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Stabilization and symbolism: language and regional politics in the Chuvash Republic // Nationalities Papers Vol. 40, No. 1, January 2012, 127–147
Nationalities Papers
Vol. 40, No. 1, January 2012, 127 –147
Stabilization and symbolism: language and regional politics in the
Chuvash Republic
Kyle L. Marquardt∗
Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA
(Received 17 July 2010; final version received 19 July 2011)
The government of the Chuvash Republic, an ethno-federal region of the Russian
Federation, used a targeted and symbolic language policy in an attempt to stabilize
the position of the republic’s titular language while avoiding conflict with local
Russophones and the Russian federal government. The resulting policy allowed the
republic’s government to frame the existence of an autonomous Chuvash republic –
as well as the local elite’s form of governance – as being essential to the
preservation of the Chuvash language and thus the Chuvash people. In this way, it
used language politics to strengthen its position vis-a`-vis both local constituents and
the Russian federal government. However, the limited nature of the government’s
program has made its gains tenuous in the face of continuing Russian political and
cultural recentralization.
Keywords: language politics; ethnic politics; Chuvashia; federalism; Russia
The case of the Chuvash Republic, a relatively small autonomous republic (approximately
1.3 million inhabitants, according to the 2002 Russian Census [Rossiyskaya Federatsiya.
Federal’naya Sluzhba Gosudarstvennoy Statistiki]) in the Volga region of the Russian
Federation,1 provides invaluable insight into the link between language, ethnicity and
sovereignty movements, as well as the reasons why regional elites pursue programs of
linguistic revitalization even in the apparent absence of widespread demand for such
measures. While there is a large body of work on Chuvash policy by local scholars
(e.g. Boiko, Filippov, Il’in, Ivanov, and Kharitonova), there has been little attempt to integrate the case of Chuvashia into the more general social-scientific literature on federal
decentralization and programs of linguistic and cultural revitalization.2 Scholarship has
instead focused largely on the cases of Russian republics that were perceived to be
more oriented toward sovereignty, such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan (Gorenburg,
“Tatar Language Policies”; Graney; Wertheim; Davis, Hammond, and Nizamova).
Though such research has yielded valuable insights, the case of Chuvashia illustrates
that even less-sovereignty-oriented governments may pursue similar policies, albeit
restricted by certain political and demographic constraints. Through a theoretical analysis
of Russian-language primary and secondary sources, this article attempts to explain why
such a regional government would do so, arguing that the government of Chuvashia
pursued its policy to position regional elites as essential interlocutors between the
Russian federal center and the local population.
Chuvashia’s high degree of linguistic Russification (i.e. much of its population, including ethnic Chuvash, identified with the Russian language) and long-standing connections
∗
Email: klmarquardt@wisc.edu
ISSN 0090-5992 print/ISSN 1465-3923 online
# 2012 Association for the Study of Nationalities
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2011.633073
http://www.tandfonline.com
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K.L. Marquardt
to Russia meant that the policy of Chuvashia was by necessity more targeted and symbolic
than those of regions like Bashkortostan and Tatarstan: Chuvashia’s local elites needed to
mediate between assimilation – the realization of which would remove the rationale for
the elite’s existence as intermediaries – and an overly assertive language policy, which
would potentially destabilize the republic by angering the republic’s Russophones and
the federal center.
The local elites of Chuvashia pursued a policy that navigated between these extremes
by using their control of regional institutions to pursue a policy of cultural (especially linguistic) revitalization, building on the basis provided by titular demographic dominance.
Specifically, the Chuvash government used a moderate, largely symbolic language policy
to enhance the Republic’s “Chuvash” status and consequently support its own continued
relevance, all the while avoiding either alienating the Russophones of the Republic or
antagonizing Moscow. However, such a policy means that the Chuvash language’s position has remained tenuous: whether or not Chuvash elites will be able to maintain their
program of cultural revitalization in the face of federal pressure (which has increased in
the post-Yeltsin period) is questionable.
Language and politics: context and theory
At first glance, the case for the Chuvash government’s Chuvash-centered programs may
appear to be straightforward, in that Chuvashia’s titular population (the Chuvash, a
Turkic and largely Christian ethnic group) has represented a large majority of the republic’s population since the disintegration of the Soviet Union: according to the 1989 Soviet
Census (Soyuz Sovetskhikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. Komitet po Statistike) the
Chuvash made up 68% of the republic’s population, with Russians representing the
second-largest ethnic group at 27% of the population. Such ethnic demographic dominance might lead one to expect that Chuvashia would prove fertile ground for programs
of linguistic revitalization. Moreover, if an ethnic group’s demographic dominance in a
peripheral region increases the likelihood of ethnic conflict over territory (as argued by
authors such as Toft; Cederman, Wimmer and Min), Chuvashia would seem to be at
least as likely a candidate for such activities as Tatarstan (where ethnic Tatars made up
only 48% of the regional population, according to the 1989 Soviet Census).
However, the Chuvash Republic is unique among the 21 Russian republics in that, despite
being majority-titular, a relatively large portion of its titular population has not strongly
identified with the Chuvash language and has also exhibited a high degree of linguistic
Russification: in the 1989 Soviet Census only 85% of ethnic Chuvash identified Chuvash
as their native language (rodnoi yazyk), while the remaining 15% reported Russian as
their native language and an additional 69% claimed to speak Russian fluently as a second
language (the question also specified that the language must be a language of a Soviet nationality [svobodno vladeyut vtorym yazykom narodov SSSR]). In contrast, self-reported linguistic Russification has generally been much lower in republics with a similar demographic
makeup. For example, according to the 1989 Soviet Census, Tyvans constituted 64% of
their titular republic’s population; however, 99% of those ethnic Tyvans identified Tyvan
as their native language, while only 58% claimed to speak Russian fluently as a second
language (1% identified Russian as their native language). Geographically closer to Chuvashia, Tatars made up only 49% of their eponymous republic’s population, but still 97% of
them identified Tatar as their native language and only 77% claimed to speak Russian fluently
as a second language (3% identified Russian as their native language).
Nationalities Papers
129
Importantly, both Tyva and Tatarstan were generally considered to be among the more
sovereignty-oriented of the Russian republics in the 1990s, both in terms of government
activity and popular sentiment; Chuvashia was not (Giuliano; Gorenburg, “Nationalism
for the Masses”).3 The case of Chuvashia would thus complement the work of other scholars who have found linguistic assimilation to have a negative correlation with instances of
ethnic mobilization (Beissinger; Hale, “Parade of Sovereignties”; Gorenburg, Minority
Ethnic Mobilization).
At the same time, while linguistic Russification may explain the lack of popular mobilization among ethnic Chuvash to some degree, it makes the policy of the Chuvash elite
puzzling: the Chuvash government has consistently promoted a project of cultural and
linguistic revitalization in the face of apparent opposition or resistance by the Chuvash
public and challenges from the central government (described in greater detail in later
sections), instead of the potentially easier path of accepting continuing Russification. As
social-scientific theory illustrates, the reason for such policy is clear: programs of linguistic revitalization can serve to entrench the importance of local elites.
Language and regional elites
Language – and thus language policy – can be vital to regional elites because linguistic
differences between a central government and a peripheral population allow a regional
elite to act as an essential interlocutor between the two, providing the local elite with a
reason to exist (Laitin, “Language Games”). Language is especially important in the
post-Soviet sphere because it is often perceived to be one of the most fundamental
aspects of national identity (an idea common in Soviet theory: see Grenoble, chs. 1, 2;
Silver 47 – 50): as the Republic of Chuvashia’s first president Nikolai Fedorov
(1993 – 2010) commented, language is “the basis not just of culture, but also of thought,
development” (“Torzhestvennoe Sobranie”). A republic’s government would thus have
an incentive to prominently associate itself with its titular language, as doing so would
enable it to entrench the interrelation between the national identity, the national elite,
and the (sub)state (the end product of which Roeder terms “nation-state hegemony” 16).
Furthermore, linguistic distinctiveness provides the local government with a population invested in the perpetuation of local autonomy for two main reasons. First, linguistic
differences entrench a population’s ties to a regional language (and thus the region’s
autonomy) by limiting their life opportunities in the greater federal state: if a Chuvashspeaker does not speak Russian, she would have limited opportunities for work in the
greater Russian Federation; even if she speaks Russian fluently as a bilingual, she
would likely find little affirmation of the value of her language and culture outside of
Chuvashia (for a discussion of the link between ethnic mobilization, regional sovereignty
and life opportunities, see Hale, Foundations of Ethnic Politics). As a result, the existence
of an explicitly Chuvash regional entity would provide her with a territory in which to
freely express her Chuvash identity through her linguistic (and other) behavior; her identity would thus be linked with the region.
Second, state promotion of a regional language invests a larger population directly in
institutions devoted to the perpetuation of local autonomy (Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic
Mobilization). By enacting linguistic requirements for attaining certain government
jobs, speakers of the language are privileged in entering the halls of power. Furthermore,
programs of linguistic revitalization require local-language translators and teachers, all of
whose jobs would become irrelevant were the state’s promotion of the language to cease.
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K.L. Marquardt
These individuals therefore have a strong incentive to defend their state’s continued ethnic
distinctiveness.
For these reasons, a regional government would have great reason to invest in the
strengthening of regional linguistic difference from the center when it has the potential
to do so, as during the period of Russian federal decentralization that occurred during
the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (for a concise description of decentralization in Russia
under Yeltsin, see Lapidus). As Laitin (Identity in Formation) has convincingly argued,
language choices can be structured by individuals’ perceptions of the utility of having
different languages in one’s repertoire. If a government can change local populations’
perceptions in favor of the regional language and thus influence their linguistic repertoires,
the regional government will have a stronger basis for resisting centralization in the
future (as has been occurring in the Russian Federation since Vladimir Putin’s ascension
to power in 1999), since its titular population would be more invested in the government
as a protector of its language and its culture.
The context for linguistic revitalization in Chuvashia
The Chuvash government would want to change the language behavior of its population,
but it faced a problem in pursuing such a policy during the immediate post-Soviet period,
when it had the highest degree of freedom from the central government to pursue its
desired policies: a lack of pro-revitalization sentiment among the Chuvash. For
example, Gorenburg reports that evidence from regional newspaper surveys shows that
only 40% of ethnic Chuvash in Chuvashia supported designating the Chuvash language
as an official republican language in 1989 (poll of newspaper readers from Sovetskaya
Chuvashiya by N. Galkin and G. Tafaev, cited in Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization
156).
Part of the reason for this lack of interest in Chuvash cultural and linguistic revitalization was a sense of “national nihilism” (a term used by both scholars such as Boiko,
Markov, and Kharitonova and political figures such as President Fedorov to describe
the sense that a nationality’s culture is doomed to assimilation) among many Chuvash,
a phenomenon that some argue became “further entrenched” during the Soviet era
(Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 46). While Soviet nationalities policy was multifaceted
and could in fact serve to reinforce certain types of ethnic identification (Brubaker;
Slezkine), a common perception among Chuvash nationalists was that it served to
weaken the position of the Chuvash language. For example, a prominent Chuvash sociolinguist commented that Soviet “linguistic imperialism” had caused the Chuvash language
to become an “ethnographic relic” on the “periphery of societal life” (Degtyarev). Such
claims are mitigated somewhat by the fact that 60% of the overall population of Chuvashia
identified the Chuvash language as either their native language or a second language they
spoke fluently in the 1989 Soviet Census, indicating that a majority of that population
identified to some degree with the language.
At the same time, this identification showed stark differences along ethnic lines. Very
few non-ethnic Chuvash (3%) claimed the Chuvash language as either a “native” language
or a second language they spoke fluently in the 1989 Census. Furthermore, while the
corresponding figure for ethnic Chuvash is much higher (88%), it glosses over a stark
urban-rural divide: a drastically larger percentage of urban Chuvash (25%) than rural
Chuvash (1%) did not identify Chuvash as either their native language or a language
they spoke fluently as a second language. Although these data do not necessarily reflect
actual linguistic knowledge (e.g. how well or how often the respondents spoke the
Nationalities Papers
131
language), they do indicate that a large percentage of the region’s urban and non-Chuvash
populations did not identify strongly with the Chuvash language. The impression of low
linguistic identification from the census data is strengthened by reports from local
scholars, who argue that the Chuvash language played little role in day-to-day urban
life by the late 1980s (Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova; Degtyarev).
Even if identification with the language had been stronger, the limits of Chuvash
nationalism were more circumscribed than those in other Russian republics for pure
realpolitik reasons: Chuvashia has no borders with external states, has a relatively small
population, and is not terribly prosperous, making the republic dependent to some
degree on Russia. Furthermore, the Chuvash people are predominantly (like Russians)
Orthodox Christians and have historically had friendly relations with the Russian state
in its various incarnations (for a description of historical reasons for the peaceful relations
between the Chuvash and the Russian Federation, see Ivanov, “Osobennosti etnicheskikh
protsessov” 115; Ivanov, Etnicheskaya karta Chuvashii 106 – 08), strengthening the
impression of a strong link between the Chuvash and Russian peoples.
It is thus unsurprising that the Chuvash population itself has shown a general lack of
enthusiasm for separatist/nationalist sentiment; indeed, even the nationalist movement
that enjoyed some popular support in the late 1980s and early 1990s stressed the importance of ethnic harmony, and its members rarely called for separation from the Soviet
Union and later the Russian Federation, which differentiates it from more radical movements in other Russian republics (Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization 192 – 93;
Ivanov, “Osobennosti Etnicheskikh Protsessov” 116).4 In fact, the history of the relatively
non-radical nationalist movement is telling insofar as it indicates why the Chuvash government could not have pursued more radical policies even had it wanted to do so: there was
little electoral support to be had for such projects after the disintegration of the Soviet
Union. Despite initial electoral successes in the period 1990 – 1991, by the time of the
1993 elections popular support for nationalists had declined to 10% of the electorate,
after which point they were relegated to a largely tertiary role in the political life of the
Republic (Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization 144).
However, despite a lack of electoral success, the movement’s prominence in the republic
and outspoken defense of Chuvash culture assisted ethnic Chuvash republic-wide in overcoming “their inferiority complex,” leading to increased usage of Chuvash in the public
sphere (quotation from Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova, 47; see also Gorenburg, Minority
Ethnic Mobilization). Some of the stigma attached to use of the Chuvash language was thus
overcome in the waning days of the Soviet Union, a tentative step toward counteracting
“national nihilism.” Furthermore, given the Chuvash demographic dominance of the republic
and that 85% of ethnic Chuvash considered Chuvash to be their native language in 1989, a
large percentage of the Republic’s population was at least potentially receptive to programs
designed to further the language (if not necessarily by laws raising the language’s status).
Therefore, the government of Chuvashia’s choice to emphasize language in their political program can be seen as an attempt to build on the momentum created during the transition to post-communism, and indeed Chuvashia was the first Russian republic to pass a
law on languages, in 1993 (O yazykakh v Chuvashskoi Respublike [On the languages in the
Chuvash Republic] – see Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization 217). The law made
Chuvash one of two official republican languages (alongside Russian) and committed
the republic’s government to promoting the use of the language (as it had done previously
in all of its formative documents, such as its Sovereignty Declaration and Constitution).
However, and contrary to the demands of the Chuvash national movement, the Chuvash
government only named Chuvash as one of two official republican languages alongside
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K.L. Marquardt
Russian (Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization 105– 09; Danilov 39) instead of
making it the sole official language.
The governing elites were likely more moderate than the nationalists because they had
to govern a largely linguistically Russified population that would be disturbed by a
demotion of the Russian language. This need to balance a desire to increase national
awareness with not provoking the republic’s Russophone population or the Russian
federal government would prove to be the main dilemma of the Chuvash republican
government for the next two decades; it generally erred on the side of avoiding conflict
with either group of actors.
As a result, the policy of the Chuvash government during the Yeltsin era, when the
republic had its highest degree of sovereignty and thus theoretically its greatest ability
to pursue more aggressive policies, largely involved developing a basis for more intensive
programs in the future. However, the success of these programs was contingent upon
maintaining control over regional policy, which has become increasingly difficult after
Putin’s rise to power at the turn of the century.
Language policy in Chuvashia: selective implementation and symbolism
By the mid-1990s, a republic devoted (at least symbolically) to the Chuvash people had
declared itself sovereign and had had this sovereignty recognized in its federal agreement
with the Russian center (even though the meaning of sovereignty was far from clear).
Furthermore, Chuvashia had developed a highly ambitious language law that would
almost certainly have increased Chuvash usage had it been implemented (Degtyarev): the
1993 law “On the Languages in the Chuvash Republic” called for mandatory Chuvashlanguage education for all students in Chuvashia, the creation of incentives for all government workers – regardless of ethnicity – to develop skills in the Chuvash language (as well
as opportunities for them to do so), and a 10-year transition to mandatory bilingualism for
many government positions (again regardless of ethnicity). However, in implementing the
law, the government focused on symbolism and raising the language’s prominence during
the first 10 years: the government focused on increasing the presence of the Chuvash
language in mass media and making street signs bilingual, as opposed to actually demanding
that all bureaucrats learn the language (Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization 221).
A clear reason why the government did not pursue a more aggressive policy during the
Yeltsin era – when it had the greatest degree of freedom to pursue such policies – is that
there was minimal support to do so: a 1993 survey found that only 35% of Chuvash
respondents and 10% of Russian respondents believed that knowledge of the Chuvash
language was necessary for all citizens of the republic (poschitali neobkhodimym
znaniya chuvashskogo yazyka vsemi) (survey data in Il’in).
As a result, the largely symbolic policies the government pursued were the likely most
viable option it had available. Furthermore, as will be discussed in later sections, these
policies occurred in conjunction with more-concrete and less-symbolic programs that
focused on the population most likely to be receptive to them: namely, ethnic Chuvash
(Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 51). Such a policy of combined symbolic and targeted
measures has virtue in that targeted programs affect those individuals most receptive to the
policy while not overly antagonizing those opposed, and making a language omnipresent
can increase the prestige of a language while also – in conjunction with more concrete
policies of promotion – proving the government’s commitment to the language, laying the
psychological basis for a stronger language policy in the future (for a description of how
ubiquitous national symbols can serve nationalist ends, see Fox and Miller-Idriss).
Nationalities Papers
133
The effects of Chuvash language policy during the Yeltsin era
At the time the Russian government’s program of federal recentralization began in earnest
during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, the policy of the Chuvash government had been
largely a success: the linguistic situation among ethnic Chuvash had stabilized, all of
which was achieved with minimal ethnic antagonism. Importantly, the policy’s success
has enabled the government to continue investing institutions in the perpetuation of the
Chuvash language, all the while framing itself as the guarantor of interethnic harmony
and revitalization of the Chuvash culture.
Linguistic stabilization in Chuvashia took the form of a very slight decrease in the percentage of the ethnic Chuvash population that identifies with the Chuvash language:
according to the 2002 Russian Census, 86% of ethnic Chuvash claim fluency in the
language (compared to 88% of the republic’s Chuvash population claiming Chuvash as
either their native language or a second language which they spoke fluently in the 1989
Census).5 Such a result is somewhat difficult to interpret because the question regarding
“native language” was not asked in the 2002 Census, making exact comparison with
1989 difficult: the results may only indicate that some of those individuals who identified
Chuvash as their “native” language in 1989 did not actually speak it, but considered the
question to be about ethnic identification (for a description of the relationship between ethnicity and the “native language” question in Soviet censuses, see Silver; Grenoble 28– 31).
However, such a decrease is similar to that which occurred in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan,
Volga Russian republics with more interventionist language policies (as detailed in
Gorenburg, “Tatar Language Policies”; Graney; Wertheim; Cashaback; Davis, Hammond,
and Nizamova): in Tatarstan, 93% of ethnic Tatars reported speaking Tatar fluently, an
approximately 4% drop from 97% of Tatars in Tatarstan who identified Tatar as either
their native language or a language they spoke fluently; in Bashkortostan, 75% reported
speaking Bashkir fluently, a 1% drop from 1989, when approximately 76% of Bashkirs
identified Bashkir as either their native language or a language they spoke fluently.
Furthermore, the decrease in linguistic identification is even more pronounced in other
Volga republics, indicating that the policies in Chuvashia, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan
were better at stabilizing patterns of linguistic identification than other republics. In
nearby Udmurtia, 72% of ethnic Udmurts reported speaking Udmurt fluently, a decrease
of about 8% from 1989, when approximately 80% of the population identified Udmurt as
their native language or a language they spoke fluently; in Mari-El, 69% of ethnic Mari
reported speaking Mari fluently, an approximately 21% decrease from 1989, when 90%
identified Mari as either their native language or a language they spoke fluently; and in
Mordovia, 59% reported speaking one of the various Mordvin dialects fluently, a 32%
decrease from 1989, when 91% identified Mordvin as either their native language or a
language they spoke fluently.
While the position of Chuvash among ethnic Chuvash in Chuvashia has thus remained
relatively stable (at least in comparison to other Volga republics), Russian has clearly
remained the dominant language in the republic: approximately 96% of ethnic Chuvash
claimed fluency in Russian in the 2002 Census, a greater percentage than the 86% who
claimed Chuvash as a language they spoke fluently (and an increase from 84% who identified Russian as either their native language or a language they spoke fluently in the 1989
census).6 Furthermore, though Chuvash usage in urban areas has increased (Kharitonova
123), the Russian language has remained more important overall in Chuvash cities
(Degtyarev). As Ivanov notes, “if knowledge of the Russian language is absolutely
necessary for receiving an education and a job in government and industrial spheres,
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K.L. Marquardt
etc., then knowledge of the Chuvash language is not required anywhere in practice” (“Osobennosti etnicheskikh protsessov” 110).7
However, allowing Russian to maintain its dominance through selective implementation of the law “On the Languages in the Chuvash Republic” served to diminish possibilities for conflict by reducing cause for resentment among non-Chuvash-speaking
members of the population, who were concerned about the potential impact of the
policy on their lives. The initial adoption of the law on languages (in conjunction with
the increasing prominence of the Chuvash national movement) had incited separatist
movements on the part of the predominantly Russian residents of the Alatyr and Porets
districts of Chuvashia, who demanded that the regions be united with the nearby Ul’yanovsk Oblast’, a largely ethnically Russian federal district in the Russian Federation
(Ivanov, Etnicheskaya karta Chuvashii 120 – 21; Danilov 41).8 That the law actually
required little change in the linguistic behavior of adults served to defuse some of the
tension regarding the legislation. As it was, ethnic tensions remained at a relatively low
level through the mid-1990s. For example, survey respondents who had encountered
ethnic-based problems in Chuvashia remained relatively low: in 1994 48.3% of
Chuvash and 28% of Russian respondents reported such problems (survey data in Il’in).9
At the same time, the government’s policy was quite successful in that the Chuvash
language (and the government’s support thereof) became more noticeable to its core
Chuvash constituencies: in a 1995 survey of rural Chuvashia, 60% of the Chuvash and
65% of the Russians surveyed had perceived a growth in the use of the Chuvash language
in mass media (survey data in Il’in). Given that the rural population of Chuvashia is both relatively large (constituting 63% the population in 1989) and 86% Chuvash (of whom 99%
identified Chuvash as their native language in the 1989 Soviet Census), the group clearly constitutes the government’s core constituency vis-a`-vis its language policy; they are thus essential to any language program the government would undertake (“V Chuvashii sozdayut”).
The resulting combination of relatively low ethnic tension and increasing exposure to
Chuvash appears to have led to some success in increasing popular acceptance of the
Chuvash language: as Ivanov notes, “thanks to the calm [spokoinyi] and rational [beznadryvnyi] ethnolinguistic policy pursued in the past years in Chuvashia, a wholly favorable
psychological atmosphere (environment) for the expansion of the functions of the Chuvash
language . . . has arisen today” (Etnicheskaya karta Chuvashii 118).
Investing institutions in the perpetuation of Chuvash distinctiveness
The increased popular acceptance of the Chuvash language due to symbolic policies was
necessary for pursuing more-concrete language policies, such as increasing both the
amount of Chuvash-language education and usage of the language in the government.
Educational initiatives have served to provide the population that would most likely be
interested in the Chuvash language (ethnic Chuvash) with instruction in the language,
while largely avoiding antagonizing Russophones. At the same time, increasing funding
for Chuvash cultural revitalization (especially in the educational sphere) has expanded
the population with a vested interest in the continuation of the language so as to keep
their jobs (between 2003 – 2012, approximately 94 million rubles were budgeted to the
realization of the law “On the Languages in the Chuvash Republic” [Kabinet Ministrov
Chuvashskoi Respubliki, “Postanovlenie o respublikanskoi programme po realizatsii”]).
Finally, language requirements (formal and informal) for government positions indicated
that the state was committed to the language, and may increase this investment in the
future.
Nationalities Papers
135
Chuvash in education
While the position of Chuvash-medium instruction has been weakened somewhat in
Chuvashia in recent years (Boiko, Markov and Kharitonova [“The Chuvash Republic”
52] report that enrollment in Chuvash-medium schools as a percentage of the total
school-age population dropped from 14.4% in 1995 to 11.2% in 2001), educational initiatives in Chuvashia have increased the percentage of children exposed to the Chuvash
language, while maintaining a population that primarily uses the Chuvash language.
Indeed, the decrease in Chuvash-medium education goes hand-in-hand with continued
urbanization in Chuvashia: as urban areas were generally more Russified and thus had
fewer Chuvash-language schools, urbanization meant that rural emigrants who would
have otherwise enrolled in Chuvash-language schools instead attended urban Russianlanguage schools.10 The government worked to ensure that these students would be
exposed to the Chuvash language: between the academic years 1995-1996 and 20012002, the percentage of students taking Chuvash as a subject as a percentage of the
total enrolled population increased from 41.6% to 50.5% (Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 52): in conjunction with the number of students attending Chuvash-medium
schools, this meant that by 2001 only 38.3% of Chuvash Republic students studied
solely in Russian. The rationale for not making some Chuvash-language education mandatory for all students was a lack of trained teachers and teaching materials; by 2008
Chuvash-language courses became universal in Chuvashia (Boiko, “Problema ravenstva”
128 –29). However, it was not coincidental that the population with a solely Russian education until 2008 consisted of students in the largely ethnically Russian Alatyr and Porets
districts of Chuvashia (Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 53).
By putting its emphasis regarding language education on ethnic Chuvash, as opposed
to all the citizens of Chuvashia, the possibility for ethnic resentment related to language
education was diminished; Chuvash-language education only became universal after the
program had been entrenched in regions with populations more amenable to the instruction
and sufficient teaching materials and cadres had been developed. That there has long been
a strong divide between Chuvash and Russians in terms of their belief in the value of
Chuvash-language instruction is visible in the results from a 1993 survey: 69% of
Chuvash respondents were in favor of mandatory Chuvash instruction in all republican
schools, compared to 29% of Russians (survey data in Il’in). The evident Russian disapproval of the program has been backed by public pronouncements by Russian community
leaders: at a conference regarding interethnic relations, a representative of the director of
the Russian Cultural Center of the Chuvash Republic said that implementing universal
Chuvash language education would be met with great disapproval among the Russian
population (Boiko and Kharitonova 2004 281 – 82). Indeed, after implementation of
Chuvash-language classes in Alatyr, the administrative center of the Alatyr District,
there has thus far been little acceptance of the courses on the part of regional parents:
Boiko reports that 2010 surveys of parents in different regions of Chuvashia indicate
that only 12% of Russian parents in Alatyr support the teaching of Chuvash in schools,
and more than two-thirds oppose it (Boiko, “Problema ravenstva” 131 –32).
However, Boiko’s surveys also reveal that 63% of parents from Cheboksary (the
capitol of Chuvashia) and Sin’yaly (a village near Cheboksary) support the teaching of
Chuvash as a subject in the schools, which he sees as evidence that such programs can
come to be accepted over time (Boiko, “Problema ravenstva” 131 –32). There is also evidence that parents’ acceptance of programs of Chuvash instruction in Cheboksary is
shared by students, indicating that students in that city are now receptive to learning the
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language. For example, a recent survey of 5th- through 10th-grade students from schools
where Chuvash is taught as a subject in the Chuvash Republic’s capital, Cheboksary, provides evidence that such Chuvash-language instruction is having a positive effect on the
acquisition of Chuvash (Ignat’eva et al. 10– 13). Of the students surveyed, 75% report
being satisfied with the Chuvash instruction (and only 3% were either not satisfied or
wholly unsatisfied), indicating that they are at least not actively opposed to being taught
the language. In terms of the success of the instruction, almost half (49%) of students
reported speaking Chuvash first after they entered school (26% reported beginning to
speak Chuvash at home and 20% in preschool), which indicates that Chuvash courses
provided many students with exposure to the language they would not otherwise have
had. As for the success of this exposure in terms of assisting language acquisition, 77%
of the students surveyed consider Chuvash courses to be helpful to their knowledge of
the language. At the same time, evidence for the classes actually investing students in
the language is somewhat mixed: while only 26% of these students report being able to
read, write and speak fluently, a drastically smaller percentage (3%) report not being
able to speak at all. Given that urban areas such as Cheboksary have historically been
inhospitable grounds for the Chuvash language, these statistics indicate that the government’s program has been able to instill almost all its youngest citizens with at least
some degree of knowledge of the language without overly taxing them, while also
providing opportunities to those students with greater interest in the language.
In addition to teaching school-age students, the government has moved to strengthen
early-age investment in the language, an essential component of any program designed to
develop fluency in a language. Out of 511 preschools, 185 teach children in Chuvash, and
in 300 schools children learn Chuvash from the age of four onward (Boiko and Kharitonova 2002). Since early-age exposure to a language is vital for developing fluency (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson), such education is essential if a government desires to develop
a population that speaks Chuvash at least as well as the other languages in their repertoire.
Finally, attempts to further the Chuvash language were reinforced by a greater program of
emphasizing Chuvashia’s culturally distinct identity: almost all of Chuvashia’s state
symbols were Chuvash-centric11 and all students in Chuvashia are required to take a
course on Chuvash regional history (grades 5– 9) and Chuvash literature in translation
(grades 10 –11) (Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 53). As a result, while not all students
would study Chuvash in great detail, all would grow up with knowledge of the history of
the Chuvash people as well as with continual exposure to Chuvash national symbols and
the Chuvash language, all of which would reinforce the presence of Chuvash culture in
their lives (as well as the impression that the Chuvash government is willing to expend
resources to support the culture).
Nevertheless, given Chuvashia’s relatively small population (1.3 million) and the
somewhat limited and targeted nature of these successes, such an approach ensured that
survival of the Chuvash language would still be tenuous and subject to great assimilatory
pressure (as it had been during the Soviet era) should the support of the Chuvash state for
the language disappear.
Cultural revitalization and jobs
Education has also had a much more immediate means of raising certain groups of citizens’ investment in the Chuvash language and the Chuvash Republic: Chuvash-language
instruction requires textbooks and teachers; bilingual documentation requires translators;
Chuvash-language mass-media outlets require journalists; and Chuvash cultural institutes
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137
and centers require Chuvash intellectuals (Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova 53). For
example, there are currently 1,040 Chuvash-language teachers in the republic (“Glava
chuvashskogo Natskongressa”); these teachers (alongside other cultural activists, academics and individuals who have benefitted from increased funding for mass media)
have long pressed for increased education in Chuvash (Boiko and Kharitonova 2005
182; Boiko and Kharitonova 2004 281). Individuals working in such spheres, even if
limited in number, would be highly motivated to maintain the state’s commitment to
the Chuvash language, if only so as to keep their jobs. As a result, even if the state’s educational programs have not greatly increased the usage of Chuvash, they have served to
increase the material interests of segments of the population in the language.
Government requirements: symbolic in the short term, potential development in the long
term
While the Chuvash government has mainly focused on increasing opportunities for
Chuvash-speakers in the republic, it has also hinted at plans to make the language mandatory for some official positions, as envisaged in its original law “On the Languages in the
Chuvash Republic.”12 Though it has done little to actually force its bureaucrats to change
their linguistic practices, the implementation of certain symbolic requirements (e.g. that
the president must speak Chuvash) has shown the government’s commitment to language,
and certain legislation has ambiguously indicated that linguistic knowledge requirements
may spread. That such extreme legislation has not been implemented has prevented
conflict.
As in other Russian republics, the president of Chuvashia played a central role in both
signaling the importance of the titular language while also framing the republic’s policy as
beneficial to all languages in the republic. One of the few posts for which titular/Russian
bilingualism was demanded from the beginning of the sovereignty campaign was the post
of president. President Fedorov (the president of Chuvashia 1993 – 2010) frequently began
speeches in Chuvash before switching to Russian; current president Mikhail Ignat’ev
appears to be continuing this practice. Indeed, a willingness and ability to speak in
Chuvash on the part of the president is clearly expected by nationalists, and Fedorov at
least showed some responsiveness to these demands. He once addressed the Chuvash
National Congress in Russian only, explaining that he wanted all in the audience to understand him (it included Chuvash from a variety of regions). Fedorov was harshly criticized
for this choice, and accordingly spoke at the next Chuvash National Congress in Chuvash
(Boiko and Kharitonova 2005 183). For his part, current president Ignat’ev made a point at
his first press conference as president of Chuvashia to initially answer questions first in
Chuvash, before translating the answers into Russian himself (“‘Kam val, Ignat’ev
yultash?’”).
That both presidents prominently speak Russian as well as Chuvash is consistent with
the rest of the Chuvash program of avoiding confrontation with Russophones. However,
that the president is required to be bilingual also symbolically strengthens the position
of Chuvash, as it is evidence of the equality of Russian and Chuvash in the eyes of the
state. Furthermore, it also disqualifies most individuals who were not of Chuvash heritage
from the post for the foreseeable future, given the low level of Chuvash knowledge among
these populations.
An increase in ethnic Chuvash representation in the republican government is less
noticeable in Chuvashia than in other Russian republics such as neighboring Tatarstan
because the Chuvash constitute a greater majority of the population in Chuvashia than
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the titular groups of other republics: indeed, Grigor’ev et al. (486) note that currently
66.7% of heads of government agencies are ethnic Chuvash, while 28.5% are Russians;
these numbers are equivalent to Chuvashia’s demographic situation. However, Gorenburg
notes that the “combination of partial preferences in the republic administration and the
creation of new positions for ethnic Chuvash in the fields of education and culture led
to a substantial increase in employment opportunities in the governmental sphere for
ethnic Chuvash” (Minority Ethnic Mobilization 230): while ethnic representation at
high levels has remained relatively equal, the government’s programs have created opportunities at lower levels, further investing bureaucrats in the continuation of language
initiatives beneficial to them.
Finally, the government has often announced an intention of increasing the Chuvash
usage in all government positions in the future: Fedorov stated that capable government
workers should have a command of “several” languages; in conjunction with the stated
goals of the government to increase Chuvash knowledge in general, it is likely that
Fedorov intended one of those languages to be Chuvash (Fedorov, “Prezident Chuvashii”).
The implementation of such intentions remains scattershot even at the highest levels of
government, however: while Ignat’ev has argued that certain high-level positions (e.g.
minister of culture, minister of agriculture) require knowledge of Chuvash (“‘Kam val,
lgnat’ev yultash?’”), the current Chuvash prime minister assesses his Chuvash-language
skills as “insufficient,” though he claims that he will attempt to develop these skills
(“V Chuvashii - novyi prem’er-ministr”).
In keeping with the government’s general avoidance of raising linguistic tensions or
changing adult linguistic behavior, a local scholar reports that little movement in the
area of enforcing Chuvash language knowledge among government officials at lower
levels has been discernible (Degtyarev). Indeed, Degtyarev argues that government
workers generally remain unable to converse with their Chuvash constituents in the
Chuvash language, indicating that the government’s real interest is in positioning itself
as a protector of the language, while not actually enforcing language use.
Framing the Chuvash state as essential to revitalization of all cultures in Chuvashia
Throughout the entire post-Soviet period, the Chuvash government has been at pains to
portray itself as being the sole force capable of both preserving interethnic harmony
and strengthening the position of the Chuvash language. Thus the lack of implementation
of language laws that would require Russophones to learn the Chuvash language, while
detrimental to immediately increasing Chuvash language usage, is an essential part of
how the government frames its language policy.
Such a position is especially apparent in how the elites describe the contradictions
inherent in the republic’s demographic situation. Indicative of their overall framing is a
speech made in 2000, wherein Republic President Nikolai Fedorov described his perception of Chuvashia’s cultural situation (“Vystuplenie Prezidenta Chuvashskoi Respubliki
Nikolaya Fedorova”). In the speech, Fedorov declared that Chuvashia’s geographical position between a variety of cultures and civilizations gives it an “atmosphere of compromise, of respectful and equal relations between all ethnic groups that have settled here”
and has “left a mark on the language and culture of the Chuvash nation, enriched it and
gave her ethnic psyche a special tolerance.” However, the flip side of Chuvashia’s interethnic harmony and Chuvash tolerance is the sense of “national nihilism” among many
Chuvash: the sense that their nation is doomed to assimilation.
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139
Indeed, despite the cultural revitalization programs on which the Chuvash government
had embarked following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, these feelings of “national
nihilism” have continued to hamper the Chuvash community’s ability for “development
and self-realization” (razvitie i samorealizatsiyu) (Fedorov, “Vystuplenie Prezidenta
Chuvashskoi Respubliki Nikolaya Fedorova”). The efforts by the Chuvash government
thus remain necessary for reasserting the Chuvash identity while maintaining Chuvashia’s
tolerant atmosphere, despite the progress that has been made since the collapse of the
Soviet system.
In fact, as Fedorov framed the language debate, the government’s program has become
even more vital to protecting the Chuvash identity given the precarious position of many
minority languages in an era of globalization, during which “more than half” of the
languages of the world have become endangered because many of them do not have a
sufficient “linguistic environment [sreda]” in which to be active. It now falls to local
governments to provide such an environment. While Fedorov stressed that the government
cannot force someone to speak her native language, it can create an environment in
which “children perceive the command of multiple languages [including their native
tongue] as true wealth, which gives them a unique possibility for raising their quality of
life” (Fedorov, “Torzhestvennoe sobranie”).
The government must do so by showing the “practical meaning and results of learning
of the Chuvash language” (Fedorov qtd. in Press-sluzhba): in other words, creating
opportunities for learning and using the Chuvash language, thereby slowly expanding
the sphere of usage of the Chuvash language (Fedorov, “Vystuplenie Prezidenta Chuvashskoi Respubliki”).13 Such a framing is clearly consistent with the government’s
actual language policy, which stresses targeted educational initiatives, job opportunities,
and symbolic measures to achieve cultural revitalization in the long term.
When viewed in this light, even the tenuous nature of the Chuvash language’s gains
during the post-Soviet period was not necessarily a negative aspect of the program for
the government’s efforts: because the program of linguistic revival was so dependent on
the Chuvash government, the existence of a Chuvash Republic is essential for its
perpetuation. If Chuvash usage were more widespread, it is possible that the government would be considered irrelevant to the Chuvash language’s survival. Indeed, the
government of Chuvashia has taken advantage of instances when the Russian federal
government has decreased support for the Chuvash language to illustrate its necessity.
For example, in 2005 the federal government decreased the amount of time available
for regional programming on federal television and radio channels, arousing the
anger of Chuvash activists, who saw such a move as hindering the access of rural
and diaspora Chuvash to native-language programming (“Chuvashskie diaspory”).
The Chuvash government since created its own radio channel with 60% Chuvashlanguage programming in 2009, and a television channel in 2011; all of which it
framed as being a necessary response to the lack of other media options for its citizens
(“V Chuvashii sozdayut”).
Finally, the Chuvash government frames its language policy as assisting all the
languages that exist in the Chuvash Republic.14 Such a framing, in conjunction with the
relative lack of ethnic tensions in the Republic, serves to reinforce the local government’s
argument that its leadership can revitalize the Chuvash nation without detriment to the
Republic’s other residents. For example, Fedorov consistently noted the importance of
multilingualism, and proudly refers to Chuvashia’s accomplishments in establishing
national schools and cultural centers for all the different ethnic groups residing in the
republic (such as Tatars and Mordvin), as well as in developing Russian-language
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textbooks. Furthermore, Fedorov avoided turning language learning into a zero-sum
game. His emphasis was rather on multilingualism: globalization has brought awareness
of the importance of other languages to Chuvashia’s continued competitiveness,
and Fedorov has called for increased knowledge of them as well (“Torzhestvennoe
sobranie”).
By positioning itself as the guarantor of the Chuvash people’s survival as an ethnicity,
the government has projected an image of itself as a vital protector of the Republic. By
investing Chuvash groups in the state, the republican government’s power has likewise
been strengthened. At the same time, by portraying itself as dedicated to moderate
ethnic revival and the protector of all ethnic groups in Chuvashia (as well as being
devoted the Russian federal state), the Chuvash government lessened the probability
that the Russian federal government would become worried as to its intentions. In the
current period of recentralization, such a stance has served to prevent conflict between
the center and the republic.
The Russian government and recentralization
During the presidency of Vladimir Putin (2000– 2008), the Russian state embarked on a
program of political recentralization, removing much of the political and economic sovereignty many Russian republics had gained during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (for more
information on recentralization under Putin, see Stoner-Weiss; Petrov and Slider); this
process has shown little sign of weakening during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev
(2008 – present). In general, the Chuvash government has shown less reluctance to
giving up its (already relatively minimal) political and economic sovereignty during
this period than other ethnic republics, especially those of the neighboring republics of
Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. However, Russian recentralization has also acquired a
cultural dimension that may endanger Chuvashia’s prospects for cultural revitalization;
the Chuvash government has reacted negatively to this encroachment.
Russian recentralization and local reaction
During the presidencies of Putin and Medvedev, the Russian government’s policies toward
language appear to be oriented toward re-emphasizing the preeminence of Russian in the
Russian Federation. For example, the Russian government unified the orthography of the
Russian republics (requiring that all languages in the Russian Federation be written using
Cyrillic), removing a prominent symbol of linguistic disunity (Cashaback 264 – 68;
Sebba). Putin also spoke of the importance of the Russian language to federal unity,
and criticized attempts by republican governments to institute requirements regarding
the titular language for its citizens (see for example Putin, “Vystuplenie na torzhestvennom sobranii”); likewise, his government legally challenged more strident attempts at linguistic revitalization by bringing republican constitutions into accordance with the
Russian constitution. Under Medvedev, a new law designed to standardize education in
the Russian Federation (“On Education” [Ob Obrazovanii]) is widely considered to be a
step in the direction of limiting local aspects of education, thus serving as a potential
means for decreasing (if not limiting) titular language education in Russian-language
schools (see, for example, Lobjakas). The policy of the Chuvash government, by being
largely targeted toward knowledge of the Chuvash language among ethnic Chuvash and
reserving linguistic requirements for only the most important symbolic posts (such as
the presidency), has largely avoided conflict with the Russian government’s rationalization
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campaign. Indeed, in comparison to struggles regarding language policy in Tatarstan, an
autonomous republic that had a very strong language revitalization program, Chuvashia’s
struggles regarding language policy appear minimal.15
For example, whereas the Tatarstani government tried to prove its cultural distance
from Russia by means of a script change (Cashaback 264 – 68), the Cyrillic script was celebrated republic-wide as the “native” Chuvash script (“Tyurkoyazychnaya Chuvashiya”),
eliminating a possible area of center-periphery contention. Furthermore, while a Constitutional Court case was brought against Tatarstan by a Russian father angry his child
had to learn Tatar, no such problem was likely to arise in Chuvashia until recently, as
the region’s targeted policy meant that the students affected by the programs were
mainly of Chuvash origin.
Points of conflict between the governments of Chuvashia and the Russian Federation
Despite the largely harmonious relations between the Russian and Chuvash governments,
there has been conflict between the Chuvash government and the federal center regarding
cultural and language policy. Indeed, relations between Putin’s government and Chuvashia began with Fedorov warning that recentralization processes that underestimate the
multinational character of Russia could lead to “many new problems, in comparison to
which even the Chechen tragedy would pale” (Fedorov, “Vystuplenie Prezidenta Chuvashskoi Respubliki Nikolaya Fedorova”); comments such as this led to noticeably
chilly relations between him and Russian president Putin from 2000 to 2001 (Danilov
139 –41; Boiko, “Chuvashiya”; Boiko and Kharitonova 2001). However, Fedorov’s rhetoric was always more conciliatory than that of other governments: for example, he declared
in 2000 that Chuvashia “of course is not a sovereign (independent) state,” signifying his
willingness to work within the Russian federal framework (Fedorov, “Vystuplenie Prezidenta Chuvashskoi Respubliki Nikolaya Fedorova”). As Putin strengthened his grasp on
power, this more conciliatory rhetoric came to dictate Fedorov’s approach to relations
with the federal center. He joined United Russia (Edinaya Rossiya, the ruling party of
Russia) and enjoyed much better relations with the center (after being replaced as president of the Chuvash Republic, he became Chuvashia’s representative to the Federation
Council of Russia). This overall pattern applies to federal – Chuvash relations regarding
language policy: after an initial struggle, Chuvashia came to accommodate the federal
government, though federal legislation impacting regional language laws has led to
some renewed tensions.
It is therefore unsurprising that the heretofore-largest rift between the government of
Chuvashia and Moscow regarding language policy occurred in the years immediately after
Putin’s rise to power, when the central government sought to bring the 1993 law “On the
Languages in the Chuvash Republic” into accordance with Russian federal law. An examination by the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Justice found in 2000 that aspects of Chuvashia’s “On the Languages in the Chuvash Republic” contradicted federal legislation,
requiring changes (Boiko, “Chuvashiya”). This resulted in sharp criticism from both
Chuvash governmental and Chuvash nationalist quarters, who felt that the required
changes would drastically decrease its potential for effecting change in the linguistic situation, for example by removing mandatory Chuvash education in schools and preventing
an eventual transition toward governmental bilingualism (Boiko and Kharitonova 2001;
Boiko, Markov, and Kharitonova, 53). Despite these concerns, the Chuvash government
acted to bring their local law into congruence with federal regulations: their initial
draft of a new law on languages indeed copied directly sections of Russian federal
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K.L. Marquardt
legislation and guaranteed that no one’s rights would be violated based on their lack of
knowledge of a language (however, it reiterated requirements that all students should
learn Chuvash). Accordingly, Chuvash nationalists decried the new law as bowing to
federal pressure and weakening the position of the Chuvash language (Boiko, Braslavskii,
and Kharitonova).
At the same time, the Chuvash government’s overall willingness to avoid conflict with
the federal center and local Russophones has provided the government with political dividends on the federal level, which perhaps outweigh the complaints of nationalists. For
example, the federal government has pointed to Chuvashia as an example of how interethnic relations should occur. Putin has spoken approvingly of the Chuvash government’s
programs, noting on multiple occasions that the republic is an excellent example of
how to maintain interethnic harmony (“Vladimir Putin napravil pozdravlenie”; Putin,
“Zakliuchitel’noe slovo”). On a more concrete level, Fedorov explicitly linked friendly
relations with “United Russia” to receiving support from the federal budget (Boiko and
Kharitonova 2006 158).
Nevertheless, there are still differences of opinion between the Russian federal
government and the Chuvash elites regarding language policy; these differences came
to light during debates concerning the new federal law on education. The law is intended
to standardize education across the Russian Federation, removing the “national component” from regional education; though its precise effects are unclear, most republican
leaders saw the law as removing the legal basis for any mandatory local language and
history education, making such subjects purely voluntary (see for example Lobjakas).
The assistant secretary of education and youth of the Chuvash Republic declared that
a removal or limiting of the national component of regional education would be
unacceptable as it would violate the equality of the Russian and Chuvash languages
under Chuvash law (“Zamministra obrazovaniya Chuvashii”).
While the targeted nature of Chuvash-language education means that the law would
have less effect on Chuvashia’s program than that of Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, it has
the potential to cast doubt on the Chuvash government’s ability to follow through with
its programs of cultural revitalization (“Glava chuvashskogo Natskongressa”). The
results of such doubt could be devastating to maintaining Chuvash distinctiveness: if
the Chuvash government cannot maintain a mandatory course in Chuvash history for all
of its students, the decision of a parent as to whether or not to invest in Chuvash-language
education for his child would likely be tilted even farther in favor of Russian.
Conclusion
The Chuvash elites’ policy of pursuing a largely symbolic language policy and targeting the ethnic Chuvash population of the republic has been largely successful in stabilizing the degree of Russification in the republic while maintaining ethnic harmony.
Likewise, the elites have been able to link the protection of Chuvash identity to the
Chuvash state and thus to themselves, maintaining their importance as interlocutors
between the center and the Chuvash people. However, programs of language revitalization require time to take effect: widespread Russification cannot be swiftly reversed.
While the Chuvash government has created some degree of basis for the future
spread of the Chuvash language, developing institutions invested in the language and
spreading its sphere of usage and education, the long-term viability of these programs
(and thus of maintaining regional distinctiveness) is questionable in the face of a recentralizing Russian state.
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Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank Yoshiko Herrera, Timothy Colton, Avram Lyon, two
anonymous reviewers, and participants in the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s PostCommunist Politics Workshop for their valuable insights on earlier drafts of this article.
Conversations with Dmitry Gorenburg regarding Russian regional language policy were
likewise essential to the development of this work.
Notes
1. The terms “Chuvashia” and “Chuvash Republic” are used interchangeably in the literature; this
article follows this practice. Russia has 21 ethnic republics (including Chuvashia), which have
enjoyed varying degrees of sovereignty following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
2. The most prominent exceptions are Gorenburg (Minority Ethnic Mobilization) and Boiko,
Markov, and Kharitonova, whose works provide a foundation for this study.
3. Indeed, Chuvashia more closely resembles the Volga republics of Mari-El, Mordovia and
Udmurtia, which also had relatively weak sovereignty movements. Importantly, according to
the 1989 Soviet Census, these three republics had similarly relatively low titular identification
with their titular languages (ranging from a low of 76% of the titular population claiming the
titular language as their native tongue in Udmurtia to approximately 88% doing so in both Mordovia and Mari-El) and high titular identification with Russian as either their native tongue or a
language which they speak fluently (ranging from 87% of the titular population in Mari-El to
approximately 92% in both Mordovia and Udmurtia).
4. My overall description of the national movement in Chuvashia follows Gorenburg (Minority
Ethnic Mobilization 60 –64, 72–73, 140 –44) and Filippov.
5. When the native-language question was asked as part of the 2006 survey “The Chuvash Republic – A Sociocultural Portrait,” a further decrease from 1989 was evident: 81.5% of surveyed
Chuvash claimed Chuvash as their native language (survey data in Boiko and Kharitonova
2006; Kharitonova 123).
6. As with the data regarding titular language identification, the change in identification with the
Russian language in Chuvashia is consistent with those changes which occurred in both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and less pronounced than that which occurred in Mari-El, Mordovia and
Udmurtia. In both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, 93% of titular respondents reported fluency in
Russian on the 2002 census, an increase from 80% and 78%, respectively, in 1989. In the 2002
Census, 98% of ethnic Udmurts in Udmurtia reported speaking fluent Russian (from 92% who
identified Russian as their native language or a fluent second language in 1989), in Mari-El 97%
of ethnic Mari reported speaking fluent Russian (up from 87% in 1989), and in Mordovia 99% of
ethnic Mordvin reported speaking fluent Russian (up from 92% in 1989).
7. The 2006 survey “The Chuvash Republic – A Sociocultural Portrait,” which asked more indepth questions about actual linguistic practice, provides support for these claims, finding
that use of the language remains low even among ethnic Chuvash. Ethnic Chuvash reported
using the language most frequently within their family and with their neighbors, but even in
these spheres only about half of the respondents reported doing so: 52% reported speaking
Chuvash with their family, and 49% reported using it with their neighbors. At work and at government institutions the figures are lower still: 36% and 26%, respectively (survey data in Boiko
and Kharitonova 2006; Kharitonova 123).
8. These separatist movements swiftly faded, lacking the assistance of the Russian federal
government or that of Ul’yanovsk Oblast’ (Ivanov, Etnicheskaya karta Chuvashii 120–21;
Danilov 41).
9. More recent surveys indicate that, while few in Chuvashia view ethnic relations as being ideal,
very few consider relations to be bad (Boiko, Braslavskii, and Kharitonova).
10. For more information on urbanization trends in Chuvashia, see Ivanov (“Osobennosti etnicheskikh protsessov” 84).
11. The government has also attempted to tie different aspects of Chuvash identity together, creating
a more cohesive whole. For example, Vovina (702) has noted an increased popular demand for a
more Chuvash-oriented form of worship through the appointment of ethnic-Chuvash priests and
144
12.
13.
14.
15.
K.L. Marquardt
liturgy conducted in Chuvash; the government has attempted to assist in this process by releasing a complete text of the Bible in Chuvash.
However, the 2003 “Law on Languages” did not include the provision requiring government
officials to speak both Chuvash and Russian; since the original provision had a 10-year
implementation period, the main effect of this removal was to make clear that a transition to
bilingualism in the government would not occur anytime in the near future.
The Chuvash government also has attempted to portray itself as a necessary instrument for the
protection of the Chuvash language across the Russian Federation. It has done so by developing
a program of summer camps for ethnic Chuvash children from outside of Chuvashia, establishing ties with both the Chuvash National Congress and Chuvash groups in other Russian regions,
and financing Chuvash-language textbooks and educational programs across the Russian
Federation (for a concise description of the government’s ties with the Chuvash diaspora, see
“Natsional’noe obrazovanie segodnya”). Additionally, the government portrays programs like
Chuvash television and radio as assisting ties between the Chuvash diaspora and the Republic
(Kabinet Ministrov Chuvashskoi Respubliki, “Postanovlenie o respublikanskoi tselevoi programme” 133). Such programs, in addition to assisting Chuvash cultural revitalization outside
of Chuvashia, also serve to provide jobs and financing linked to the government to those
active in such programs inside Chuvashia.
A scandal in 2011 cast doubt on whether all government officials truly believe in such a policy:
after a council member complained about problems with translation from Chuvash to Russian at
a session of the Chuvash State Council, Speaker of the Council Mikhail Mikhailovskii lashed
out, commenting that in Chuvashia “the fundamental language is Chuvash, and Russian
comes thereafter” (osnovnoi yazyk – chuvashskii, a uzhe potom russkii idet). Such a pronouncement was unsurprisingly highly controversial, and Mikhailovskii apologized and argued that he
had been misinterpreted. (For reports on the incident, see “Chuvashsko-russkoiazychnyi
skandal”; “Deputaty gosdumy”; “Spiker i glaynyi edinoross”)
In his analysis of the Russian federal system’s relationship to Tatarstani language policy, Cashaback argues that, despite tensions between the federal government and the regions regarding
language issues (and lingering questions about the long-term viability of such policies in the
region), Russian federalism has thus far provided the Tatarstani government space to pursue
its policies. The case of Chuvashia similarly shows that Russian federalism has provided the
Chuvash government with the ability to pursue limited policies of linguistic revitalization,
though again the long-term viability of these programs is questionable, especially given the
uncertainty surrounding the intentions of the Russian central government in this area.
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