Language situation in the Northern Caucasus

Language situation in the Northern Caucasus

Alik Pukhaev’s essay about the situation with the Ossetic, Adyghe, Karachay-Balkar, and other languages.

Alik Pukhaev is the author of the Rajdian blog on history, architecture, and regional politics of North Ossetia (YouTubeInstagram). In his essay for Beda, he evaluates the state of the North Caucasian languages five years after the passing of the law that made the studying of the native languages “voluntary” in Russia. He talks about the ongoing fight that the residents of the region lead for their languages’ survival, and breaks down the reasons why their use has reduced today.

In the North Caucasus, the popularity of ethnic content—folk music, old-fashioned household items, traditional clothing, etc.—has been growing for the past five to seven years. This Caucasian renaissance is nothing but the consequence of a vast part of the indigenous culture starting to disappear at breakneck speed. Things which used to be seen as something trivial and simple are now perceived among the younger Сaucasian generation as something significantly valuable.  

The Russian state language policy has pushed the indigenous languages of the peoples of the Northern Caucasus out of the public sphere, confining them within the realm of domestic communication. Local authorities often say that the family is to blame for the disappearance of the mother tongue, while in fact, having its existence limited only to conversations within the family is the very path to its extinction. Nafi Dzhusoity, one of the last Ossetian classics, once said that the development of language is related to its functioning in every field of public life:

“Throughout the years of the Soviet legal order and to this day, we Ossetian people (intellectuals and government officials particularly) have been making efforts to diminish the sphere of our mother tongue’s functioning. First, we banished it from high school, and later, in 1963, from primary school. It resulted in a complete detachment of native speakers from their mother tongue and subjected them to a rapidly growing assimilation. Ossetic is now going through a deep crisis. In order to escape from this stalemate, we have to bring the language and its school functions back, which means making Ossetic the language of education at least up to eighth grade, i.e. up until the students are 14-15 years old, when their language sense is fully formed. Should we not do so, all the talks about developing the Ossetic language, saving it and building a moral culture upon it will turn into mere babbling of garrulous ignoramuses.”

The majority of regional experts are sure that the extinction of languages is induced at the institutional level. Thus, Natalia Kolesnik, research scientist at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS), argues in her 2019 work Kabardino-Circassian Language: Aspects of Language Policy at the Present Stage that the public authorities of Kabardino-Balkar Republic pursue such language policy in the field of education that it cannot but arouse criticism among the residents that are concerned about their language. “One has to admit that a constant shortening of the amount of language functioning at all education levels has been taking place over the past 10-15 years – from preschool to higher education,” Kolesnik writes.

She also cites the opinion of the Coordinating Council of Adyghe public associations and the Association of Teachers of the Adyghe Language who are terribly concerned about young people not knowing their mother tongue at a sufficient level with the situation getting worse annually. Moreover, children in villages can get by with a colloquial language, while the majority of their city peers cannot use their native language to express themselves freely. 

“A high percentage of people who speak their native language does not accurately depict the language situation because, in our opinion, the census tends to show a slightly overestimated self-esteem of those who speak Kabardian and Balkar as their native languages,” an article of the Institute of Humanitarian Studies of Kabardino-Balkar Scientific Center at the RAS claims.

The situation is quite similar in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, where the spheres in which Ossetian could be used tend to shrink. It can be observed all too well in the wake of the Ossetian people migrating en masse from their native villages to the Russian-speaking Vladikavkaz, the capital of the region which has become a center of attraction for each and every citizen of the republic. The situation is only exacerbated by a dismally meager number of Ossetian-speaking kindergartens in Vladikavkaz, all of which are private as well. It appears that the state education system has simply rejected the Ossetian language. According to Aslan Kudzaev, creator of the Bærzæfcæg project and developer of the online spell checking system for the Ossetian language, “Kindergartens are becoming the place where children lose their mother tongue rapidly and switch into Russian.”

“There still is that stereotype that children in Vladikavkaz do not speak Ossetian, but children in villages do. Nevertheless, the situation has radically changed recently; even in the villages, children do not speak their native language anymore. I can tell judging by the children of my friends and relatives who live in the villages. Russian is used widely in rural kindergartens. I am worried and surprised; in fact, children stop speaking their native language because they speak Russian in kindergartens. What is especially sad is that parents seem to be absolutely unconcerned about the situation,” Kudzaev noted. 

He also pointed out that “if earlier urban residents had an opportunity of sending their children to rural areas where they could pick Ossetian up being immersed in the language environment, now it’s become meaningless.” Kudzaev claims that the language environment is nearly ruined in all more or less major towns. 

Professor Zukhra Kuchukova, who holds a doctoral degree in philology, also shared a similar opinion in a podcast covering the so-called “native languages” law, which in 2018 canceled the obligatory studying of the indigenous languages of the republics.

“It is the kindergartens that are the ‘killers’ of native languages. These are not my words, but I often see them on social media. Apparently, this is true: a child goes to a kindergarten, and for some reason they immediately become accustomed not to talk in their native language,” said Kuchukova.

The project of building a non-ethnic identity of Russian citizens, for which the word “” was coined (as opposed to ethnic Russians, “russkiye”), has failed, with the former word even having gained a pejorative connotation in the minds of some. This failure has forced the government to turn back to the ethnic term “russkiye” in an attempt to construct some kind of common identity after all. Having declared its goal as the “Russian World”, the government started to force the non-russkiye officials and public sector employees to record videos in which they proclaim themselves to be ethnically Russian. As a result, we can see the civic identity of rossiyane being equated with the  russkiye. Not all of the country’s citizens were satisfied with such a twist. First, Russian nationalists started protesting against such an extreme inclusiveness of the term; then, the representatives of those ethnicities that are briskly reducing in number followed suit, considering this yet another step towards a total assimilation.

Social anthropologist Valery Tishkov, member of the RAS, is thought to be one of the architects of the system which facilitates the fast-growing assimilation of the non-Russian ethnic groups. He is also one of the experts who used to consult the authors of the law “On the voluntary study of native languages”. In his article for the Izvestianewspaper, dwelling on the aspects of the Russian state language policy, he stated that “languages must be equal in rights, but they cannot be equal in the way they are used, their capabilities, or statuses.” Tishkov used the term “voluntary language assimilation” in that context, which the official authorities avoid using in order not to confirm the concerns of the republics’ citizens. 

“Parents often act more wisely in this matter than politicians or some of the romantically inclined scientists, because with the knowledge of the Russian language young people can be admitted to [such prestigious schools as] the Moscow State University, while knowing only Tatar, Chuvash, or Udmurt they can barely go farther beyond Kazan, Cheboksary, or Izhevsk. The switch to the state language is a natural process,” Tishkov said

Tishkov speaks directly about the low status of the indigenous languages, about their non-competitiveness, allowing himself to use the colonial cliches when talking about the language activists. 

“The obsession about studying a native language as a national one is unclear to me, as are the reproaches towards anyone who does not know it,” he says.

The government sets up the conditions, in which the languages of the non-Russian ethnic groups are getting banished from the spheres of business, education, and science. Therein lies the catch: an official state language of any Russia’s republic becomes the “domestic family language”, with the officials and the members of the society with chauvinist views later arguing that the native languages are limiting the younger generation’s potential. It becomes obvious that the preservation of one of the key markers of an identity in such conditions is only possible for super-motivated people. It is at the very final stage of the assimilation of non-Russian people that a reverse process started, turning out to be backfiring in many senses.

“The fashion for everything national was and still remains a peculiar reaction of sorts to the state pressure, to the assimilation program of the past few years led by the federal center,” says language activist and blogger Batraz Misikov. In 2022, Misikov wrote on his Telegram channel about the initiative to rename Lenin Street in Vladikavkaz in honor of the World War II hero Kaurbek Toguzov, for which he was charged with the administrative offense of “inciting ethnic strife”.

In his opinion, this trend is not only the reaction to the “language laws” or similar initiatives, but also an example of the younger generation rejecting the cultural narratives imposed by the authorities, as it tends to happen so often.

 “When from every corner you keep hearing words about something global, etc., you start trying to find yourself, realize your personal potential, express yourself through something local and folk-based,” Misikov pointed out. 

The younger generation’s protest against assimilation was partly approved of in some scientific circles of the republics of the North Caucasus as well, where there exists a large number of institutions studying languages, history, and culture of the local peoples. For instance, the employees of the Institute of Humanitarian Studies of the Kabardino-Balkarian Scientific Center criticized the “native languages” law, demanding the representatives of the republics vote against it in both chambers of the Russian Parliament. 30 scientific and cultural figures addressed the federal authorities in 2018, declaring the “voluntary study of native languages” law inadmissible. Some of the employees of the Institute of Humanitarian Studies of the Kabardino-Balkarian Scientific Center were among them as well. The letter said that the adoption of this unfortunate law by the State Duma would bring the extinction of the indigenous languages closer.

“Therefore we put forward a question: why has the principle of the voluntary studying or not studying the native languages spring to existence in the conditions of their active withering? Why, for instance, children and parents are not given the choice whether to study a foreign language or not...? <...> Why is this only the matter of native languages? We are all-in for teaching foreign languages and the rest of the subjects.  But we are against the discrimination of native languages. <...> Based on this, we totally object to this bill and demand it be removed from the agenda at once, since apart from the destructiveness aimed to finally downplay national languages, it is capable of a serious destabilization of the sociopolitical situation of the multinational country,” says the letter. 

Later on, the employees of the Institute of Humanitarian Studies whose work on resisting the institutional arrangements of the assimilation of the Сaucasian ethnic groups had been especially visible, faced pressure from the law enforcement. On November 11, the Federal Security Service and the Centre for Combating Extremism ransacked the houses of Doctors of Philology Svetlana Alkhasova and Madina Hakuasheva, as well as those of PhD candidates of Historical Sciences Ruslan Taziev and Timur Aloev. Without providing any explanations, they put the academics under hours of investigative arrangements, examining the rooms and confiscating their PCs, cell phones, documents, books, papers, and notes. After several hours, they were brought to the Institute, where the law enforcement officials also inspected their offices until late in the evening. They never gave the academics a copy of the inventory of what had been confiscated or the search warrants.

“Instead of being heard, the experts who do serious work in their fields, the social figures, who help the government pro bono with the only aim—to rescue the national languages, literatures, and cultures which are experiencing a strong crisis—they all are ignored at best, and now are publicly discredited, repressed and prosecuted,” wrote Hakuasheva in her appeal to the heads of the law enforcement agencies of Kabardino-Balkaria. 

It appears that those who live in the North Caucasus are no longer under any illusions: they are aware that the federal center does not want to preserve the identities of those peoples that “do not form the state”. The government is betting on creating a homogenous population, which would participate en masse in the imperial project of the Russian authorities. As a result, the crisis of identity and the decrease in numbers of non-Russian languages’ speakers do not come as a surprise. Nonetheless, there is a noticeable anti-assimilation trend: a growing number of young people from the national republics who are involved in creating an informational infrastructure which would be independent from the government and allow anyone to preserve their own identity and encourage learning native languages. Makhamat Magomedov, developer of the , is a major example of this trend. Thanks to the activism of this kind, a large number of horizontal relationships among the representatives of various ethnicities in Russia may appear, and a civic core opposed to the current language policy may be formed. And yet, despite these grassroots efforts, we have to acknowledge that today many languages and cultures in Russia are under the threat of extinction. To stop these processes, it is urgent to change the state language policy and provide strong institutional support for the development of the indigenous languages.

The editorial opinion may not coincide with the point of view of the author(s) and hero(es) of the published materials.