Sunday, March 9, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Will Bill Gates Save a Small Finno-Ugric People?

Paul Goble

Baku, March 9 – The Maris, a small and long-suffering Finno-Ugric people in the Middle Volga region of the Russian Federation, have called on Microsoft’s Bill Gates to add the five additional modified Cyrillic letters their language requires but that are not found in Russian to his company’s Windows operating system.
Until that happens, the authors of the letter said, their community will continue to face difficulties in using computers and thus find it extremely difficult to integrate into the world wide web, according to a report on NTV yesterday (available as podcast at and as text at
But Birgir Steen, the company’s general director in Moscow, told the Russian television channel that adding the letters would in fact be quite expensive – something Mari El commentators dispute, NTV said -- and that Microsoft would thus have to study just how many Maris might actually use Windows if the company made the change.
The five additional letters the Mari language requires are exact copies of Russian letters, except for the addition of “two dots above” each. But they convey sounds that do not exist in Russian, and consequently, their absence in the Windows system has created some serious problems for the Maris, the NTV report said.
Some school teachers there try to prepare texts which do not require the additional letters, something that stunts the language, NTV said. Broadcasters in Ioshkar-Ola often mispronounce Mari words when they are printed up on computers. And print journalists find their work distorted or worse.
A few local programmers have inserted the additional signs on their own for particular institutions, but they point out that such half measures do not solve the problem for the growing number of Maris who use the Microsoft system despite its current limitations.
The proximate cause for this appeal, NTV suggested, is an ongoing effort to digitalize the more than two million hand-written paper records n the archive of the Mari language. But as is often the case in Mari El and other parts of the Russian Federation as well, there are political factors at work as well.
On the one hand, the Maris are aware that Microsoft did modify Windows Cyrillic to meet the needs of Kazan Tatar. (That pleased Moscow which does not want any Russian Federation language written in any other script, whatever the people involved say.) The Maris thus do not see why Gates should not be equally responsive to them.
And on the other, this is an issue where the Mari El government, which continues to be criticized for its suppression of the opposition and Mari culture, can strike a pose that from the perspective of many in Moscow and in Finno-Ugric countries abroad puts it on the side of the angels.
Russian officials in Moscow will be only too pleased to see such complaints directed against a foreign company involved in the Internet, especially given the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to limit foreign ownership of IPs in the Russian Federation and to close down opposition sites.
And both officials in Estonia, Finland and Hungary, the three Finno-Ugric countries, and institutions like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has frequently criticized the Mari El leadership in the past, are likely to view this letter and official support for it as pointing to a change of heart in Ioshkar-Ola.
They are all the more certain to do so because the letter the Maris have dispatched to Gates and the coverage it received on NTV yesterday followed a decision of the Mari El government announced earlier this week to make a direct appeal to Microsoft on this point (
From the point of view of Ioshkar-Ola and Moscow, the timing of these initiatives could hardly be better: The UN recently adopted a call to defend the languages of Northern peoples ( In April, there will be a Mari peoples’ congress (
And Finno-Ugric activists abroad are continuing their lognstanding efforts to attract international attention to the brutal, even lethal actions of the Mari El government of President Leonid Markelov, an ethnic Russian, against members of the titular nationality there (See various articles at

UPDATE on March 12. A specialist on the Mari language notes that it requires six more letters than Russian has not five as the group that wrote to Bill Gates had specified (

UPDATE on March 24. Linux officials met in Kazan on March 22 with representatives of the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation to discuss the problems the latter are having with the alphabets on Microsoft’s Windows system and to offer help ( In addition to the Mari, many Tatars are unhappy with the alphabet Microsoft has made for them (

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