore, in our country, [Russian] will always have the advantage.”
For language activists like Almaz Imamov, an ethnic Tatar from the Tatarstan city of Naberezhnye Chelny, that assertion alone was a crime.
“This article contains proposals that incite discrimination and justify discrimination against the peoples of the Russian Federation regarding the use of their native languages in education and other fields,” Imamov wrote in a statement to local prosecutors, demanding a criminal investigation.
“The article uses insults and compares people studying their native language as the language of their nationality with the mentally ill,” he wrote.
“He is doing the same thing that was done during the Soviet Union,” Imamov said in an interview with RFE/RL. “That is, everyone should study Russian; everyone should only study Russian culture; only the Russian language should be in the first place.”
“It’s like with National Socialism in Germany,” he said, referring to the Nazi era. “There the language was German, here it’s Russian. There is no difference.”
For ethnic minorities within Russia, Tishkov’s comments were galling for other reasons too. Russian officials have loudly complained for years that Russian minorities in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia have been discriminated against, due to language laws or similar measures. Among the reasons cited by the Kremlin for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula is the alleged suppression of the Russian language there.
Razin’s desperation is shared by many of Russia’s smaller language communities, said Aloyev, who is based in the Kabardino-Balkaria capital of Nalchik, 2,000 kilometers south of Izhevsk.
“Of course, his act should become a kind of trigger for change,” Aloyev told RFE/RL. “The situation should spur people to make efforts for change…. I fully support [Razin’s] ideas about the need to save and preserve national languages.”