Russia is home to around 185 ethnic groups or nationalities and more than 100 languages. It is lamentably also a country where indigenous ethnic languages are going extinct. According to UNESCO’s Map of Endangered Languages, 135 ethnic languages on the territory of the Russian Federation are currently either totally extinct, critically endangered or vulnerable. In other words, virtually all ethnic languages in Russia are under threat of imminent demise except the Russian language.
Instead of making efforts to preserve indigenous languages, on June 19, 2018, Russia’s federal assembly adopted a bill that would only hasten the disappearance of those languages by preventing regions from requiring the study of and teaching in minority languages and making such study strictly voluntary. Simultaneously, the study of Russian language and culture would remain part of the required curriculum and would benefit from the federal target program “Russian Language” designed to promote the Russian language with the financing of 7.6 billion rubles. Long before the bill became law, thousands of ethnic language teachers were left out of the profession, school principals were forced to change the educational program abruptly, and the prosecutor’s office intervened in the educational process by interrogating those school principals who refused to abolish ethnic language classes. All political activities designed to shore up minority identities were under pressure as well. The bill is perceived as a form of Russification, especially since President Putin openly proclaims himself as an ethnic Russian nationalist and is increasingly pursuing a program of cultural homogenization in order to restore centralized control over ethnic republics. The move triggered protests in Russia’s North Caucasus, Tatarstan, Siberia, and the Far East, where local languages have official status alongside Russian. Russian authorities have long been living in an alternate reality in which the Russian Federation finally turned into the nineteenth century’s Russian empire, the colonial “prison of nations,” pursuing a hard line on assimilating ethnic minorities. Russia today is essentially a unitary state with a fictitious federal device that was ultimately destroyed by the Kremlin’s notorious “vertical of power.”
Nevertheless, in the real world, the linguistic and cultural rights of minorities are protected by international law. Specifically, those rights are enshrined in the Convention against Discrimination in Education, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – all ratified by Russia. Russia’s formal, legal, and intentionally designed system that was written into the Language Bill to block the study and teaching of indigenous languages in ethnic republics arguably violates each of these covenants. Firstly, as a party to the Convention against Discrimination in Education, Russia must comply with Article 5(c) which expressly recognizes “the right of members of national minorities to carry on their educational activities, including the maintenance of schools and . . . the use or the teaching of their own language.” Secondly, as a party to the CERD, Russia must not engage in “racial discrimination,” defined by Article 1 of the Convention as any exclusion or restriction based on race, national or ethnic origin which has the purpose of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any other field of public life.
Furthermore, Article 4 of the CERD obligates the State Parties to condemn all propaganda which is “based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of . . . or ethnic origin.” Yet, Russia has violated Articles 1 and 4 of the CERD by placing its preference on Russian language and ipso facto promoting its superiority over ethnic languages in its effort to impair the recognition of their right to enjoyment of their culture. Relatedly, under Article 7 of the CERD, Russia must “adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnical groups.” Thirdly, Article 27 of the ICCPR emphasized that ethnic minorities “not be denied the right . . . to use their own language.” Lastly, by ratifying the CRC, Russia agreed, pursuant to Article 29, that the education of the child shall be directed to “[t]he development of respect for the child’s . . . own cultural identity, language and values.”
Most importantly, the bill sparked protests, online petitions, and awareness campaigns across the ethnic regions. Hence, in a country as vast and diverse as Russia, linguistic and cultural onslaught is not the best policy to unify a nation. As protests and outrage unravel across the country, it is apparent that turning away from multiculturalism, and obligations under the aforementioned treaties Russia has signed would only be counter-productive.