Monday, May 1, 2017

Will Loss of Native Languages in North Caucasus Mean Russification or Formation of New Caucasus People?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 1 – Most Russians and many experts expect, and many non-Russians fear, that the declining use of native languages in the North Caucasus will lead to the russification and then the russification of the peoples of that region, the disappearance of the national cultures and their eventual fusion with the ethnic Russian nation.

But there is another possibility, one far less attractive to Moscow and potentially far more important to the future of the region: the current trend of increasing use of Russian may lead to broader cooperation among the peoples of the region and even the formation of a new super-ethnic “people of the Caucasus.”

            It is sometimes forgotten that one of the reasons the Soviets promoted national languages in the North Caucasus and elsewhere was to divide the populations and thus make them easier to rule, given that if a lingua franca among them emerged, that could lead to greater resistance as was the case in the 19th century.

            Thus, Moscow worked to destroy Arabic and Chagatay Turkish, which were the bases of the unity of North Caucasians under Imam Shamil. But the Russians assumed that promoting Russian as a common language was different and that it would promote the integration of the Caucasians rather than be the basis for broader intra-regional cooperation and resistance.    

            Over the last 30 years, evidence that Moscow has miscalculated on this point has been growing. Chechnya-Ichkeria, for example, used Russian not only because many Chechens spoke it better than they did their national language but because it allowed them to reach out to others in the North Caucasus who were also oppressed by Moscow.

            And more recently, various Islamist groups in the North Caucasus have chosen to use Russian rather than national languages because it allows them to recruit, mobilize and command followers from a variety of ethnic groups rather than only one.  In short, by promoting Russian in the North Caucasus, Moscow has created a serious problem for itself.

            In a commentary on the OnKavkaz portal, Amina Suleymanova directly confronts this issue by asking whether the declining use of native languages in the North Caucasus will lead to “complete russification or the transformation of all peoples of the region into a new Caucasus people … Russian-speaking Caucasians” (

            From the point of view of indigenous national languages, Moscow’s policies and budget stringency means that the situation in the multi-national republics in the North Caucasus – Daghestan,, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria is especially bad; and that Russian is thus spreading quickly.

            But the situation is only “a little better” in the mono-ethnic republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia; and there too, Suleymanova says, the use of the languages of the titular nationalities continue to fall “year in and year out.”

            Over the last century, Russian has come to play the language of inter-ethnic communication and in that regard, it replaced Arabic which was the lingua franca there in the 19th century.  And some believe that in the future Turkish may displace Russian in much the same way.

            However, there are two more immediate questions, the commentator suggests: Will language change lead to identity shifts? And will “Moscow itself preserve the national republics” or abolish them if it believes that “the residents themselves have ceased to identify with a particular people?”

            Language change doesn’t always mean identity change or at least identity change in the direction those who promote it seek.  Many young people in the North Caucasus “who don’t know their native language nonetheless demonstrate a level of attachment to their people that many who do know it do not.”

            Suleymanova gives as an example the Caucasian diasporas abroad.  Many of them are Turkified or Arabized, and “the younger generation practically doesn’t know its language.”  They use Russian or English to talk about national issue but this in no way reduces their national identifications.

            (She does not mention but it is worth recalling that the Irish did not become nationalists until they ceased speaking Gaelic and began to speak the language of the empire.  Their national movement was based on English, even though many of its leaders and their successors have sought to promote a revival of Gaelic.).

            “Practice shows,” she says, “that young people are losing their native languages faster than their Caucasian mentality.”  And thus there is a very real possibility that the Russianization Moscow has promoted will “lead to the appearance within Russian society of a new quasi-ethnos, Russian-speaking Caucasians.”

            If that happens and if Moscow is confronted by a broader anti-Russian but Russian-speaking people uniting all the nations of the region, the center will face a far larger problem than it has when it was promoting the non-Russian languages. In short, its opponents may speak Russian but they will be no less Moscow’s opponents for that.

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