And the second part is cultural initiatives. Russia’s language activists, perhaps because they existed in a repressive regime, focused on cultural and linguistic projects: they filmed cartoons, recorded rap, organized free courses.
Very few have engaged in language activism as a defense of linguistic rights — demanding that the law on education not be amended or that they comply with current legislation. There is a famous video
in which a Komi activist demands that the judge speak Komi
to him. But in general, this dimension has never been very well developed.
Now, language activists have felt that language activism is impossible without a struggle for rights and a coherent political agenda related to language and the rights of minority groups. And they radicalized, moved in the direction of protecting linguistic rights, which became completely incompatible with linguistic activism focused on collaboration with the state, on cooperation.
The word “collaboration” in Russian doesn’t sound very good now, but it didn’t necessarily have such a derogatory connotation before. Some language activists expect this kind of work and cooperation to continue. For example, at the beginning of June 2023, the Literary Megapolis
was held on Red Square in Moscow — an event dedicated to different cultures and languages.
And the part that has become very radicalized believes that language activism is now impossible without revising linguistic rights, without a social movement, without a clear agenda of decolonization.Guzel Yusupova and Karina Ozerova published an article in 2021 stating that in modern-day Russia, different ethnic communities do not have the opportunity to enter into the political conversation and therefore replace the political conversation with a cultural one. Hence the horizontal initiatives to preserve local languages. This is also political language, just veiled. Now the opportunity does exist, but only for those who left.
Yes, and those who remained, of course, do not have such an opportunity. Guzel Yusupova connects this with politics, fear, and anticipation of backlash. And it also shows that many initiatives have moved online, as it’s a safer space. But I'm not sure it's just fear. Many of the activists I interviewed really just wanted to do their language projects.We have a very weak political culture in general, so people, whether they like it or not, move towards culture and avoid talking about politics.
Yes, and this is noticeable in many republics. Indiana University anthropologist Katherine Graber has a note about Buryat media in her book
. From American experience, she expected that everyone would talk about the rights of indigenous peoples, but these words, this rhetoric, this discourse turned out to be inapplicable to the Russian context. People almost never used the term "indigenous.” It is actively used by those in the foreign category "indigenous peoples of the North,” Nivkhs or Udege
for example, but those who have a republic almost never used these words.
Now we see how these ideas and the language itself are spreading among activists. The word “indigenous” is heard more and more often, they talk about decolonization, about the empire. I see this in the expatriate community of Kalmyks and Buryats in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.Decolonization and discourse on the empire are still minority concepts held by young and more or less educated people. They do not find any understanding or support, I assume, among the majority. Or am I wrong?
Yes and no. It’s true, these issues have become the lot of a small number of people who have mostly left the region. People are looking for answers: What's going on? Why is it dangerous for them to stay in Kalmykia, Buryatia or Tuva? But the ideas they’re appealing to — the injustice of the leaching of resources from the regions to the center, the injustice of forcing different groups and members of different regions to participate in the war — these ideas easily find support.