The abolition of the presidency caused great offense to the republics, but the change was more symbolic than practical. Formally, the heads of the republics retained the same powers as they had enjoyed earlier. The events of 2017–2018 dealt a much harder blow to the ethnic republics.
In 2017, speaking at a meeting of the Council on Interethnic Relations in Yoshkar-Ola
, Vladimir Putin contrasted the Russian language with the languages of Russia’s indigenous peoples. “Forcing a person to learn a language that is not his native language is just as unacceptable as reducing the level of Russian language instruction and the time allotted for it. I’m paying attention to this,” Putin said
. This was a signal for prosecutors to carry out inspections
in the schools of the republics: if they discovered that the local language was a mandatory subject, the school’s headmaster was obliged
to change the curriculum. In 2018, the State Duma cemented
Putin’s position on the language issue by amending the law “On Education”: henceforth, local languages would be taught as electives.
The languages of indigenous peoples were already in a deplorable state: their popularity was declining in almost all of the ethnic republics. During Soviet times, urban dwellers sought
to speak Russian, hoping that it would help them climb the career ladder. In the nineties, when the republics gained sovereignty, interest in native languages revived, and they were taught in schools as mandatory subject to all pupils whatever their background.
In the noughties and twenty-teens, amidst curtailed federalism and growing xenophobia, the local languages again lost ground. Native speakers were embarrassed to speak their native language in public places, while the number of schools in which the curriculum was taught in the local languages rapidly declined
. The Unified State Exam
was adopted, and it had to be taken in Russian, thus reducing
the motivation of teenagers to learn their native language.
Semyon Kochkin recalls an episode that he witnessed in the noughties. “I was traveling on a bus from my home village to Cheboksary. There were two guys on the bus who were speaking Chuvash to each other the whole way. At some point, one of them said, ‘That’s it, we’ve passed Kalinino [a village near Cheboksary], now we’ll speak Russian.’”
“When I was at school, the Russian language was superior to the native language—both in terms of hours taught and quality of instruction,” says Victoria Maladayeva. “There was this prejudice that the Buryat language was a rural language, and that learning it was neither fashionable nor cool. It was considered prestigious to speak Russian without an accent, so that later, when you went to university in Moscow or Petersburg, you would feel like you belonged there.”
Purbo Dambiyev recalls that five years before Putin’s statement, a group of concerned parents of ethnic Russian schoolchildren had formed
in Buryatia. They demanded an end to the compulsory study of the Buryat language, which was the republic’s second official language. The parents managed to attract the attention of the prosecutor’s office, which convinced local schools to make the Buryat language an elective. In Buryatia, the federal law abolishing the compulsory study of local languages, adopted in 2018, cemented what had been going on there for several years.
Putin’s statements caused a stir in other republics, where until 2017 the local languages were still compulsory for everyone to learn, albeit poorly. The new rules had little effect on republics like Chechnya, where few ethnic Russians live, but they did cause major changes in republics with mixed populations. In Bashkortostan and Chuvashia, parents of ethnic Russian schoolchildren filed formal requests to have them freed from the requirement to study the local languages. This led to a decreased workload for specialized language teachers, and they were laid off
Bashkir ethnonational activists held protest rallies and pickets
, while their Chuvash counterparts penned
an open letter to Putin, but it did no good. Bashkir, Chuvash, and Buryat officials adopted a neutral stance: none of them publicly asked the federal authorities to keep the local languages as mandatory subjects in the school curriculum.
A teacher and populariser of the Chuvash language, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, recalls that educators in Chuvashia had the following attitude: “We were told that we were a subsidized republic, and we could not make a fuss; if we made a fuss, all our funding would be cut. If we sat still and kept quiet, on the contrary, maybe our funding would be increased.”