''Refusal of learning national languages is disruption of the international world''

Orthodox opinion journalist Andrey Desnitsky about those who aren’t obliged to learn the Russian language in Russia and why citizens of Moscow see the world as Americans do

''Refusal of learning national languages is disruption of the international world'' Photo: desnitsky.ru

The discussion about the teaching of national languages moved beyond Tatarstan. Many Russian politicians, experts and media people expressed their position. Famous Orthodox opinion journalist Andrey Desnitsky, senior researcher of the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Philological Sciences and professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences supported the teaching of the Tatar language. Talking to representatives of Russian national minorities, he formulated a special opinion that he shared in an interview of Realnoe Vremya.

Biblical studies is a science without fundamentalism and old sensations

Mr Desnitsky, many people know you as an author writing on social and political topics. But you have a degree in Biblical Studies. Who are Biblicists? Are they those people who reveal the facts written in biblical books? Or do you, on the contrary, interpret the Bible following holy fathers of the ancient church?

You called two extremes. There are many things between the extremes. There are scientific biblical studies. There is a traditional attitude to the Bible as a holy writing that is read in the church. Firstly, I am a scientist, at least, on the staff list, I am written as senior researcher. of the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. At the same time, I am a practising Christian. Both things combine in my life not very smooth but combine. Extremes of fundamentalism are what I don't have in my life when every written down word is interpreted literally. When people start saying that the earth is flat because it is said that the earth is covered by the sky, and the sky is a cupola. It is also difficult for me to take old sensations of ''British scientists'' who go viral on the Internet seriously. It is a way of attracting the audience, no more.

So what do you do?

I specialise in biblical translations. I have been working with the Institute for Bible Translation, which is located in Moscow and does translations of the Bible into languages of the former Soviet Union, for quite a long time. I haven't worked with the Kazan Tatar language but I consulted the New Testament in the Bashkir language from beginning till end. I also worked with the Crimean Tatar language. The full Bible in it was issued a couple of years ago.

Do you speak Turkic languages?

I don't speak so well to speak or write with fluency. My role is a consultant's role. Native speakers of languages do the translation, while I speak the original book's languages: Yiddish and Greek. I also speak languages of dictionaries: Russian, English and some others. I imagine the structure of Turkic languages quite well to be able to check with translators what was said accurately and what wasn't, where the text needs to be restructured and how.

''I specialise in biblical translations. I have been working with the Institute for Bible Translation, which is located in Moscow and does translations of the Bible into languages of the former Soviet Union, for quite a long time. I haven't worked with the Kazan Tatar language but I consulted the New Testament in the Bashkir language from beginning till end.'' Photo: rihll.com

Any literary language needs to have translations of Quran and the Bible

Translations of the Christian holy writing into languages of traditionally Muslim peoples concern Muslims who see an invasion of their territory in it. Why does the Bible need to be translated into Turkic languages? To convert peoples into Christianity?

As far as the history of the Volga region shows, if somebody wants to impose his faith, he will do it without any translations of the Bible. It is enough to have the power and executors.

We can also ask the question: why is Quran translated into the Russian language? Usually, this question is not asked, but the answer is known. Because there are Russian Muslims and Russian-speaking Muslims. For instance, Tatars and Bashkirs who live outside Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Also, because Quran for Muslims is a landmark of the world culture. Nobody doubts that there must be open access to Shakespeare and Homer in the Russian language. Any language that has literature needs to have translations of Quran and the Bible, otherwise this language doesn't function to the full. It gives its native speakers access to achievements of the world culture. As for faith, a person will make a conscious choice by knowing the source.

What relations do you think Orthodox Christians and Muslims should have?

These are two different faiths that have things in common and serious differences. I don't see any sense in finding out our differences again. Everything was known a long time ago, and there is nothing to discuss here. But in addition, there can be common deeds in charity. And there certainly must be mutual respect.

I grew up in the centre of Moscow. There always was a big number Tatars in the centre. I lived in the flat No. 7, and a Tatar family lived in the flat No. 6, we lived in peace. In addition, they spoke to each other in Tatar. Almost all people were atheists in the Soviet era. Then the Russians remembered they were Orthodox Christians, and Tatars – they were Muslims. What relations can neighbours have? It is as the neighbours will be able to have and want. If they manage to communicate, it is great. If no, they should not bother each other and be themselves.

Interesting teaching of national languages requires much more effort

You said you supported the teaching of Tatar and other national languages. Now big debates on this topic are taking place in our republic. Can you explain your position?

Yes. Firstly, I'm sure that if a person lives on the land of his ancestors – a Tatar man in Tatarstan, Crimean Tatar in Crimea, etc. – he must have the right to speak the language of his ancestors. He is not obliged to learn Russian. We, Russians, don't understand it at times. My grandmum was Latvian, I was in Riga many times as a kid. I saw how local Latvians were irritated when they came to a shop and started speaking Latvian while the seller couldn't or did not want to answer. It seemed to Russians that nothing special happened because Latvians understood Russian. But imagine if we are answered only in English in a shop in Moscow because everybody learnt it at least at school. And it will irritate us.

''I think that the national intelligentsia should fight not only for the right to teach their language (what I support) but also think how to teach it interestingly''

Russians living in national republics will only win if they know at least the basics of local languages because any new language is opportunities that open to you. Another thing is that in many regions national languages are taught at a low level. Children's heads are filled with complicated grammar that they don't understand and digest. Or, on the contrary, the programme has just an entertaining character and consists of national dances, costumes, cuisine, which has nothing to do with language learning. I think that the national intelligentsia should fight not only for the right to teach their language, what I support, but also think how to teach it interestingly, in a game and practical form, so that next time a kid will want to welcome his neighbour with the word ''how do you do?'' in Tatar after attending the lesson. It is easy to interest a person with English because it is a door to the big world. It is easy to interest with Russian because, being born in a national region, a person understands that he won't be able to go to a big city and get a good job without Russian. Interesting teaching of national languages requires much more effort.

Outlook of Moscow citizens recalls that of Americans

What are other reasons why many Russians and Russian-speaking people don't understand the problem of the Tatars and other peoples? How to cope with this misunderstanding?

I've talked to representatives of Russian national minorities quite a lot, though I don't like this term much. In comparison with the Chinese, we are all a minority… So I talked with representatives of native peoples of Russia a lot due to my job and I see things that other Russians don't see. Many Moscow citizens' perception syndrome resembles how the Americans see the world.

''The world looks completely different if you belong to a people that doesn't feel itself main in the country and finds it difficult to maintain its national identity.'' Photo: typical-moscow.ru

We live in Moscow where all peoples of Russia and neighbouring countries are represented. And they all speak Russian. New Yorkers also see all peoples of the world in their city. And these peoples speak the English language in New York. This is why the Americans think that people around the world are like them. There may be different costumes, celebrations and national dishes, but there aren't differences, in general. And they aren't ready to understand that other peoples have another national culture that is precious for them. It shrinks the outlook a lot, it makes think that the whole world is like New York. The world looks completely different if you belong to a people that doesn't feel itself main in the country and finds it difficult to maintain its national identity. Refusal from learning national languages is disruption of the international world. Not to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, we need to maintain the well-being of all peoples. Then Russia will be a country where all people can agree with each other and nobody suppresses anybody.

By Mark Shishkin