Aug 02, 2018

Minority Languages Under Siege in Russia and Crimea

On 19 June 2018, the Russian government approved a law restricting the right to receive pre-school, primary and basic secondary education in a child’s native language. This will severely infringe upon the eight Russian federal districts’ right to self-determination as well as on the culture and linguistic identity of many of its minorities. The Crimean Tatars, who live in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally occupies since 2014, fear that this legal amendment will seriously curtail the possibility to provide native language classes and thereby contribute to eradicating their culture.


In the Russian Federation, Russian is the only official state language, despite the fact that 111 different languages are spoken within the country’s present-day territory. 35 of those languages are officially recognised as national languages of Russia. According to UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages, only three of these (Tatar from Tatarstan, Yakut, Tuvinian) are not endangered. The remaining ones are either considered ‘on the verge of extinction’ or ‘threatened’. Among these endangered languages is the Turkic language Crimean Tatar (Qırımtatar tili), as Crimea is currently occupied by Russia and its policies have a severe impact there as well. Currently the Crimean Tatar language is classified as ‘developing’ on the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS), meaning that ‘the language is in vigorous use, with standardisation and literature being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported education’.  

Crimean Tatars arrived in Crimea in the 13th century with the Mongol Golden Horde and settled in a region where previously Crimean Greek was spoken. Nowadays, according to estimations, there are approximately 480,000 speakers of Crimean Tatar. In terms of linguistic classification one can think of it in the ‘language tree-model’ as having developed from Proto-Turkic, then Common Turkic, Kipchak and finally Kipchak-Cuman, also known as Ponto-Caspian. It is therefore in the same linguistic family as the Kumyk language and not directly related to Turkish, which has developed from Oghuz. However, due to geographic proximity, Crimean Tatar has been influenced substantially by modern Turkish. Also, it is worth mentioning that it should not be confused with Tatar, which also is a Kipchak language and therefore closer to Crimean Tatar than to Turkish, but spoken in Tatarstan, in the Russian Federation.

Historically, the homeland of the Crimean Tatars has been the Crimean Peninsula. For most of the 20th century it was a Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, part of the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became part of Ukraine. Following the illegal occupation and annexation by Russia and a contested referendum in 2014, Moscow declared Crimea part of the Russian Federation – an act declared illegal and roundly condemned by the international community. Crimean Tatars make up for more than 10 percent of the peninsula’s population. Most of them still carry with them the memory of the Soviet-era victimisation of their family members and their forced deportations in 1944, mostly to Siberia, which happened during Stalin’s regime.

Given Crimea’s illegal annexation and de-facto control by Russia, for now, the future of the Crimean Tatar language primarily hinges on Moscow’s official linguistic policy. This explains the outcry by the Crimean Tatar community when, in April 2018, a bill amending the Russian federal law was submitted to the Duma, which approved it on 19 June. This bill will make significant changes to children’s right to receive pre-school, primary and basic secondary education in their  native language. Before its passing, federations within Russia with a second or third official language had to allocate a certain number of hours per week to teach these languages at school. With this change in legislation, policy-makers aim to make minority language classes optional and significantly limit their provision in the first place. A number of measures are likely to be introduced to discourage the attendance of minority language classes. For instance, they can now only be attended with prior written permission of the respective student’s parents and the number of hours allocated to mother tongue education has been reduced from five to six hours per week to only two hours, of which one hour is dedicated to language and one to literature of the respective minority language. In addition, the newly-passed bill demands that the Russian language from now on be equally considered as a native language, and therefore also be an option to choose from - in addition to the regular Russian classes that are already being provided.

The main argument behind this bill is that children that live in these regions should not be ‘forced’ to learn languages that are not their mother tongues. However, this resolution contradicts Russia’s Language Law (1991) and Education Law (1992), which recognises the right for education in people’s native languages and delegates authority on these matters to the federations. Since then, the eight federal districts established compulsory teaching of their own regions’ native languages as a school subject for all students irrespective of their ethnicity, that is, including students whose first language is Russian. Thus, the federations are legal state entities that have the right to self-determination within the legal framework of the Russian Federation. Preserving the native languages on the ground by school education, was, until recently, part of the federal districts’ competencies.

Not only can the Kremlin’s interference in this policy area be seen as an intrusion into an area previously delegated to the federal districts, but also, now that parents have to give a written permission for their children to take part in mother tongue education classes, they are also targets of systematic bureaucratic harassment. What makes this new law even more problematic is that, as mentioned, Russian language  will from now on be considered as a native language among those to choose from. Given the fact that Russia’s final high school exam has to be taken in Russian, and generally speaking, a good command of Russian is a prerequisite for socio-economic ascension in most career paths, parents are likely to be expected to opt for Russian native language classes in spite of their linguistic minority background. Thus, with the new law, learning one’s native language at school can be done only to the detriment of a better command of Russian, which, in effect, discourages speakers of minority languages from learning their native languages at school.

There has been resistance against this new legal amendment among the Russian population, especially from the linguistic minorities within the Federation such as the Kabardino-Cherkess in Kabardino-Nalkaria, the Ossetians in North Ossetia and the Kumyk and Avar in Dagestan, but also from the Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Already, the number of native speakers of these linguistic minorities has been decreasing in recent years, even during the time when native language education was compulsory. An internet petition against this new law has been set up and about fifty thousand signatures have been collected so far.

Education is one of the key tools of linguistic policy-making in order to either encourage or discourage the acquisition and consequently the preservation of children’s native languages. This legislative amendment put forward by the Russian government will certainly cause the latter, provoking a further decrease in the number of speakers of these languages. The UNPO hopes that decision-makers in the Duma will remember the distinction made in the Russian language between pусский (russkij) and pоссийский (rossijskij), in a further reading of this amendment. The former term refers to the Russian ethnicity, while the latter designates all citizens of the Russian Federation. If one were to believe the Russian government’s discourse, after 2014, Crimean Tatars have become Russian subjects, or pоссийский, which in turn means that they should not their right to preserve their Crimean Tatar identity, culture, religion and, crucially, their language, taken away from them.


Photo courtesy of Adam Jones @Flickr