“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm.” Now, Vladimir Putin has applied this to Russia by saying that all non-Russians must learn Russian, but that no ethnic Russian must be compelled to learn a republic language even if he or she lives in a non-Russian republic.
Such comments are music to the ears of Russian nationalists, but this asymmetric approach is highly offensive to many non-Russians, who are quite prepared to learn Russian but who believe that those who live among them on the territories where they are the titular nationality should learn their languages as well.
By coming down in this way, the Kremlin leader has guaranteed that the divide between Russians and non-Russians in the republics will deepen, that nationalist passions on both sides will intensify, and that more conflicts will arise as both sides see this move as another step to the liquidation of the non-Russian republics and what’s left of Russian federalism.
At a session of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Issues on July 20 in the Mari El capital of Ioshkar-Ola, Mr. Putin made three pronouncements on ethnic relations: the first on the difference in status between Russian and non-Russian languages, the second on ethno-tourism and the third on who should be running nationality policy (business-gazeta.ru/article/352146).
First of all, Mr. Putin told the group that “the Russian language for us is the state language, the language of inter-ethnic communication, and it cannot be replaced by anything else. It is the natural spiritual skeleton of all our multi-national country. Everyone must know it… The languages of the peoples of Russia are also an inalienable aspect of the unique culture of the peoples of Russia.”
But their status is very different, the president continued. Not only are they not part of the state as Russian is, but they are the languages only of the peoples who bear them. Studying them is “a right guaranteed by the Constitution,” but it is “a voluntary right,” not an obligatory one, Mr. Putin noted. “To force someone to study a language which is not his native tongue is impermissible.”
Indeed, it is “just as impermissible as reducing the level of instruction in Russia. I call on the heads of the regions of the Russian Federation to devote particular attention to this.” That is, to pay attention to any cutbacks in the number of hours of Russian language instruction in favor of required courses in other languages.
Second, Mr. Putin, like many leaders of a multi-national state in which one ethnic community is dominant, reduces the ethnic issue to one of festivals and tourism. On July 20 he talked about the need for “branding” the regions and republics so that they could attract more tourists and be better known to others. He did not mention anything about strengthening them.
Specifically, Mr. Putin said that “the development and popularization by municipalities of ethno-cultural brands” is critical because Russia “is unique in the multiplicity of its nature and national traditions.” But unfortunately, “access to their study is limited not only by insufficient infrastructure but by the lack of initiative at the local level.”
And third, Mr. Putin talked about the extraterritorial national communities, about municipalities and about his plenipotentiaries to the regions. He did not talk about the non-Russian republics, a silence that spoke more loudly than any of his declarations about where he plans to go next.
Not surprisingly, this Russian-centric vision has attracted enthusiastic reviews from Russian nationalists and centralizers. (For a sampling of their praise of Mr. Putin’s latest moves, see politikus.ru/v-rossii/print:page,1,97010-putin-ukazal-na-nedopustimost-sokrascheniya-chasov-izucheniya-russkogo-yazyka-v-respublikah-rf.html, idelreal.org/a/28630266.html, ruskline.ru/news_rl/2017/07/21/polozhitelnye_podvizhki_v_nacionalnoj_politike_sovpadenie_ili_tolko_nachalo/, and stoletie.ru/na_pervuiu_polosu/putin_russkij_jazyk_nichem_zamenit_nelza_998.htm.)
But it has also generated a lot of negative reaction as well from non-Russians who can see the handwriting on the wall and have turned to the Internet to share their concerns. (For reviews of their comments, see turantoday.com/2017/07/russia-republics-indigenous-languages.html, idelreal.org/a/sotsseti-o-viskazivanii-putina-pro-russkiy-yazik/28630274.html and idelreal.org/a/reaction-tatarstana-na-slova-putina-o-russkom-yazike/28630471.html.)