Activists in Russia have warned that hundreds of rare languages spoken by Russia’s ethnic and indigenous minorities are disappearing at an alarming rate.
It is thought by linguistic experts that these languages are becoming obsolete even more quickly than recently-published census data suggests as language policies in Moscow are doing little to preserve the linguistic diversity of the country as a whole.
In October 2022, Russia lost one of its last indigenous speakers of Aleut – a language native to the Kamchatka region of Russia’s Far East and Alaska. Gennady Yakovlev who passed away aged 86, was one of the last few native speakers of the Mednyj Aleut language, predominantly spoken on Bering Island.
Speaking to The Moscow Times, Tatar language activist Marsel Ganiev said “The number of people who identify-themselves as non-Russian and consider their native tongue, their primary tongue is declining year by year, because the space for using these languages is shrinking dramatically”.
Official data from the 2021 census shows that linguistic diversity is in rapid decline, the situation is thought to be considerably worse at community-level.
Other Russian Far Eastern languages that appear to be close to extinction are Kerek and Central Siberian Yupik. Both languages are native to the Chukotka region and are recorded as having just one remaining speaker of each.
Russia counts 193 ethnic groups in total, speaking over 270 languages and dialects as reported by official statistics. The most linguistically diverse groups can be found among the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus, Siberia, the Far East and the Russian Far North.
In 2021, census data indicated that the number of speakers of almost all of Russia’s minority and indigenous languages has declined over the last decade.
From 2010 to 2021, the number of Chuvash speakers (a Turkic language spoken primarily in and around the republic of Chuvashia in Russia’s Volga region) dropped severely from over 1 million speakers to 700,000. In the same time frame, Karelian – a Finnic language spoken in the northwestern republic of Karelia, lost more than 11,000 speakers.
Despite the amount of useful data collected by censuses, experts are debating their accuracy when it comes to monitoring linguistic diversity.
Linguist and co-founder of the digital platform Country of Languages Vasiliy Kharitonov said “The number of speakers of the vast majority, or maybe even all, languages of Russia’s minorities is declining rapidly and that’s no secret,” – adding “But I’m not sure we can assess these dynamics through censuses.”
Despite the rich linguistic diversity in Russia, there is limited policy directed at minority languages and therefore few measures ensuring the protection of indigenous and native tongues.
Existing programs are often hindered by a lack of funding, a shortage of specialists and bureaucratic drawbacks. As there is currently no government department dedicated to language policy, it is handled by the Education Ministry.
In Russian government and education, there is a big push towards monolingualism, but language activists and educators are working towards a greater demand for minority language learning. Some believe the war in Ukraine may fuel this process.
Marsel Ganiev, who additionally runs a Telegram channel for Tatar-language users said “Interest in Tatar has certainly grown since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine” – “People have become more interested in their ethnic identity and want to identify less as Russians and Russian-speakers”.