Friday, July 25, 2008

Europe View no 91


For your freedom and ours
Jul 24th 2008

Captive nations inside Russia

Is Cornwall a “captive nation”? As last week’s Europe.view noted, influential Russians are pushing for America to rewrite the resolution that marks its Captive Nations Week (the third week in July), to make it clear that communism, not Russia, is the target. An even trickier question is not what other former Soviet-ruled countries make of this, but of Russia’s own internal composition—which includes places that some might also count as “captive”.

Countries’ borders grow and shrink, partly by consent, but also by conquest. Nations—defined, loosely, as people sharing a common language or culture—may find themselves no longer masters in their own house. Some may despair. Others start plotting.

Practicality is not the main determinant. In Cornwall, which lost its independence around 875AD, a doughty band of campaigners has revived the language and hopes to win back more rights. But compared to Scotland, where the separatist tide is running strongly, theirs looks like a lost cause. So does secession in Vermont, say, or Hawaii. In Russia, at least for now, those reviving, say, the Siberian language, or commemorating the short-lived and abortive independence of the Siberian republic in 1918, look a lot closer to Cornish nationalism than Scottish. But for how long?

Since 1991 the state calling itself the Russian Federation has been a miniature, de-communised version of the Soviet Union, paying lip-service to multi-ethnicity, but withholding actual cultural or political freedom from non-Russians: when Tatarstan wanted to write the national language in the orthographically better-suited Latin alphabet, the Kremlin insisted that Cyrillic was the only script to be used officially in the Russian Federation, regardless of practicality.

Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40% to about 25m. By 2015, Muslims will by some estimates make up a majority of the army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population—by far the majority in some regions.

How many of those Muslims will look to the tolerant “Euroislam” pioneered in the Tatar capital, Kazan, in the early years of the last century, or to indigenous Sufi forms, and how many may look abroad for more radical forms of Islam?

Added to ethnic and religious discontent is a growing regional consciousness. The colossal bribe-collecting opportunities created by Putinism have heightened the divide between big cities (particularly Moscow) and the rest of the country.

Heightened resentment does not mean that Russia is going to fall apart as the Soviet Union did. For now, no part of the Russian Federation looks remotely like being a viable independent state. Even the most ardent supporter of Captive Nations Week would not argue that the “Idel-Ural” that it cites (present-day Tatarstan, Bashkiria and their Finno-Ugric neighbours, briefly independent after 1917) has any chance of a Baltic-style breakaway.

But if anything can upset the post-1991 apple cart it will be ethnic-Russian chauvinism and heavy-handedness. As Paul Goble chronicles in his “Window on Eurasia” bulletins (a must-read for anyone interested in the politics of post-Soviet ethnicity), the Sochi Olympics have fuelled the revival of national consciousness among the Circassians. For this far-flung ethnic group, scattered throughout Asia Minor and the Levant by near-genocidal Czarist brutality, seeing the Olympics being planned at the site of their greatest historical tragedy is hugely offensive: some compare it to how Jews would react to a big international sporting festival being held at Ravensbrück or Dachau.

Russian ethno-nationalism, coupled with bad government, may disillusion Russians of all stripes with the lingering imperial features of Russian statehood. If talk of “captive nations” jars Russian sensibilities, the best answer is the great slogan of freedom-lovers in the Czarist empire: “for your freedom and ours”.

1 comment:

sols said...

Even by standards of biased “viewpoint” journalism of Edward Lucas this piece is too much. It is based on Internet prank, misrepresentation of facts, etc.

“Siberian” language was an Internet prank, somebody claimed that “Siberian” dialect of Russian language exists and tried to create “Siberian” version of Wikipedia. Most of these pages were empty shells, or contained f-words, lies, prank, etc. No evidence of existence of such “dialect” was found outside of the Internet:Сибирская_Википедия

And here we go: “respectable” now talks about “suppression” of “Siberian” language and Internet prank became a matter of serious discussion.

Clearly, the author either doesn’t have any idea about real situation in Tatarstan or doesn’t want to admit the truth. As a native of Kazan, I can testify that discrimination does exist in Kazan, that is discrimination of Russians. A good friend of mine whom I know since childhood tried to get a job in the local government in Kazan. He was explicitly told that he won’t get such a job because he is ethnical Russian, and not Tatar. And this is not the only example.

The opposite is not true: Tatars are well represented in the federal government of Russia: Rashid Nurgaliyev is a minister of interior (basically in charge of police) and Elvira Nabiullina is a minister of economic development and trade.

Also, the author had to note (at least for the sake of objectivity) that teaching of Tatar is compulsory in Tatarstan for everybody now. When I was in school it was voluntary for non-Tatars.

I agree it was a bad idea to prohibit usage of whatever alphabet. But why is Latin “orthographically better-suited” for Tatar language as author stated? I heard this statement before but nobody could give any reasonable argument why. Current Tatar alphabet is Cyrillic-based but it is not actually readable for Russians because it contains letters which are not present in Russian version of Cyrillic alphabet.

The history of alphabet question is interesting: in the late 1920s comrades Stalin and Lunacharsky, his minister of education, wanted all languages in the USSR (including Russian) to switch to Latin. However, because of huge costs they decided to start from minority languages. Tatars used Arabic before that.

Then, 12 years later comrade Stalin changed his mind (Lunacharsky was gone by that time). Stalin ordered all minority languages to switch to Cyrillic-based alphabets. How does that make Latin “the orthographically better-suited”? Why not Arabic-based?

Yes, I agree that Russification did happen at various points in history. However, for example, Tatar language is well and alive after more than 450 years in Russia. Compare this to the fate of Irish language, here is a good quote from Wikipedia:

“The official languages are Irish and English. Teaching of the Irish and English languages is compulsory in the primary and secondary level schools that receive money and recognition from the state. ... English is by far the predominant language spoken throughout the country.”

And this is so even though Ireland became independent country long time ago and government spent a lot to teach Irish! In reality, people, who visited Ireland, say that Irish is almost never used in practice. So, how does Russification compare to Englification?