— You and your comrades are sometimes called “ethnolinguistic activists.” What does that mean?
— Truthfully, I do occasionally call my colleagues and comrades ethnoliguistic activists, but this definition is not entirely accurate. Here, you need to distinguish between the linguistic and ethnic components. Who is a language activist? This is a person involved in the grassroots work aimed at ensuring that minority languages continue to exist, are developed, are taught, etc. It could be organizing a language club, developing a mobile app with a dictionary, releasing a board game in a minority language, translating children’s cartoons, or writing a Wikipedia article in a particular language. Language activism involves any interaction with language and its distribution, which in turn presupposes translation, the creation of content, teaching, and the shaping of a spoken environment. Usually people do it out of the goodness of their hearts, though for some language activism at a certain point becomes a job. Most often activists work with their ethnic language, but here it is worth mentioning: this language is not necessarily their native language in the strict sense – not necessarily the one that they have been speaking since childhood. It is the language of the ethnicity with which they associate themselves in one way or another. These are probably the majority of activists, both in Russia and in the world. There are language activists who are not part of their respective ethnic communities. Vasya Kharitonov, for example, is the co-founder of the Country of Languages, an association of activists for different languages of the peoples of Russia. He’s an ethnic Russian, born in Moscow, but for many years he has been learning the Nanai language spoken in Priamurye in the Russian Far East. He often went there and made groups on WhatsApp so that Nanai people from different villages could exchange voice messages. He recently took a job at a Nanai school. In this way, he’s a Nanai language activist, but he’s not a Nanai and doesn’t consider himself a Nanai. Moreover, an ethnolinguistic activist combines concern for their language with ethnically oriented messages, actions, and political demands. The ethnic aspect may not arise by itself, but within the argument to protect the language – reasoning like “here it is, the language of our ancestors, our heritage, we need to preserve our language in order to preserve our people. At the same time, a language activist may well consider such an attitude toward language harmful, distracting from the main thing, and even dangerous.
— Can linguistic and ethnolinguistic activism be considered a unique form of identity politics?
— Rather, ethnoliguistic. Linguistic activism is not always linked to identity, although, in any case, you cannot avoid politics at least at the level of everyday issues, even if you deal with sociolinguistics. For example, I have been involved in the Mari language for some time: I initiated the translation of the VKontakte interface into Mari, the translation of Telegram into Mari. I coordinated these processes: I didn’t translate much myself, but I gathered speakers who got involved in the translation work. While I was involved with this, I could not and would not write slogans like “Wake up, Mari people! Fight for your freedom!” But at the same time, I wrote that residents in various towns in the Mari El Republic tend to consider the Mari language ugly and that this disregard must be fought, including ideologically. It does not equal identity politics, but it certainly affects it.
— Is it possible to be involved in language activism and not at some point find yourself in the territory of the defenders of national traditions with the corresponding traditional values?
— Now is probably not the time to fight about such matters. There is the Bashkir activist Ruslan Gabbasov, actually one of the leaders of the Bashkir national movement in exile. The man is serious and interesting; his work commands respect. As far as I understand, he is a conservative, religious, traditional man. I have never discussed his attitude toward LGBT+ activism with him, and I suspect that if we discussed this matter, we would be unlikely to come to an agreement. However, I believe that now these people are our allies and it is not the time to bicker with them in the face of a common enemy — a generalized Moscow. How not to bring traditionalism together with these ideas [of protection on minority cultures], albeit unwittingly?
“In fact, the conversation about protecting indigenous culture and minority languages can be different, it can be contemporary and not parasitic on the past”
I have met language activists, particularly those working with Mari, who are extremely urban, modern, and simultaneously Soviet in the sense that they shunned archaic and national religious culture, you won’t hear them talking about their ancestors and so on. What are they? For example, I know a man who works for Mari radio. A Russian-speaking rapper comes to him and says, “Put our song on the air, please.” And the man answers him: “Only if you write down another one in Mari, so that we ensure language balance.” Language activists may not touch the past at all, but rather think about how to adapt computers, programs, and artificial intelligence to work with language, and there is no paradox here. There exists a multitude of people who are interested in a particular language or even in their roots, regardless of their family or their received upbringing. They come at it already through modern, globalized and largely Western postcolonial and feminist discourse. In other words, they enter the topic, having passed the stage of national romanticism.
— But they can unite with the “romanticists” and the “traditionalists”, can’t they?
— Yes, and they are uniting. I am now working closely with the Congress of the Oirat Kalmyk People. Most of its leaders were elected openly and legitimately back when similar congresses and conventions were held in Kalmykia and not yet dispersed by the cops. People expressed themselves there, voted, and chose their representatives. A kind of coordinating council for the opposition, only it failed in Moscow, but it succeeded in Kalmykia and worked for many years. Beginning in 2021, they began to detain not only Congress participants, but even bloggers broadcasting from their meetings and sessions. The aforementioned leaders of this Congress are older people (over 40, and even over 50 and 60 years old). They might be guided by a more traditionalist or primordial conceptions of culture and ethnicity. But this year a young Kalmyk activist and lawyer, Daavr Dorzhin, entered the congress. He is a supporter in defense of LGBT+ rights and the fight against sexism and racism. He is a modern and progressive activist who follows a global agenda, and yet he has settled into an organization where people of more traditional views probably prevail. Unions are possible. Thus, Daavr, taking care of the interests of Kalmyks, among other things, works a lot with Ukraine and the Ukrainian media.
— You said that they are united by their struggle against Moscow. Can you explain why exactly Moscow appears as an enemy?
— Moscow is an image, but it has several layers. It is the image of the current Russian government, which sits in Moscow and has been in charge of Russian politics for the past few years. The Kremlin, Putin, the Cabinet, etc. Why this image of the enemy? First, because it is an authoritarian power system, it suppresses freedom of speech: Kalmyk activists simply cannot speak freely about themselves and their work. Secondly, it is a system of centralized power, it distributes the budget unfairly and quite purposefully develops only the capitals and the largest cities. Low standard of wages, low purchasing power, poor infrastructure, including poor roads and dirty streets are the result. It is Moscow that manages the money of the whole country. For example, Astrakhan is an oil and gas producing region which could live considerably better than it does if the money for gas and oil were left within the region. Third, Moscow is the enemy of ethnicities and languages, and has an open policy of assimilation. Both previously and now, during the war in Ukraine. It is no coincidence that posters with the provocative slogan “I am Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians” recently appeared in the center of Elista. It is also worth noting the ban on teaching national languages as compulsory, which was passed down from the federal authorities in 2018. Before that, there was a systematic reduction schools where these languages were taught in one capacity or another. The general attitude of Moscow officials and authorities is also revealing: if a person speaks his native language, he is probably a nationalist, a separatist, and he should be jailed. The construction of the Russian state in its current borders, with its current symbolism and historical myth in and off itself is an imperial construction, and here it is not so important anymore exactly which people stand at the top of this construction, how much money they send to Astrakhan and how many languages they give them to teach. It presupposes an imperial, conquering identity. So without destroying this statehood it is impossible to achieve complete freedom and autonomy. Even if an alternative presidential candidate emerges tomorrow and becomes president for some reason, he will simply say: “We preserve the structure of Russia, the territory, the myth, the flag, the anthem and so on, but you will live better now.” I believe that this structure must be broken once and for all. To repeat the process that was initiated by the Union republics in ’91, to repeat the demand for autonomy. No doubt problems will arise, but they will be their own, independent of Moscow. And they will be somewhat simpler to solve.
— Can this strategy be called regionalist?
— Generally speaking, regionalism is a complex thing. Don’t see it solely as a political movement or a set of particular political views. It goes directly beyond politics and touches on a person’s identity, interests, hobbies of a person, their personal history and background. Regionalism is the perception of the world and the space around us. A regionalist is primarily focused on the notion of a small motherland. It happens that a person was born in the Pskov Oblast, which has its own interesting history – the Teutonic Knights, the Lithuanian princes, the Hanseatic cities, finally, the period of the Pskov Republic. A border region from which a person can quickly get to European Estonia, look around, and come right back. The region has an interesting dialect. A region for whose inhabitants the ethnic linguistic boundary has not coincided with the state boundary for a long time. But, unfortunately, our educational system and television shows are Moscow-centric, or at the very least, city-centric; they show the villagers as clumsy and drunkards. As a result, this image is projected onto vast and varied areas, including by some residents of the corresponding region, they broadcast this attitude and prefer to associate themselves with Russia as a whole rather than with their small motherland.
“A regionalist is someone who has managed to overcome this disparaging attitude toward herself and her area”
A regionalist values the place in which she lives, and that, again, does not necessarily have to be the place where she was born or where she grew up. It is a region that has become dear to the person, in which she has found or is looking for herself, for the benefit of which she wants to work. For some, regionalism grows out of passion for local history. It often goes hand in hand with urbanism and the desire to somehow improve the environment around us, especially in conditions of mismanagement and lack of money. For some, regionalism is fueled by an interest in local literature, for others in local nature, birds, plants, ecology in general, and for others in linguistic diversity, which can, in fact, be found everywhere.
— And how do you distinguish between a fervent interest in a small homeland that a person suddenly found at a specific stage in his life, and exoticism?
— There is indeed a danger of exoticization, but it is a matter of positioning oneself and the specifics of the organization of one’s activities in a given region. If you move to another region and launch a local history project there, you provide a platform for the local community. You organize, say, a festival, lectures and presentations of certain languages or cultural projects, but you don’t act as the sole expert. In doing so, you don’t just admire and consume, but do and listen, not claiming, at first, an inside view. As a person who physically lives, eats, sleeps and belongs in this space.
— Regionalism is necessary but not a sufficient condition for the emergence of separatism?
— Perhaps so. Here we need to talk about the political side of regionalism, about how to move from local history and love for the small motherland to political demands. Politically, regionalism is a demand for autonomy and decentralization. Suppose you fell in love with a particular region, but how do you explain to your neighbors that it’s wonderful and you don’t have to leave it for Moscow in search of a better life? This requires that residents be able to make a difference around them. For local government and the regional Duma to work there. And the obvious demand is a fair distribution of the budget. Then there is the question of how to present history and literature at school from a non-imperial position. I once had an opportunity to do pedagogical practice at a school in the village of Rastopulovka, in the Privolzhsky District of Astrakhan Oblast. The Nogais, whose villages disappeared due to the development of a gas field, were displaced there. The students considered themselves Nogai, spoke Nogai, and I had to give them lessons. Only the textbook said: our ancestors believed in Perun, our ancestors defeated the Tatar-Mongolian army, etc. Whose ancestors? What connection do the Nogai children have here? Their ancestors did not believe in Perun – what should I tell them? Not an easy question, but it brings us to another demand – the demand to recognize regional distinctiveness and include it in the system of advocacy, historical and cultural work, media outreach, and education. Separatism is a logical extension of this whole set of political and social demands. It arises when you realize that it is impossible to satisfy the demands in any other way than complete separation. I think that for many, the start of the war in Ukraine became a separatist trigger: people realized that the center is not going to change and no improvement is in sight from there.
— Do you agree that the aggressive mobilization in some regions of the country actually resembles ethnic cleansing?
— This is a difficult question. Objectively, if we look only at the effect of mobilization, it all really looks like this. I constantly engage in monitoring the number of deaths in the Astrakhan Oblast and keep ethnic statistics. The first 7 dead were ethnic Kazakhs. Seven people in a row, with only about 16% Kazakhs in the region. Then there are Nogai and Tatars among the dead, while we have 1% of Nogai. I am not inclined to consider this a conscious policy of the Kremlin. But I understand why people say that – they see how half of their village is taken away from them and sent to certain death. At the same time, the military recruitment offices work in a peculiar way. It’s a surprisingly decentralized system. It’s not just Putin, they often don’t even listen to their governor. The process of increased mortality of ethnic minorities was noticeable even before the mobilization, that is, even among contract soldiers. True, Russia is not unique here: if you take America or Canada, it is entirely the same there. Samoans and Chamorros serve far more often than any other Americans. This happens quite often with indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. When you have limited access to the job market and education, not to mention a whole host of other social problems, contract service turns out to be a simple and straightforward path. In Russia, Astrakhan Kazakhs or, say, Tuvinians are sometimes not even hired, calling them, Russian citizens, migrants and illegals. Let’s imagine a young man from a Kazakh aul in the steppe, which is deep in the Volga Delta and separated from Astrakhan by three ferry crossings. How does he commute to school? He needs to rent a place to live in the city, he needs a minimum set of groceries. And what kind of income do his parents have? Only farming, cattle breeding. How do they feed themselves and still send money to their child to live in the city and have a phone and a computer? The social ladder is not climbable here. People who found themselves in war often had no other way but to go to the police or the army, when the state feeds you, trains you, clothes you, brings you in and takes you where you need to go. In addition, Soviet propaganda and literature, as well as modern propaganda, according to which policemen and soldiers are noble professions, are still at work in this environment. So not only does a person get guaranteed employment, a salary, education, food and clothing, but they also return to the village as a protector and hero in the eyes of their neighbors — if they return. As for the particular period of mobilization, there are already questions there. For example, I saw a letter sent from a district military recruitment office to a village council somewhere near Tuapse in Krasnodar Krai. There is a village there where half of the villagers are Armenians and half are Russians. There were 12 Armenians and one Russian on the list, and these were not contract servicemen, they were instructions from the military recruitment office. It is unlikely, of course, that this is a centralized policy, more likely a local initiative. But increased mobilization in the remotest and poorest areas, not necessarily ethnically colored, looks like a consciously pursued policy. They mobilize small villages scattered across the steppe or on the tundra, in which the older generation does not use the Internet, does not read the opposition media, and the younger generation, even if they read it, still does not know which lawyer to contact or how to defend their interests. And it’s harder to organize a protest there.
“Indigenous peoples are more likely to get caught up in the mill of war”
The reasons for this are many — a host of social and economic problems.
— What, in your opinion, is the most realistic separatist scenario and what are the prospects for separatist movements?
— The most realistic scenario does not assume that separatist movements and activists will immediately need anything specific. Rather, the governors, heads of republics, and part of the local establishment will understand that it is no longer advantageous to obey Moscow, and they will stop obeying it. For economic or personal reasons. But this is possible in a situation where Moscow is very heavily weakened. A massive armed uprising would not be necessary for this, nor would disruptive activity (although I am not at all calling for activity to cease, if it is being carried out). The separatists need to wait for their moment. And now it is more likely than ever.