Staunton, July 31 – Plans by the educational authorities in Perm kray to close the last Mari language school there have sparked protests not only within that region but internationally as well, a conflict that has highlighted the difficulties minority language communities in Russia face because of budget stringencies increasing official support for Russian, the state language.
The school in question, Anton Razmakhnin notes in “Svobodnaya pressa” this week, is located in Vaskino, a village in the Suksun district of Perm kray where several thousand Maris live several hundred kilometers from Mari El and through which pass no major highways (svpressa.ru/society/article/28403/).
In recent years, the Vaskino school was “the only school in Perm kray where the Mari language was studied,” but now, in all probability, Razmakhnin says, “this school will be closed,” with the primary classes kept in the village but the middle and older students send to a village 15 kilometers away. But in neither will their native Mari language be taught.
Local Maris have arranged for a meeting with local educational officials (www.periscop.prpc.ru/2010-02-21-06-12-26/786-100729.html), and they have received support from Maris in Helsinki (mariuver.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/gornomari-perm/) and from the European Parliament (mariuver.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/evroparlament-protest/#more-18962), an indication of the importance of this case for all Finno-Ugric peoples.
But the Maris in Vaskino face an uphill task. As local educational officials point out, the school building there is “in very terrible condition.” Moreover, Perm officials say, the Maris failed to take advantage of the opportunity several years ago to have the school there declared “a national school,” something that might have saved it.
(The Maris themselves say that they wanted to do just that, but local and regional officials threw so many obstacles in their way that despite repeated efforts, the supporters of the 76-student school could not secure that special designation.)
As Razmakhnin points out, at one level, this story is “completely ordinary for contemporary Russia,” where officials have been consolidating small schools in order to save money and provide students with a greater range of courses and facilities than the schools they came from could offer.
As rational as that sounds, he notes, that approach fails to take into consideration that “the school in a rural locality” is a special place, which “alongside a club or the administration of a still ‘living’ collective farm’” holds the community together. If it is closed and especially if it involves a minority, consolidation threatens the identity and survival of the group as a whole.
What is striking and even disturbing, the “Svobodnaya pressa” journalist says, is that “Perm officials sincerely do not understand the Mari activists” and their passionate defense of the Vaskino school. These officials point to another village where Maris have a museum and cultural circles even though they no longer have a native language school.
In the view of officials, that is enough to keep the culture alive, and the mari language is one that in their view, “local residents simply don’t need.” Indeed, one official said that “no languages besides the state language (Russian) are in demand in Russia” because graduation exams and higher educational institutions are in that language.
This official continued that “for those who choose a career abroad, even Russian turns out not to be in demand. Why study it,” he asks rhetorically, “if it is possible to immediately take up English or Chinese?” Consequently, supporting minority languages is a costly survival of the past.
That is not how the speakers of Mari and other languages see it, and their ability to mobilize their communities both locally and via the Internet internationally may mean that the Mari-language school in Vaskino will survive, possibly in an even better building than it has now, although that is far from clear.
Indeed, the promise to construct a new school because the old one is in such terrible shape that it could lead to “a tragedy” may be little more than an effort by local officials to try to quiet the current protests and proceed as they had planned especially if demand for Mari-language instruction in Vaskino as measured by the number of students there continues to fall.
But the outcome of this struggle is something that not only Maris and other Finno-Ugric peoples inside Russia and abroad will be watching. That is because what happens in Vaskino will say a great deal about what Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation plans mean for smaller nationalities and what the fate of all these groups will be if current Moscow policies continue.