Thursday, January 23, 2014

Non-Russians in the Russian Federation Fighting a Two-Front Language War

By Paul Goble

The non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation are increasingly fighting a two-front war in their struggle to preserve their languages and national identities. On the one hand, they are seeking to ensure that members of their own nationalities continue to speak their native languages despite all the pressures from the Russian government and the increasingly pervasive Russian-language media environment. And on the other, they are pushing for the governments of their republics to require that all residents study the language of the titular nationality and not be able to opt out if they are ethnic Russians or non-Russians who view Russian as a path to preferment.

These struggles are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months, with the non-Russians in some of the republics winning victories and those in others suffering clear if not yet irreversible defeats. Two republics on the front lines of these struggles are now Buryatia, a Buddhist republic adjoining Mongolia with whose people its nation is closely related, and Udmurtia, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga that has developed ties not only with other Finno-Ugric republics in the Russian Federation but also with Estonia and Finland.

In Buryatia, a group of cultural figures have launched on YouTube an appeal to their co-ethnics to speak Buryat as much as possible ( They have also launched an online petition to Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, the president of the Buryat Republic, to do far more to promote the use of the Buryat language there (

On YouTube, the Buryat writers and artists say that “our language is who we are” and that any failure to use it or to view it as simply a legacy of the past condemns the Buryats to extinction. Significantly, at least from Moscow’s point of view, those making the appeal talk about the Buryats not only in the Buryat Republic but in the two Buryat autonomies that Putin has amalgamated into larger Russian-majority federal subjects.

And in the appeal, which is offered in both Russian and “Mongol,” given the shared language of the Buryats and the Mongols—the Buryats were called Buryat Mongols until the late 1930s, when Stalin changed their name to stress their distinctiveness and isolate them from Mongol influences—provides a more detailed enumeration of Buryat complaints and demands. It adds that if Buryats are deprived of their language, that will also undermine the Buddhist traditions of the people because Buryat is the language of prayer.

It notes that, at present, street signs in Buryatia are typically only in Russian, as are government documents and declarations. “This year,” the authors of the appeal say, Buryats even “were prohibited from writing commentaries and articles in their native language on the Internet,” even though “many national republics in Russia” permit that.

The time to act is now, the appeal continues, because Moscow media often refer to the Buryats as “the most russified nation in Russia.” Given that Buryat is a government language in the republic it says, that situation must be changed, and a necessary first step is to make the study of Buryat compulsory and the use of Buryat equal to that of Russian in all public spheres.

That is what the Buryat residents of the republic want, the appeal says, noting that at present some 15 to 20 young people compete for each space in the few Buryat-language schools and that demand for Buryat-language publications far outstrips demand. At least ten additional Buryat-language schools need to be opened, local television must increase Buryat-language programs, and the republic government should follow Tatarstan’s lead and give bonus pay to officials who know Buryat. Tatarstan currently pays officials who know Tatar 16 percent extra. In Buryatia, the appeal suggests, the figure could be 10 percent.

But perhaps the most intriguing demand the appeal makes is to ask for the introduction of lessons in schools in the Old Mongolian script, something that would open the common Mongolian past to Buryats today, and for the establishment of free courses in Buryat for all in the republic who want to learn it.

These are ambitious demands, and the Buryats are unlikely to have all of them satisfied. One indication of that is in Udmurtia where local nationalists have been pressing for making Udmurt a required subject for all students in the republic ( Russian parents have actively opposed that idea, arguing that none of their children need to know Udmurt and that any time spent on Udmurt is wasted given that students must pass university entrance examinations in Russian.

According to reports this past week, the Russian parents have won, and the Udmurts have lost. In February, Udmurt officials will promulgate a law that says no one has to study Udmurt, an action that is likely to spark new protests there and elsewhere (

Friday, January 17, 2014

Is Moscow Equating Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia?

By Paul Goble

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state is creating problems for Moscow in the North Caucasus. On the one hand, Abkhazia has not received the international recognition that the Russian government said it hoped for and thus remains in the minds of many a Russian project. And on the other, Moscow often treats Abkhazia like one of its own North Caucasian republics, an approach that may be tactically sound but that has the effect of sparking expectations of greater independence among the latter, something Moscow does not want.

Almost a year ago, Izvestiya reported that Moscow was planning to create a defensive perimeter for the Sochi Games along the borders of Abkhazia and Kabardino-Balkaria, in effect, as a close observer in the region put it last week, placing the two behind the same border and thus treating them the same—at least for this purpose—and effectively equating their status (;

Given how careful Russian officials are about discussions of dividing lines—in Soviet times, the annual publication of guides to the administrative-territorial division of the country was one of the most politically sensitive of all government public documents—many will read Moscow’s decision to group Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia together as significant. At the very least, this decision may indicate that some in Moscow are thinking about status changes in the future.

At the same time, however, mistakes or at least apparent mistakes in this realm do happen. Two of them are particularly noteworthy in this regard. In 2005, a Russian military mapping agency published an atlas showing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) “rose of the four winds” as part of the official shield of Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous exclave of the Russian Federation between Poland and Lithuania. Book dealers said at the time that the edition of 10,000 had immediately sold out and that copies had become “bibliographic rarities” (

A second and more intriguing “mistake” came in March 1990. At that time, Soviet generals told Philip Peterson, then a distinguished Pentagon researcher, that their defense planning maps for the year 2000 did not include the three Baltic countries as part of the USSR. They were certainly prescient: within two years, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had recovered their independence and in 12 years, the three had joined NATO.

But the way in which that Soviet judgment surfaced raised questions as to whether the generals’ comments were really a mistake. On March 12, 1990, The Washington Times reported on its front page the dramatic celebrations in Vilnius after elections there had allowed a newly formed parliament to declare the recovery of Lithuanian independence. The very same day, that paper carried on an inside page an article about the judgments of the Soviet generals as reported by Philip Peterson.

That conjunction had real consequences: it led some in Washington to fear that overt Western support for Lithuania at that time might be seen in Moscow as a tilt against the Soviet Union. One needs to ask: Is Moscow again sending a signal—and if so, to whom?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Traditional Islam Does Not Mean What Moscow Thinks It Does

By Paul Goble

Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and most leaders of Russia’s Muslim community have said that “traditional Islam” must be the dominant form of the Islamic faith in the Russian Federation. Although few define it, an examination of their statements makes clear that what the advocates of this kind of Islam have in mind mostly resembles what existed in Soviet times: an Islam largely confined to the mosque and to rituals and one that plays only the smallest role in public life.

But now Ildar Bayazitov, a mullah in Tatarstan, has taken up the challenge of using that term but giving it a very different meaning than the one many in Moscow would like. Writing in “Tatar Zamany” last week, Bayazitov notes that “traditional Islam” is today “one of the most discussed terms” among Russia’s Muslims, many of whom consider it to be some kind of “innovation”—one of the most damning words in the Islamic vocabulary (

According to the Tatar mullah, “traditional Islam is Prophetic Islam,” and the term itself had to be introduced in Russia relatively recently because there have appeared so many “sects and pseudo-Islamic doctrines” which have sought to use Sunni Islam for their own purposes. It does not mean “ethnic Islam”; indeed, that combination of words should not be used. Moreover, he says, “traditional Islam is scientific and enlightened Islam,” always contemporary and always involved with the most advanced educational and scientific work. It is thus “a stimulus for development.” And “traditional Islam is social Islam,” invariably involved in the public sphere. “As never before,” Bayazitov writes, “social work has great importance,” including charity work, “the resolution of social problems, and the social integration of Muslims in the societies where they live.”

“It is obvious,” he continues, “that Muslims also must make a significant contribution to the resolution of social problems that have arisen in the country. For that reason too, social service is the obligation of each Muslim, from the ordinary member of a congregation to the imams and members of the ulema.”

Bayazitov concludes that “as we understand the term, ‘traditional Islam’ is the quintessence of the entire meaning of Islam, its letter and its spirit. It defines the tradition of following the Koran and the sunna as the foundation of the life of Muslims, the recognition of local conditions and culture, which do not contradict Islam, the resolution of social problems and the active participation in contemporary achievements such as the development of science, industry, economics and art.”

What “traditional Islam”—as Bayazitov defines it—clearly does not include is a requirement to reduce the faith to a matter of ritual within the walls of the mosque. That poses a serious challenge both to the leadership of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates that the Russian government hopes will control the country’s Muslims as well as to Moscow itself. Indeed, Bayazitov’s article may have the effect of forcing the central authorities to define their terms, making clear to all that what they understand by Islam does not necessarily reflect the understanding of the Muslim faithful.