Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Budgetary Changes Endanger Non-Russian Languages, Identities

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 20 – Changes in the way education is funded in post-Soviet Russia threaten to complete the process begun by the Communist regime a half century ago: the destruction of non-Russian language education in many parts of the country and the undermining of the national identities that such training and languages provide.
But in an interview posted online yesterday, Tamerlan Kambolov, a senior Osetin education, warns that the closure of non-Russian schools does not mean the automatic russianization of the non-Russians but rather their marginalization and isolation from both societies (
And that in turn is already contributing to the formation of a distinctive “subculture” whose members feel alienated from both and thus are more likely not only to adopt from television the ideas and values of the lowest form of “mass culture of Western civilization” but to act on them with all the negative consequences that entails.
Beginning in the 1950s, Kambolov says, the Soviet state closed many non-Russian schools not only in his native Osetia but also in other non-Russian areas of the country. That process was accelerated, he notes, by the decision of the post-Soviet Russian state to require localities to fund education regardless of their tax base.
While Russian state policy under Boris Yeltsin on non-Russian education was remarkably “liberal” at the level of rhetoric, Kambolov says, the consequences of this budgetary shift were stark. In a few relatively well-off non-Russian areas – he names Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha – there was a real flowering of national schools.
But in poorer areas – and that includes the entire northern Caucasus – the new budgetary arrangements forced governments to stop preparing non-Russian textbooks and to close non-Russian schools and to transfer the pupils to Russian-language institutions, especially in cities where Russian was already the language of the street.
At present, Kambolov says, he and his colleagues are working with UNESCO to try to revive Osetian language schools. Drawing on the experience of Israel whose leaders restored Hebrew as a living language and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, some progress is being made.
Israel’s experience with Hebrew shows, he continues, shows that a combination of political will and enough funding can bring a language back from the dead, and Osetian, unlike Hebrew in the early part of the 20th century, continues to be spoken by most people in the republic.
But the principles of the Universal Declaration are especially critical, he adds. For a child, it is terribly important to ensure that there is a single “dominant” culture within which young people emerge. After the Soviet period, Osetian did not occupy that position, he notes, but neither did Russian.
Indeed, he suggests, many officials in Soviet times “struggled with Russian culture not less than with Osetin – or on occasion even more.” And consequently, despite the remarkable increase in the use of Russian by Osetins, there was not a concomitant rise of “Russian national culture.”
As a result, Kambolov argues, “many Osetins, who [now] speak only Russian are not full-blooded bearers of Russian culture.” Instead, they fall somewhere in between the two cultures, and because something has to fill it, what has is neither the one nor the other, leaving the young Osetins outside of both.
Some hoped that translating more Russian textbooks or simply adding more hours of instruction in Osetin would solve the problem, but neither has. Textbooks must be rewritten to reflect Osetin culture, and more hours in schools do not translate into broader use of a language that was crippled in its development by Soviet policies.
With the support of UNESCO, Kambolov says, there is no hope that Osetins will recover their language and hence recover their identities, but ultimately, he concludes, these things will only happen there and in other non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation if there is the political will and the funds needed to do the job.
But if there is not enough of both, he warns, Moscow faces a future in which a significant portion of its population will be rootless, hanging in the air between their own national pasts and some Russian future and thus a threat to the stability of both cultures and the country as whole.

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