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Mother Tongue

Image via Free Nations of PostRussia Forum

To an outsider, Sabantuy, the Southern Ural Festival of the Plough, might look like a battlefield. In this hilly region that draws the line between Europe and Asia in Russia, people don traditional fur-lined clothing, show up in horse-drawn carriages, set up yurts, and pile sawdust on the ground to commemorate the first sowing of the year. Along with singing and dancing, a visitor will see men wrestling with towels around one another, beating each other with sacks, and most importantly, racing on horseback. The winner of the horse race typically receives a big ram, though in wealthier villages, he may be lucky enough to win a small car. The prizes may change with time, but the spirit of the festival remains the same. It pays homage to the nomadic days of Tatars and Bashkirs, a time before these ethnic groups were conquered by the Russian Empire in the 16th century.

Though they pledge Russian nationality, the people of the Southern Urals do not all speak the Russian language. While visiting the village where my grandparents live, I was asked to translate a Russian billboard. Under the picture of a determined-looking man in camouflage, it said in tricolor letters: “Be a real Russian. Get off your ass and fight.” In spite of its aggressive rhetoric, this was dilettante marketing—most of the villagers spoke Tatar or Bashkir as their first language, and many did not speak Russian at all. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified the ever-growing divide between ethnic minorities and the government. The amplification of cultural and physical erasure leads more and more people to denounce their Russianness and reconnect with their heritage; however, it might not take long for that heritage to fade.

Russification—or the process of assimilating nations to the Russian language and culture—has been a tool of Russian leaders since Peter the Great. The empire’s 18th- and 19th-century territorial expansions required the driving out of conquered peoples, or more conveniently, the imposition of a Russian way of life. The USSR, especially after Khruschev eased Stalin’s cultural regulations in his namesake “thaw,” claimed a different approach—valuing a culturally diverse state. Diversity and harmony were recurring themes in socialist realist art: for example, gilded female figures in various national attire surround the “Friendship of the People” fountain in the permanent Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy in Moscow, a significant display of national pride. In practice, however, the Soviet state persecuted Muslims, displaced nomadic peoples, and taught Russian exclusively in schools, no matter the region. This makes the USSR a settler colonial state; in turn, the Russian Federation did nothing to amend that legacy.  

After invading Ukraine in another fit of expansionism, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a “patriotic” campaign to increase nationalist spirit in the country. Through calls to “be a real Russian” and support the war, the propaganda channels ignore citizens of non-Russian ethnicity—23 percent of the population according to the 2021 census. Government supporters may argue that patriotism has little to do with ethnic background. But can patriotism come from force, as it did in the Second Chechen War? Can the Russian flag cover up generational trauma?

Putin’s justification of the invasion stems from the same root—a claim of the “historical” Russianness of the Ukrainian people. We need not discuss the wrongs of that statement. Instead, I’d like to turn your attention to Russia’s current draft policy. 

According to The Washington Post, the bulk of military recruitment efforts target areas populated with Tatars (near the Urals), Kalmyks (bordering the Caspian Sea), and Buryats (near Lake Baikal), and tend to avoid the western regions that are mostly ethnically Russian. Non-Russian ethnic groups also tend to inhabit rural regions, often to keep a traditional way of life. And in rural areas, losing men of working age can be deadly; in a village of fifty, a tractor driver going to war means losing half the harvest. Governmental motives go beyond economic convenience and venture into the territory of ethnic cleansing when the draft begins to disproportionately affect regions with fewer people. Bashkir journalist Aigul Gimranova-Lion has thus dubbed the wartime mobilization a “genocide against the national minorities.” 

Even so, Russia’s call to militarized nationalism is gaining speed. Since the launch of the invasion, Russian schools have begun implementing military education programs (euphemistically titled “Conversations about Important Things”), often conveniently replacing regional language classes. Languages lie at the heart of cultural identity, and according to the federal information surveillance agency, Roskomnadzor, only some are worth preserving. They try to kill two birds with one stone—to get rid of both people and peoples they do not want.

Certain groups have shown an increase in separatist sentiment after 2022. Even before the war, Putin had been at odds with groups promoting local culture—such as Bashkort, who were declared an extremist movement in 2020 after picketing to protect a sacred chalk mountain from being torn down. More recently, leaders of Chechen, Buryat, Erzya, and other federal groups gathered for the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia in Prague to imagine a post-imperial Russia. The dissolution of the country along ethnic lines would create over 50 new states, according to a map the forum devised. These separatist movements do not receive much support from the regions they claim to represent. Many minority groups believe that the new states will be too weak politically to survive, and voice concerns about establishing ethnicity-based nations. What do you do with a village in Bashkortostan with a mostly Tatar population? And thanks to the pervasive influence of historical Russification efforts, many secessionists share in Russian traditions, further complicating the possibility of a cultural and linguistic split. 

Under the looming double threat of Russification and wartime recruitment, Sabantuy is much more than a farming festival. The celebration is meant to revitalize local cultures and allow people to connect with the past, be it on horseback or on a tractor. At the same time, it is emblematic of an uncertain time and a re-thinking of national identity. To have language to understand and express that struggle is a right, not a privilege. As the great Tatar poet Gabdulla Tuqay wrote, “И туган тел, и матур тел, әткәм-әнкәмнең теле! / Дөньяда күп нәрсә белдем син туган тел аркылы.” (“My mother tongue, my father tongue! How much I see and know through you.”)