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Russia is cracking down on minority languages – but a resistance movement is growing

Author: Guzel Yusupova
COFUND Junior Research Fellow, Durham University

Russia has spent the last several years aggressively advocating for the rights of Russian minorities abroad, and in particular for the “protection” of the Russian language. Whenever a country takes any step that can be construed as suppressing or marginalising Russian speakers, the Kremlin is quick to respond in the most strident of tones.

In October 2017, when Latvia’s government made Latvian the default language of education, Sergey Zheleznyak, the member of Russia’s State Duma Committee on International Affairs, did not hold back. “The decision to switch educational instruction in Latvian schools for national minorities to the Latvian language is in violation of the European Union’s legal framework and resembles linguistic genocide,” he said.

Yet just three months before Zheleznyak’s furious statement, Russia itself abolished the compulsory teaching of minority languages at schools in its own “ethnic republics” – part of a much larger project to remake the way Russia works, and to turn away from the relatively stable multiculturalism that Russia has maintained for decades. Considering its grandstanding about the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, the pressure the Kremlin is putting on ethnic minorities at home looks like pure hypocrisy.

Since he came to power 18 years ago, Vladimir Putin has overseen a sweeping transformation of Russia’s “ethnic federalism”, where a majority of ethnicities have their own territorial autonomy. That includes the effective abolition of one of the last elements of true federalism in Russia – namely, the status of minority languages in ethnic republics as second official languages with equal status to Russian. The Kremlin is increasingly pursuing a programme of cultural homogenisation, gradually removing support for education in minority languages, curriculums with ethno-regional components, and other cultural initiatives by Russian ethnic minorities. All political activities designed to shore up minority identities are under pressure as well. Read more.