Reflections on the topic: will the Tatar language survive?

Realnoe Vremya’s reporter is analysing the language conflict in Tatarstan and comparing with the situation in other regions

The second half of 2017 passed against a background of debates about teaching national languages at schools that were caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin's explosive rhetoric. The epic, which is already not in such a grave phase, still continues. In Realnoe Vremya's column, our correspondent is analysing the situation in Tatarstan remembering the events that took place and comparing them with the teaching of national languages at schools in other regions. The author tries to answer the question: will future generations be able to understand the language of Tukay and Jalil?

Nothing foretold the trouble

The last year was marked for a real virtual war around national languages (and the Tatar language in particular) with all corresponding details. The teaching of the language at schools became the bone of contention. It should be reminded the discussions began after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that ''it's not allowed to both make a person to study the language that's is not his mother tongue and reduce the teaching level of Russian''. And parents should choose themselves what a language their kids will study as their mother tongue – Russian or Tatar/Bashkir. The president of the country said it at a session of the Council Interethnic Relations in Yoshkar-Ola. The Prosecutor General's Office and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Education and Science got instructions to check voluntary teaching of national and official languages of republics in educational establishments.

If a part of the population of Russia didn't understand the president's words, the other group was inspired, it caused some confusion among the authorities of national regions. New messages about the conflict came every day. While the opponents were providing evidence in the endless debate, which Realnoe Vremya continues to follow, the new school year began. More than 1,500 Tatarstan parents wrote a refusal of teaching the Tatar language to their kids. Prosecution check-ups started at schools.

Rustam Minnikhanov expressed his support of learning the mother tongue many times. Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

Delivering the annual address to the republic's State Council, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov found a compromise and offered the republic's Ministry of Education to provide a high level of Russian language skills ''conserving the priority of learning official and native languages''. He also required improving the method of teaching of the Tatar language. By the way, later he also expressed his support of learning the mother tongue many times.

Then events changed one after another. Tens of famous Tatarstan public activists sent an open letter to Putin in which they asked to return the compulsory learning the Tatar language at schools of the republic. The situation also affected kindergartens. Minister of Education Engel Fattakhov who was nicknamed ''Angel Engel'' with a corresponding visual design by Internet users lost his post. In addition, the supporters of the language launched a kind of flash mob in social networks with variations of the image of the Tatar ABC book. And Russian-Finnish teacher Pavel Shmakov who chairs SUN school in Kazan radically refused to exclude Tatar from the programme, which he is visiting trials for now.

Trust from Most High

The view of religious leaders is quite curious. For instance, Tatarstan Metropolitan Feofan supported learning Tukay's language: ''Of course, we need to know the Tatar language if we live here together and constantly communicate''. In addition, Realnoe Vremya's columnist Mark Shishkin complemented the position of the bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church: ''Tatar language skills for Russians is a tool to cement the Russian presence in the north of Eurasia and results of the Russian colonisation.''

''Of course, we need to know the Tatar language if we live here together and constantly communicate,'' Metropolitan Feofan thinks. Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

Officials of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Republic of Tatarstan took measures on conservation and popularisation of the Tatar language one year before Putin's headline-making statement. For instance, Friday sermons have started to be given at mosques of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Republic of Tatarstan only in the language of the dominant ethnic group of the republic since August 2016, which, we should admit, caused complaints of a part of the visitors and polemics with Moscow Mufti Ildar Alyautdinov. According to the idea of Tatarstan religious leaders, such an initiative is to strengthen traditional Islam and encourage curious believers to study the rich heritage of theologians of the Volga region and the Urals (Mardzhani, Fakhretdinov, Rasulev, Kursavi, Barudi, etc.). Moreover, courses on the basics of Islam, festive events, conferences, presentations, recitals held by the muftiate and its structural divisions were still open for Russian-speaking participants. And Chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Republic of Tatarstan, Mufti Kamil Samigullin continued to defend his point of view even after the new twist of the language conflict in the republic. He explained his concern saying that religious principles could follow the loss of the mother tongue.

''Mother tongue and national identity in Islam are trust, what is given to us by Most High for careful storage. If we lose the language, we won't follow the Creator's order!'' stated Hazrat Kamil in his column for our newspaper. According to him, ''loss of the national language is the first step towards mankurtisation''.

Kamil Samigullin is concerned that religious principles can follow the loss of the mother tongue. Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

Chairman of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Russia, Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin agreed with Samigullin: ''It goes without saying that you need to know the language of your territory: in Tatarstan, it is Tatar, in Bashkiria – Bashkir, across Russia – Russian.''

What's more, the Tatarstan mufti announced the launch of an educational Telegram channel ''Tatar for Beginners'' and Telegram channel in the Old Tatar language later. Meanwhile, Tatar Word mobile app continues working. Language courses named ''We Are Tatars'' were to begin from New Year at 10 mosques of the republic. Special books were printed in Khuzur publishing house deliberately for listeners of these lessons.

Not strange people

The situation in other regions is a bit different. For instance, the language problem for Udmurtia might seem to be not so topical. Head of the region Aleksandr Brechalov was even surprised when Realnoe Vremya's reporter asked him a question about the national language.

''Udmurtia is a part of the global world. And we at least need to speak a neutral language – it is the Russian language for the majority of the audience. What's the sense in surprising with Udmurt skills?'' Brechalov replied to our journalist.

Aleksandr Brechalov was even surprised at the question about the national language. Photo: Timur Rakhmatullin

In North Caucasus, it turned out there had not been acute contradictions on the language issue in the last years. ''There is not any wave of indignation as it is. The president's such a statement wasn't noticed in North Caucasus somehow. But the language has another problem here that is characteristic of the rest of the world too: the number of people who speak a mother tongue is becoming less and less year after year,'' noted Editor-in-Chief of Caucasian Politics Beslan Uspanov in a talk with our reporter.

However, the state of affairs in Bashkiria is different. The region is different because Tatars account for quite a big share of the population besides Russians and Bashkirs. President of the Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov promised to cancel compulsory classes of Bashkir in August 2017 already but urged to do the best to save the mother tongue. Activists of Bashkir organisations obviously didn't evaluate the efforts of the head of the republic and went on a demonstration to defend the Bashkir language. Later the Bashkortostan president created the Fund on Conservation and Development of the Bashkir Language and introduced corresponding scholarships, which became an object of criticism of public activists again. But ethnic political expert from Ufa Ildar Gabdrafikov found this initiative quite sensible.

In the new Russian region, in Crimea, the situation is also complicated. According to head of Milli Firka public organisation of Crimean Tatars Vasvi Abduraimov, after annexing the peninsula to Russia, the locals were promised that Russian, Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar would be official languages in the republic and each one would be supported. But a promise doesn't mean an action.

Rustem Khamitov promised to cancel compulsory classes of Bashkir in August 2017 already but urged to do the best to save the mother tongue. Photo:

''National languages are attacked: teaching hours of one of the three official languages are reducing and groups with education in the mother tongue in kids' pre-school establishments are decreasing. Even those schools that had the official status of Crimean Tatar schools during the Ukrainian period lost their status and were on the general list of schools,'' Abduraimov claimed in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.

In search of exit

Experts note that languages of national minorities become ''the means of expression of cultural heritage and national identity'' and affiliation to a certain group in the multicultural community with one dominating language. For this reason, the Tatar language becomes help for many people in defining a national identity. Tatars still remain Tatars, even centuries later, wherever they are – in the Volga region, Siberia, the Urals, Far East, European countries or China.

Considering that Turkic culture is intertwined with Islam, it's no surprise that many words of the Tatar language have an Arabic origin. It's not excluded that the Tatars managed to conserve their language and position themselves as they are thanks to the religion. It's an interesting detail that in a population census before the revolution, some people of the Kazan Governorate considered themselves ''Muslims'', not ''Tatars''. And the symbol of equality between ethnicity and religion is conserved in the mind of many people (''Tatar'' means ''Muslim'', ''Russian'' means ''Orthodox Christian'').

Languages of national minorities become ''the means of expression of cultural heritage and national identity'' and affiliation to a certain group in the multicultural community with one dominating language. Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

Even if some of the Tatars don't follow religious rites, Islamic roots still make themselves known, they are seen in elements of everyday life and behaviour. According to Islamic ethics where believers should keep clear of any extremes in any matters (including by applying the path of wasatiyyah – the principle of being in the middle, balance) helped Tatars to come to a compromise with authorities and opponents in the tsarist times, years of revolution and civil war (when the new republic was created), after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If the Tatars managed to defend the right to the mother tongue in more complicated times on the basis of their religious principles, in today's reality (let's be honest, it's not so complicated), they will be able to solve this problem too – the teaching of Tatar at school. However, already there are good examples that ambitious public and religious activists show. The mother tongue will live for many centuries thanks to such efforts.

By Timur Rakhmatullin