ZOiS Spotlight 7/2023

Russia’s Ethnic Minorities in the Struggle against Cultural Imperialism

For years, Russia’s ethnic minorities have been subject to an increasingly restrictive one-language policy. At the same time, they are being instrumentalised in the war against Ukraine. The high death toll among members of ethnic minorities in that war has changed and bolstered their resistance. 

"We are against the war" written in Chuvash in the Republic of Chuvashia, Russia.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has foregrounded social and economic disparities in Russia’s multi-ethnic population. In particular, the Russian army’s mobilisation of ethnic minorities and misinformation in the international media that demonises certain ethnic groups have stoked fears and resistance among non-Russian nationalities to Russia’s expansionist cultural imperialism and one-language policy.

Oppressive regimes often seek to use language policy to consolidate their power and maintain control over the population. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has held up a terrifying mirror to Russian society, reflecting xenophobia and a monolingual ideology that have often been ignored.

Official discourses, propaganda, and language policy

Although multilingualism and the recognition of ethnic minorities are enshrined in the Russian constitution, the top-down unification of language policy since the 2000s has promoted a set of laws that have diminished the status of minority languages in Russia’s regions. Over two decades, several steps have been taken to implement a monolingual policy that affects all non-Russian ethnic groups and their language use.

The teaching of non-Russian national minority languages in autonomous republics became optional in amendments to Russia’s education law in 2018, leading to a further weakening of local language status and a strengthening of Russian as the dominant language. According to the post-2020 constitution, Russian is the official language throughout the territory of the Russian Federation and is the language of the ‘state-forming nationality’. Russia’s current ethnic and linguistic policy continues to reduce minority-language education and confirms the special role of the Russian language. Many Russian citizens from ethnic-minority backgrounds feel left out of the nation-building project in Russia.

Being excluded from decision-making processes, ethnic minorities have limited opportunities to promote their native languages in public spaces. At the same time, the top-down language policy supports a propagandist image of Russian soldiers as fighters against Nazism and instrumentalises Russia’s multi-ethnicity as a justification for the war in Ukraine. Examples of this instrumentalisation include ethnic-minority festivals and concerts of non-Russian traditional music and dance in the newly occupied Ukrainian territories as well as the names given to ethnic battalions in the Russian army (e.g. Атӑл, the Chuvash name for Volga, and Алга, which is Tatar for ‘forward’). The Russian authorities are striving to seize on Russia’s multi-ethnicity and use it to reconstruct the Soviet-era narrative of an anti-colonialist policy towards the West.

Amid the growing discrimination faced by Russia’s minority languages, there have been increasing grass-roots resistance and cultural revitalisation initiatives. Ethnic-minority activists, journalists, teachers, and entrepreneurs in the Russian regions are engaged in a variety of practices to revive minority languages in the public sphere. In the absence of official support for multilingualism, individuals and activists create new projects to support minority languages, including commercial cultural projects, supplementary schools, private media, and online documentation.

Minority-language activism and the anti-war movement

Language activism in Russia’s regions (Kalmykia, Buryatia, Chuvashia, Udmurtia, Sakha (Yakutia), Karelia or Mari El) varies in its form and intensity. Generally, it aims to change linguistic practices and restore the prestige of languages other than Russian. Activists may or may not have a political agenda. Before the war in Ukraine, minority-language activism in Russia generally avoided discussions of linguistic rights or language advocacy, focusing instead on cultural and educational initiatives. This was largely due to a policy of fear and the suppression of separatism, which had been ongoing in the regions for several years.

Since the start of the war, the language activists’ agenda has partly changed. Among non-Russian citizens, there is a strong interest in promoting knowledge about ethnic origins and cultural heritage, as people were shocked and distressed by the high death toll among members of ethnic minorities in the war. Language activists turned to language advocacy, and political activists started to use minority languages in their anti-war initiatives, at least symbolically. There are examples of anti-war placards used at a single protest, as well as graffiti and art performances. The choice to use minority languages is an assertion of agency by ethnic minorities in Russia, which seek to make their political claims more visible. Texts written in minority languages can strengthen group solidarity and create a renewed sense of belonging.

Seseg Jigjitova

Promoting minority voices

The war in Ukraine has encouraged political activism among ethnic minorities. The contradiction between the attempted Russification of Ukraine and the declared protection of linguistic minorities in Russia has changed the social contract. As a result, discussion of ethnic inequalities has become an important part of anti-war initiatives mostly among non-Russian citizens living abroad.

Anti-war organisations and anti-imperial movements claim a de-colonialist perspective to their activism, and voices have spoken out against ethnic prejudice. For example, the Free Buryatia Foundation helps citizens of that South-Eastern Siberian republic to escape mobilisation. Shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a group of activists, mainly Buryat emigrants living in the US and in Europe, established the non-profit NGO as the first anti-war organisation based on a specific regional and ethnic identity. The foundation is engaged in counter-propaganda and provides professional legal assistance to soldiers who refuse to go to the front.

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a Russian self-organised decentralised solidarity group, highlights the ethnic discrimination and colonialist policy of the Russian state and promotes the hashtag #голоса нацмен_ок (in English ‘the voices of ethnic minorities’) to showcase personal stories of xenophobia in Russia. Other activists have created multi-ethnic forums to debate the organisation of post-war Russia, fight racism in the country, and foster the idea of collective actions aimed at the possible independence of ethnic republics.

Yet, language activism and anti-war initiatives among the Russian diaspora do not have wide support in the regions. In Russia, anti-war language activism seems to be marginal in nature, although the activists have a growing following and there is a strong motivation in the diaspora to change the situation in Russia.

Vlada Baranova is a sociolinguist and fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Tsypylma Darieva is a social anthropologist and a senior researcher at ZOiS, where she heads the Migration and Diversity research cluster.