The Ethnic Issue in Modern Russia – Part V

Dear Readers:

Today we will finish working through  this essay by Irina Alksnis.   After several detours which, hopefully, sparked some thoughts and interesting debates.

Irina writes that the overall stability of Russia, as a Federation of various nationalities, is not in doubt.  However, there are a few trouble spots and flashpoints here and there.  For example last month, on 21 October, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Sakha  (aka “Yakutia”) passed a ruling whereby only ethnic Yakuts are denoted as the “core people” of this small Republic.  This ruling could possibly cause friction between the two main ethnic groups residing there, namely Yakuts and Russians.

According to wiki, Yakutia is geographically HUGE, at over 3 million square kilometers.  It is the largest “subnational” governing body in the world.  The capital city is Yakutsk.  The population is just under a million souls, a mixture of Yakuts (a Turkic people who look like they could be Polovetskian extras in a production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor“) and Russians.

A typical Yakut couple

A burning issue in several national republics and autonomies is the teaching of the Russian language in school.  There have been attempts to shorten the number of hours spent teaching kids Russian and, instead, allocate that time to the teaching of the national tongue, be it Sakha or Tatar, or whatever.

While school issues are important to parents and ordinary people, Irina feels that the intra-national harmony of the Russian Federation is not at risk from ordinary people, but more from the regional and national elites.  As always, they are the ones stirring the pot.

The federal government, albeit sluggish, is starting to respond.  A main priority is the insistence that regional elites stop their sallies against the teaching of Russian in the schools.  It is easy to see why this is an important issue:  Russian is the main language of commerce and government in the Russian Federation.  Plus, it is a world language, rated 6th in importance worldwide, after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic and Hindi.  Compare this with the Yakut/Sakha language, which is spoken by only half a million people worldwide.

From the point of view of a professional Linguist, all languages are equal.  They are equally beautiful and equally effective.  This is not politically-correct cant-talk either, it’s the literal, biological truth.  Regardless whether the speakers live in a modern metropolis carrying iPhones, or out in the bush with some Stone Age tribe, any human language known to us, is capable of expressing any thought or concept.  Any one of the 6500 known human languages out there in the world could, with a bit of tweaking, form the basis of a modern literary language and national tongue.

The classic language lab!

But, while all human languages are equal, some are more equal than others.  This is a purely practical matter.  Think about it:  If you harbor big ambitions for your genius child, you want him to grow up to be internationally successful, and if you were given a choice for him to study either Svaneti or Mandarin Chinese, which would you pick for him?

Similarly, if children in the Russian hinterlands grow up speaking the Russian language very poorly, then this will impact their future and constrain their career opportunities.  If the youths get stuck in some geographical backwater with fewer jobs and nowhere to go, then they will become more beholden and more indentured to their regional and national elites.  Which is exactly the way the regional elites want it:  More hapless and tongue-tied serfs for them to rule, in their local fiefdoms!

Along these lines, the Russian Federal government declared this past May, that Russian would be taught as a separate discipline in the regional schools, and this will somehow mitigate the problem of teachers cutting back on the number of hours for Russian language instruction.  I don’t see how exactly this will work, especially if the Russian language class is optional, but I am trusting that Irina is reporting this fact correctly.

Irina makes the correct point that political leaders see the Russian language as key to building national unity and a functioning nation.  Americans can relate to that because in America (rapidly evolving into a bi-lingual nation), there is in many regions of the country the burning issue of English vs Spanish.  Of course, bi-lingual nations can also function very well — Quebec is an example of that — but in the Russian case it’s not just the issue of two languages, but of many, many languages.

In the recent Conference in Astrakhan, in which Putin gave a speech approving the proposed Amendment to the Preamble of the Russian Constitution, the President also called upon pedagogical institutes to prepare more cadres to teach the Russian language in regional schools.

From Soviet People To Russian People

Irina notes that the Russian Federation has drawn many lessons from the Soviet experience.  In a sense, the new-found concept of the “Russian” (российский) people is simply another rendering of the Soviet concept of the “Soviet man”.  The Soviet man was a citizen of the Soviet Union, which was a federation of nations.  Similarly, the “Russian” man is a citizen of the Russian Federation, even though he himself might not necessarily be an ethnic Russian, or even speak Russian as his native tongue.

On the other hand, there are very serious differences, according to Irina:

In the USSR ethnicity was considered an extremely important attribute of a person.  It was even written on people’s passports. This was partly a legacy of the Bolshevik era.  Recall that the early Russian Bolsheviks were forged in the cauldron of World War I, a highly messy ethnic bloodbath in the heart of Europe.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks were, frankly, obsessed with the ethnic issue, and with the idea that you have to bend over backwards to make everybody equal.  Plus, Lenin was an anti-Russian patriot to his core.  He hated Tsarist Russia.  He only starting liking Russia when it went Communist.  He wanted to make sure that all the non-Russian peoples living in this empire, got their fair due.

Modern Russia is gradually stepping away from these Leninist ideas and becoming less ethnically self-conscious.  That could be a good thing, in a way.  So long as ethnic differences are genuinely fading away, and not just being papered over.

In any case, the legal situation is completely different now.  The Soviet Constitution, in its exquisitive sensititivy towards national minorites, allowed them (at least on paper) the right to form autonomies, to form new republics (if they met a series of criteria), and even to secede from the Soviet Union.  Taking advantage of these laws, the Baltic Republics and Gruzia did precisely that, the moment they saw the opportunity.

Lenin looms over Astrakhan.

Compare this to the situation in the United States, where not one of the 50 states absolutely do NOT have the legal right to secede from the Union.  That issue was settled during the Civil War.  Hence, people who go around flipppantly calling for Texas to secede, are either ignorant or simply trouble-makers:  Such a secession is simply impossible without a major war and bloodbath.

And similarly, the modern Russian Federation does not have any legal basis whereby new national-territorial autonomies can be formed; nor any existing autonomies secede from the Federation.   This was laid down in Astrakhan.  National minorities still have rights, but these rights relate exclusively to their linguistic and cultural rights.  Like, they can wear costumes and perform folk dances, and stuff like that.  But not anything more meaty than that, such as breaking away and forming their own states.  Again, not without a bloodbath.  And that’s just the name of that tune.

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This entry was posted in Friendship of Peoples, Human Dignity, Russian History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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