Mari – the language the Russians want to kill
By Edward Lucas
I like to think it was the only time in the history of journalism that
non-Estonians have used Estonian as a common language. I was in Yoshkar-Ola, the
capital (readers will instantly recall) of the republic of Mari-El, 800
kilometres east of Moscow.
“Used Estonian” should probably read “tried to use”. My active vocabulary
doesn’t go much beyond pleasantries and ordering meals in restaurants. But the
students I was with spoke it fluently. Their native Mari is part of the same,
Finno-Ugric, family of languages, and they had all spent time on scholarships in
Estonia. They did not want to talk Russian with me if they could help it: that,
they told me, was the “language of the occupiers”.
I thought they were joking. But they weren’t. They talked of Russian linguistic
and cultural chauvinism with the same resentment that I had heard from Estonians
and Latvians in the Baltic states a decade earlier.
Their hero was a local journalist and activist called Vladimir Kozlov. I liked
him a lot: he was clever, funny and sensible. There was no point, he argued, in
even talking about independence. The republic is landlocked, remote and the
600,000-odd ethnic Mari are outnumbered by Russians. But it was urgent, he
argued, to save the Mari language and culture from extinction. Television and
radio broadcasts, and Mari-language teaching, had been cut back very sharply. If
that wasn’t reversed, the language would be lost within a generation.
That was three years ago. Since then things have got worse, not better, for the
Mari. Many Mari-speakers have been sacked from jobs in officialdom. The governor
of Mari-El, an abrasive man called Leonid Markelov, used police to stop the main
Mari political movement holding a congress in December last year. In February,
my friend Mr Kozlov was beaten up — on the orders of the authorities, he says.
Recently, Mari activists have resorted to meeting in secret forest locations to
dodge the authorities. That’s highly symbolic: Mari is the last bit of Europe
where traditional pagan worship, largely centred on sacred groves, still
Now news of the Maris’ plight has spread. The Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe has investigated the issue—although thanks to pressure from
Russia, its report has not yet been published. In May the European Parliament
voted unanimously to deplore the Mari-El authorities’ ethnic policies. This is
thanks to lobbying from the Maris’ ethnic cousins: the Finns (who’ve been
quietly involved for years), the Estonians (much more noisily) and the
Hungarians. Last week the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Katalin Szili,
said that legislators from the three countries wanted to start formal
cooperation with elected representatives from the bits of Russia with
I doubt the dialogue will be very productive. The Kremlin thinks outsiders’
criticism is just a tit-for-tat tactic, aimed at distracting attention from
Estonia and Latvia’s “discrimination” against Russians on language and
citizenship issues. There may be something in that: it is certainly tempting (if
risky) for former captive nations like the Estonians to tweak Russia’s tail when
they can. But there is a real issue about the Maris’ rights, and it won’t go
And help, from an unlikely quarter, is at hand. This August, the “10th annual
International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies” will take place in Yoshkar-Ola.
Admittedly, philologists and literary critics are not everyone’s idea of a
revolutionary force. But the Mari are thrilled. The conference shows that far
from being useless peasant gobbledegook (as the authorities regard it), the Mari
language is something interesting and important. If only my Estonian was better,
I’d go myself.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Mari – the language the Russians want to kill
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
One minor plus of my years as a cold warrior was that Soviet-bloc
propaganda, though usually mad and horrible, was also
thought-provoking and even useful. Partly, it gave clues about their
thinking: "Why does the Kremlin think this is our weak spot right now,
and why are they attacking it this way in particular?". But it also
helped me think about what aspects of our own system were easy to
defend, and what were vulnerable to criticism.
That stimulus has largely withered with communism, and I rather miss
it. There are still echoes of it in Russia, but the focus is narrow:
even the apologists who defend the Stalinist version of history do so
for reasons of neo-imperialism and nostalgia, rather than out of
conviction that Soviet ideology of the time—dictatorship of the
proletariat, dialetical materialism and so forth--was actually right.
But that gap is at least partially filled by Belarussian state
television programmes. They are direct heirs of now long-forgotten
Cold-War offerings such as East Germany's Schwarzes Kanal [Black
Channel], whose venomous denunciations of West Germany's decadent
warmongering were the highlight of my week when I was covering the
"German Democratic Republic" in the late 1980s.
This week, for example, a top Belarussian propagandist, Yawhen Novikaw
(that's the Belarussian spelling: in the Russian that he broadcasts in
he would be Yevgeny Novikov), turned his attention to the BBC and
press freedom in Britain.
"A large-scale political punishment of journalists is taking place
right under their very nose, in their own city of London, and all
British democrats have buried their heads in the sand: we do not see
or hear anything. If such a shame were happening in any other country,
they would come to that country like a clan of crows" he argued.
That's odd. On my many visits to Belarus, I never found any details of
British internal politics, let alone the problems of cost-control in
public-service broadcasters, greatly figuring in popular
consciousness. But Mr Novihaw's lengthy programme did its best to make
the subject of last week's BBC strike interesting and relevant. It was
not just that the BBC was the subject of a vindictive attack by the
"Blair dictatorship", but the "thousands" of human rights lobbies in
Britain were hypocritically silent about the BBC's plight.
Personally, I'm rather sympathetic to the BBC management's attempt,
albeit belated and very limited, to cut the grotesque overstaffing and
extravagance in the corporation. And Mr Novikaw's argument is
preposterous as his facts are wrong: the strike lasted for one day,
not five; even the BBC's most ardent defenders do not link the death
of the weapons scientist David Kelly (murdered by Blair's goons,
according to Mr Novikaw) to the current rows about job cuts.
But the interesting points are different ones. For a start, broadcasts
like these are signs that foreign human rights outfits have the
authorities in Minsk rattled. Belarussian television has been devoting
much time lately to attacking their funding of local opposition
activities. A few days earlier Mr Novikaw attacked "the information
war unleashed against Belarus by Western structures", saying that all
revolutions lead to "blood and devastation".
Secondly, it is precisely because Belarus is a place where
broadcasters are under government control, and where people disliked
by the authorities do end up dead, that commentators like Mr Novikaw
need to maintain that countries like Britain are no better. High
ethical standards and strong institutions create the "soft power" that
will eventually disprove Mr Novikaw and topple his masters. So let's
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Imagine that a gang of thugs in your neighbourhood abducted and raped
your grandmother 60 years ago, stole and ruined your family property,
terrorised your family, and somehow got away with it due to some
failure in the law. Imagine that the gang's grandchildren—who claim to
be respectable citizens—now want to have normal neighbourly relations.
Fine, you might think—except that their version of events is
different. It wasn't rape, but marriage, they say. The property was
legally transferred. And everyone got along fine. So there's nothing
to apologise for.
That's pretty much how the Balts and Poles feel about Russia's
attitude to history. And for the British, these kinds of arguments
can seem rather enjoyable. It is quite satisfying to sit with east
Europeans, agreeing that the Germans have really done quite well
(although of course they will never quite redeem themselves); the
Austrians were worse than the Germans and never denazified properly,
so we can tut-tut about that. As for the Russians, they really are
outrageous, with their falsified, one-sided view of history. They
don't acknowledge properly the murder of thousands of Polish officers
at Katyn; they haven't really renounced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact;
they even feel nostalgic about Stalin and ignore their own gulags. No
wonder their democracy is skin-deep and everyone hates them.
But just to puncture the smugness, there is another side to British
history which is particularly on my mind at this time of year. That is
the dreadful events of 1945-47, when British and other allied forces
returned hundreds of thousands of Russians and Yugoslavs to their
death at the hands of the Soviet and Yugoslav Communists. These people
had surrended to the British and American forces because they knew
what fate awaited them if they fell into the hands of Stalin and Tito.
Admittedly they included Soviet forces who had switched sides and
fought for the Nazis, in some cases with exceptional brutality and
enthusiasm. In any event, they deserved war crimes trials, and some of
them, no doubt, the death penalty. But others had committed no
atrocities. Some anti-Communist Yugoslavs had actually been on our
side in the war -- at least until we cut off supplies and backed their
Communist adversaries in Yugoslavia's civil war.
British officials insisted—and sometime still insist—that they had
honour to the letter the agreements made with Stalin at Yalta and
elsewhere. Conditions were chaotic in 1945, with half the continent
starving, tens of thousands of British prisoners-of-war still in
Soviet hands, and Stalin extremely popular in both Britain and
America. But the story is still a dreadful one. British soldiers and
officials continued repatriating Russians and Yugoslavs even when it
was clear they were being murdered on arrival. They--we if you are
British—continued even when these people were killing themselves and
their families rather than be deported. We included people such as
Russians born outside the USSR, who were clearly not "Soviet citizens"
and therefore not covered by the agreement.
There's not much to be done about it now, apart from mourn and
remember. Most of the people who suffered as a result of Britain's
shameful behaviour are dead, so there is nobody left to rebuke us. But
when Brits endorse criticism of Russia's historical amnesia, their
censure carries most weight when they also recall that by this time in
June sixty years ago, the first of many tens of thousands of Cossacks
and other Russians, who had entrusted their lives to the British
authorities, were already dead.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
The Eurovision Song Contest is a rare chance for ordinary Europeans to
show their shared appreciation of cheesy music and tinselly smiles.
There were some nice notes of European togetherness too: the Croats
gave votes to the Serbs, and the Latvians to the Russians.
The single discordant note was that throughout the evening one country
was described only by a euphemism—the Former Yugoslav Republic of
Macedonia. In real life, though, only on-duty Greek officials and
their hangers-on actually use this clumsy formulation. The Greek
insistence on quibbling about Macedonia's name looks ever sillier,
more counterproductive and out of date.
It was understandable, perhaps, in 1991, when the British journalist
Neal Ascherson described Macedonia as the "Doomsday machine": the only
place in the region that could start a pan-Balkan war. Macedonia's
neighbours wanted it strangled—or dismembered—at birth: the Serbs
thought it was really southern Serbia, the Bulgarians considered it as
western Bulgaria, and the Albanians regarded it as eastern Albania. If
the Greeks, then the closest approximation to a western ally in the
region, were batty enough to believe it to be northern Greece, why
Even so, the reasons why Greece found the idea of an independent
country called Macedonia so threatening were hard to grasp. I remember
an erudite Anglophile Greek trying to explain it with an analogy. It
was, he said, as if France broke up into ethnically distinct bits, he
said, and Brittany announced that it would in future be called the
Republic of Britain. How would we like that, he asked? Surely we
would see this a threat to the territorial integrity of the United
Kingdom, and insist that the new state be called something else—the
Former French Province of Brittany, perhaps.
I could, just, see his point. Given the dreadful way that Greece has
treated its "slavophone" (actually Macedonian/Bulgarian) minority, I
could see that policy-makers in Athens might be a bit nervous about an
independent Macedonia attracting allegiances across the border. But
even that didn't seem insurmountable. Rather than bash Skopje, the
obvious solution was to be nicer to the Slavs in Thrace.
More than ten years on, the Greek position looks indefensible.
Macedonia is a poster-child of post-cmmunist harmony and
reconciliation. It is friends with Bulgaria, with the awkward question
of the linguistic differences between the two languages elegantly
parked. Thanks to the common language, Bulgarian tourists love the
place. And to appease the large Albanian minority, and western human
rights doctrine, Macedonia has become in effect a bi-communal state—a
kind of Belgium of the Balkans. It is messy, but it is working.
Greek businessmen have shown no hesitation about trade and investment
with their northern neighbour, whatever they call it. So why do
officials persist in their mean-minded attempt to bully Macedonia into
a name change? Macedonia has already changed its flag and constitution
to underline the fact that they don't intend to attack Thessalonika
(though anyone who ever thought that was remotely conceivable should
try staying off the raki).
But Greece is still insisting that the country should call itself
(even in English) Republika Makedonija-Skopje. Bending over to be
conciliatory (and keen to get their EU agreement in December) the
Macedonians have even agreed that they will use this bizarre
formulation in bilateral dealings with Greece. Greece should accept
that offer at once, end this dismal feud, and get on with more
important diplomatic tasks—like preparing for next year's Eurovision.
Who knows, in future they might even get some votes from Macedonia.