A professor's self-immolation puts the spotlight on the fragile future of Russia's minority languages

Professor Albert Razin's last interview, before the State Council of Udmurtia, from Udmtuno's YouTube video.

On 10 September, Albert Razin stood outside the State Council building in Izhevsk, a city in west-central Russia, and set himself on fire. The 72-year-old professor was taken away and died from his burns in a hospital bed soon afterwards.

A banner discovered next to Razin's body read “If my language disappears tomorrow, I am ready to die today”—a quote from the Avar-language poet Rasul Gamzatov. Razin's last protest had not been his first. The professor was a stalwart defender of his native Udmurt language, and by all accounts had felt increasingly hopeless in recent years about its future.

Udmurt is a Uralic (sometimes referred to as Finno-Ugric) language mostly spoken in the Republic of Udmurtia in the Volga district of European Russia. It achieved fleeting international fame when Russia's entry, the Buranovskiye Babushki, performed in the language at the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

Well over 100 languages are spoken across Russia today, and 35 of them have co-official status with Russian in the country's 22 autonomous regions, including Udmurtia. Many of these languages appear to be at risk of disappearing, and Udmurt is no exception. Russian censuses indicate that between 2002 and 2010 the number of Udmurt speakers declined from 463,000 to 324,000—a decline of 30% in just eight years. In 2011, the UN's Atlas of Languages in Danger described Udmurt as “definitely endangered.” Studies indicate that the situation has not improved.

Hundreds attended a memorial service for Razin at the State Theatre in Izhevsk on September 12, including state officials.

Razin's death has prompted limited debate online and in newspaper columns about the fate of Russia's minority languages. Speakers of other minority languages are demonstrating solidarity with Udmurt speakers with the hashtags #АльбертРазин and #МонМиРазин (“I am / We are Razin” in Udmurt).

Nevertheless, it would be hard to call these discussions soul-searching. In fact, many Russians seem to find the professor's act utterly incomprehensible.

These are turbulent times for minority language rights in Russia. Last June, Razin was one of several public figures who sent an open letter pleading with local officials not to support a controversial law cancelling the obligatory study of minority languages in the country's autonomous republics. President Vladimir Putin argued that children should not be made to study languages which are not their native tongues; education in minority languages is now entirely voluntary, which prompted fears that many schools would simply stop offering them altogether. The Council of Europe strongly criticised the law in February 2018, observing that “over the past years a strong emphasis has been put on the Russian language and culture while minority languages and cultures appear to be marginalised.”

Idel-Ile, a Tatar and Russian language blog which covers inter-ethnic relations in the region, described the situation as follows:

В школах УР изучаются удмуртский, татарский, марийские языки. В минимально достаточном объёме – 3 урока в неделю – родные языки изучаются только в небольших сельских школах мононациональных сёл. В райцентрах, где учатся около половины сельских детей, родной язык изучается не более 1 часа. В городах национальные языки ни в качестве родных, ни удмуртский государственный практически не изучаются. Выбор родного языка носит фиктивный характер, почти везде “выбирают” русский язык … Таким образом удмуртский язык практически не изучается в школах городов и райцентров, и доступен для изучения только жителям удмуртских поселений – для не более чем половины сельских удмуртов.

The Udmurt, Tatar, and Mari languages are studied in Udmurtia's schools. In the minimum amount possible: three lessons a week. Indigenous languages are studied only in small rural schools in ethnically homogeneous villages. In regional centres, where around half of all village children study, indigenous languages are not studied for more than an hour. In the cities, these languages are practically not studied at all, whether as indigenous or state languages. The choice to study one's native language is fictitious: people “choose” Russian nearly everywhere […] Thus the Udmurt language is practically not studied in schools in cities and regional centres, and is only accessible to inhabitants of Udmurt settlements, in which not more than half of all rural Udmurt speakers live.

So for a committed Udmurt language activist like Razin, the new law may have been the final straw.

There are also indications, however, that Razin's forthright views were not representative of all Udmurt activists. Vladimir Baymetov, a member of the Udmurt Kenesh organisation, told the local website Udm-Info that “[Razin] was an elder and well-respected; he was an activist of the Udmurt movement for all his life, but he sometimes adhered to very radical views.”

The local authorities in Udmurtia have expressed condolences, but with caveats. On September 11, head of the republic Alexander Brechalov praised Razin's contributions to Udmurtia's cultural life but called on the media to “not speculate about connections between the republic's ethnic policies and the self-immolation of the activist… the policies pursued in the region are exclusively aimed at supporting the [Udmurt] language, culture, and history.”

Brechalov's words are all the more relevant in Udmurtia, which rarely makes news headlines in Russia and could hardly be called a hotspot of ethnic tensions.

So while the link between state policies and Razin's protest might be clear to his fellow minority activists, others take a very different view. In online discussions about Razin, many RuNet users belittle indigenous languages and seem bewildered that anybody would use them in daily lives, let alone die for them. This is by no means an attitude limited to Russia.

The comments on a post about Razin in a popular group about Izhevsk on VKontakte are a case in point. Many users compared the fate of minority languages to other “more urgent” social problems:

За удмуртский язык? Что блеат? Это основная проблема в рф что ли? Акцизы, медицина, образование да хотя бы пенсионный возраст, нет блин из за удмуртского языка…

— Антон Городецкий, ВКонтакте, 10 сентябрь 2019

For the Udmurt language? What the fuck? Is that really the main problem in Russia? Excise taxes, medicine, education, or at least the pension age, but no, damn it, for the Udmurt language…

— Anton Gorodetsky, VKontakte, 10 сентябрь 2019

Other commenters in the same thread speculated about Razin's mental health or berated him for not taking less extreme measures to preserve the language, relying on “folk linguistics” to question whether Udmurt and other regional languages are “needed” in the modern day and age. For example, this Twitter user cites the fact that the Udmurt literary standard was codified during the early Soviet period as “evidence” for its backwardness compared to Russian.

More poignant responses can be found on Udmurt language learning groups on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network. Speakers and enthusiasts lament the slow but seemingly irreversible fading away of the language in discussions entitled “why are people ashamed to be Udmurt?” Importantly, many of these discussions had started years before Razin's suicide. One woman remarks:

Somehow, in the faraway 1990s, I also rode on the bus and was speaking with a friend in my native language. There was a torrent [of abuse]: they had found some “foreigners” here! We objected that we live in our small homeland and can speak in our own language as we please. But many people [in these situations] cannot argue back, and just burst into tears.

— Lyudmila Evdokimova, VKontakte, 11 September 2019

Some RuNet users sarcastically compared patriots’ indifference towards the fate of Russia's minority languages to their concern for the rights of Russian speakers in other post-Soviet states:

Razin, an honoured academic of Udmurtia, held a solitary protest, with posters in his hands demanding that the Udmurt language be preserved, then departed by setting himself alight. He died at hospital.

So now, you vatnik nymphs, tell me how they're suppressing the Russian language in Ukraine or Latvia!

— Ледовый лоцман (@MarchDok), Twitter, September 10, 2019

Nevertheless, the journalist Maxim Goryunov stressed that “soft chauvinism” could also be found among the Russian opposition and independent press:

про Российскую империю в головах: у Новой Газеты первый заголовок о самосожжении Альберта Разина – «В Ижевске… поджег себя защитник малых народов».

Альберт Разин защищал удмуртский язык. это государственный язык Удмуртии. вместе с русским.

Удмуртия, согласно статье №1 ее конституции 1994 года, является «государством в составе Российской Федерации». […] то есть, Альберт Разин защищал государственный язык своей страны, а не «малые народы». он не про «культурный Гринпис» для «индейцев». он про права и свободы народа, у которого уже есть конституция и территория. почувствуйте разницу. очевидно, автор заголовка не считает Удмуртию государством. «малый народ» – это скорее про природный парк с милыми людьми в традиционных одеждах. надо ли говорить, что у российского чиновника схожее мнение?

— Максим Горюнов, Facebook, 10 сентябрь 2019

A few words about Russian imperialism of the mind. Novaya Gazeta's first headline about the self-immolation of Albert Razin reads “in Izhevsk… a defender of small nations set himself alight.”

Albert Razin defended the Udmurt language. It is the state language of Udmurtia, alongside Russian.

Udmurtia, according to the first article of its constitution from 1994, is a “state which forms part of the Russian Federation.” […] That is to say, Albert Razin defended his country's state language, and not “small nations.” He wasn't talking about “a cultural Greenpeace” for “Indians.” He was talking about the rights and freedoms of a nation which already has its constitution and territory. Feel the difference. It's obvious that the headline's author doesn't consider Udmurtia a real state. A “small nation” sounds more like a nature reserve filled with nice people in traditional costumes. Does it really need to be said that Russian officials have the same opinion?

— Maxim Goryunov, Facebook, 10 September 2019

Observers with diverse political leanings saw Razin's act as an extreme step for a marginal cause. Ochki Brechalova or “Brechalov's Glasses,” a popular Telegram channel following politics in Udmurtia, expressed hope that Razin's desperate act would eventually be understood:

Это был тяжёлый день. Он, безусловно, войдёт в историю Удмуртии. О поступке Альберта Разина будут рассказывать следующим поколениям удмуртов, как сейчас рассказывают о Кузебае Герде, ставшим жертвой сталинского ГУЛАГа. Ещё много будет чего сказано и написано. Настоящее осмысление трагедии впереди. Уроки в краткосрочной перспективе извлечены, к сожалению, не будут. Ни властью, ни национальным удмуртским сообществом. Это по реакции четко показал сегодняшний день.

—Очки Бречалова, Telegram, 10 сентябрь 2019

It has been a difficult day. A day which, without doubt, will go down in Udmurtia's history. The next generations of Udmurts will talk about the act of Albert Razin as they now talk about those of [the Udmurt poet] Kuzebay Gerd, who fell victim to the Stalinist Gulag. Much more will be said and written. But a full reckoning with this tragedy lies ahead. In the short term, unfortunately, the lessons will not be learnt. Neither by the authorities, nor by the Udmurt community. Today's reactions show this very clearly.

— Ochki Brechalova, Telegram, 10 September 2019

But will the lessons be learnt too late? If so, whatever is said or written about Razin's death in 20 or 30 years, it is unlikely that much of it will be in Udmurt.

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