Friday, July 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Three Straws in the Russian Wind

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 19 – Three developments this week – a requirement that applicants to a medical school list their nationality, cuts in the number of slots at institutions training future teachers of non-Russian languages, and the collapse of plans for a single country-wide Russian history text – point to some major shifts in Russian life in the months and years ahead.

            First, just days before the Russian Duma passed a law banning employers from asking the nationality of potential employees, the Pirogov National Medical Research University required those seeking to enroll to declare their nationality (

            Given the notorious history of “line five” in Soviet passports, media reports about that requirement sparked sharp criticism from a member of the Russian Social Chamber, but in what may matter more given the direction Moscow seems to be moving, a defense of the practice by Sergey Markov, a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society.

            Oleg Zykov, a member of the commission on nationality relations of the Social Chamber, said that “national membership has no influence on the ability to treat or save other people. Therefore the appearance [of this requirement in the application] can testify only to the moral outlook of those people who composed this document.”

            He added that the introduction of this requirement suggests that those people “have decided to organize some sort of segregation along ethnic lines.”

            But Markov defended the practice saying that “in this incident there is no violation of the law” and that because of growing ethnic tensions in the Russian Federation, collecting such information can help stave off “possible conflicts between future” students. “One must not say that asking about nationality is absolutely impermissible.”

            Second, there are many ways to kill minority languages, but perhaps the most effective way to strangle them without attracting much criticism is to gradually cut back on the number of people who are qualified to teach them and then say that unfortunately nothing can be done about the situation.  That is precisely what the Russian authorities appear to be doing.

            Earlier this week, Rimma Popova, head of the chair of Komi and Finno-Ugric philology at St. Petersburg State University, said that the university has cut back on the number of slots for people who want to teach Komi, forcing schools “to get by on their own resources,” something they soon will not be able to do (

            The situation is becoming critical, she pointed out.  “Now there are few graduates of non-Russian schools.” From among them, there are few who want to become teachers of those languages. And now the universities and pedagogical institutions are reducing the opportunities for those who want to pursue that career.
            This could lead to the demise of the non-Russian schools and the subsequent death of the languages these schools help to preserve.  Given the seriousness of that problem, Popova argued, “the problem must find its solution at the highest levels” before it is too late.

            And third, despite President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to a single Russian history textbook, Moscow has now shown itself willing to negotiate about the subject, raising the possibility that many of the non-Russian republics will be able to insist on their own nationally-specific textbooks and thus reducing the chance that the schools will help produce Russian unity.

            This week, Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin went to Kazan to speak with officials there about a compromise arrangement with Tatar scholars and officials. His trip came after Rafael Khakimov declared that Moscow’s view of history “does not correspond with the view from Kazan” (

            According to Natalya Zubarevich, the director of regional programs of Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy, Moscow will “find a special format” for a Tatar textbook “because [central officials] always do,” fearful that not doing so will exacerbate tensions between Tatarstan and the Russian Federation.

            Thus, “it is probable,” according to Russian nationalist portal, “that there will appear several histories: a Kazan one about the great and wonderful Golden Horde and the cruelties of the Russian occupiers and a Muscovite variant about the great Eurasian friendship of the peoples who have come together in a multi-national ecstasy.”

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