Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Kazan Parents’ Call for Studying Russian Not Tatar Sparks Conflicts about More than Language

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 12 – Six hundred mothers of middle school pupils in Kazan have called on the Russian education minister to reduce or even end obligatory instruction in Tatar to all students in their republic, the latest effort to reduce the ethnic content of Russian Federalism, has triggered a debate between Russians and Tatars over far more than language.

Many of those signing this appeal are themselves ethnic Tatars, a fact that has led some in that Middle Volga republic to talk about the existence of “a fifth column” working against the interests of the Tatar nation. But it has also become the occasion for Russians there and elsewhere to demand that instruction in Tatarstan be in Russian not in the national language.

The original appeal suggested that “the study of Tatar interferes with the mastery of Russian, that learning Tatar is very difficult and that in general it is useless for the future of the child,” all contentions that Tatar intellectuals, like writer Tufan Minnullin, have dismissed as absurd or worse (www.intertat.ru/rus/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1642:-q&catid=119:2010-11-30-19-29-29&Itemid=501).

Minullin, who is also a member of Tatarstan’s State Council, said on Kazan television that he might have understood such calls if they came from ethnic Russian parents but “when Tatars reject the language of their ancestors and write complaints to Moscow [he] would call this a denunciation of one’s own people.”

According to Minullin, these parents have “the baseless and strange” conviction that “instruction in Russian is the key to the success of a child and that it will allow him to become a big boss.” In fact, he continues, that is absurd, as even the most superficial examination of conditions in Kazan will show.

“If in contemporary society, the Russian language were the chief and main condition for the achievement of the top positions, then ever Russian would be a boss, and there would not be drunkards and criminals on the streets.” But of course, “the issue is not about language;” it is about “the tragedy of the [ethnic] Russian people.”

Everyone knows about this even if few talk about it, Minullin suggests. “In our Tatar schools there is not a single drug addict, and yet how many problems there are in Russian language schools?!” And “how many Tatars who do not know and have not learned their native language … are sitting in prisons or suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction?”

“Moscow does not need out native language just as America, Germany or the others do not need it. We need our language,” Minullin says, “and therefore we will defend it.” That means seeking the repeal of the “barbaric” federal law “which was adopted against all the peoples who live in the Russian Federation” and which limits non-Russian languages.

Up to now, Moscow hasn’t pushed the law forward because people in the Russian capital have recognized that it was a mistake, but now it appears some there want to push things further. Minullin says that he agrees with one historian who noted that “we trust the state too much, but the government has its own problems and tasks.”

Consequently, the Tatar writer continues, “only the people can defend its language.”

Another Tatar commentator, Murza Kurbangali Yunusov, in response to the appeal of the 600 Kazan parents explicitly has addressed the question of “who needs the Tatar language?” (http://www.intertat.ru/rus/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1673:2011-04-01-12-51-04&catid=119:2010-11-30-19-29-29&Itemid=501%20%20).

“What has led these mothers to speak out against the enlightenment and education of their children in the state language?” During the war, one could understand opposition to “the language of the fascists.” But Tatarstan is today “one of the most stable, tolerant and multi-national and multi-confessional republics of a federative state.”

Yunusov says he was particularly struck by this because he had just been in Kazakhstan where the national language is “being reborn.” Ever more people there “are beginning to understand and what is the main thing speak it,” even though in the recent past, the status of Kazakh was “much worse” than that of Tatar.

If the Kazan mothers and their Moscow backers have their way, he continues, “a time will come when Kazakhs will instruct Tatars in their native language just as a hundred years ago the Tatars instructed the Kazakhs.” Indeed, he points out, even the Russian Empire did not block non-Russians from studying native languages and foreign ones as well.

Tragically, it appears that many now think Tatar isn’t important given that neither the president of Russia can read a Tatar text written out for him or the senior officials of Tatarstan use the language in public, but that is all the more reason why “the letter of the 600 must become the litmus test for citizens of Tatarstan and the Russian Federation as a whole.”

“The Russian Federation,” Yunusov points out, “is a federative state, and it is required to introduce Tatar as the second state language. The president, the cabinet of miners, the parliament and local organs of power are required to ensure genuine bilingualism in the republic,” speaking in Tatar but ensuring simultaneous translation into Russian.

Those “citizens of Tatarstan who do not know Tatar should be given special assistance in order to master [it], such as the support that existed in the years of the formation of the republic [in the 1920s]. And they should be regularly reminded that all “the false prophets” and “grave diggers” of the language have proved to be wrong.

Other writers, Tatar and now, have added their voices to this defense of Tatar both on constitutional grounds and because the loss of any language is a loss of a perspective on the world which cannot be had any other way (http://www.peoples-rights.info/2011/04/pora-vernut-gospodderzhku-prepodavaniyu-tatarskogo-yazyka-v-tatarstane/).
But the Kazan mothers have received support from the Society of Russian Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Regnum news agency which often takes an [ethnic] Russian position on developments in non-Russian countries and non-Russian republics now within the Russian Federation.

Regnum has published an appeal by the Society which reads in part “Citizens of Russia, did you know that in the schools of a subject of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tatarstan, half of the population of which consists of ethnic Russians, the Russian language is not taught as a native one?!” (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1393502.html).

“Children during the entire period of instruction receive not 1200 hours of Russian but only 700 hours; that is, 500 fewer than their fellows in other regions of Russia.” The Society calls for “supporting the demands of parents in the defense of Russian in the schools of the republic,” a call that sets the stage for more controversy in Kazan and not just about language.

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