Multilingual Russia

North_Caucasus_regions_map_0The only official language in the Russian Federation is Russian and I would suspect that most Americans would think of Russia as a monolingual country, similar to the way many Americans see the U.S., despite the dramatic demographic changes in the U.S. that have made it multilingual in many locations. The reality about Russia’s language situation is quite different, as I have been experiencing in a visit to Pyatigorsk, located in the North Caucasus, in Southern Russia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. I am here to establish a partnership between my university, VCU, and Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University (PSLU). As you walk down the street or ride the street car here, you hear almost exclusively Russian. But go into a local eatery or bar, especially one specializing in local cuisine, such as Ossetian pies (kind of like stuffed pizzas) or Schashlik (kebabs), and you’re likely to see groups sitting together speaking one of the 30 to 40 indigenous languages of the North Caucusus. These include the Dagestanian language family, represented in the Northeast and a variety of languages, including Abkhaz, Abaza, Circassian, and Adyghe, in the Northwest. The language diversity is extraordinary, considering the small territory in question (see map above). The diversity continues south of the Caucasus. Georgia’s last census (2002) counted over 120 languages. The three major peoples in South Caucasia – the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, all speak different languages that are mutually unintelligible.

At the end of a meeting I had this afternoon with students at PSLU, students having a native language other than Russian were asked to raise their hands. Out of a group of perhaps 40 students, 6 or 7 indicated that, although they were all native-born Russian citizens, they did not speak Russian as their first language. In talking to PSLU professors after my meeting with students, they acknowledged that there is considerable linguistic and cultural diversity among their students, who are mostly drawn from the North Caucasus region. All three professors were themselves ethnic Russian, but indicated that they felt distinct from ethnic Russians in the North and, in fact, were treated differently when they traveled to St. Petersburg or Moscow. They jokingly spoke of having been effected by the regional culture here, becoming more vivacious and emotional, as they claimed was typically of the inhabitants of the region.

It’s been wonderful to see Russia in a positive light, given the political tension currently between our countries. As an individual American I have had nothing but positive experiences here, having been warmly welcomed at the university and elsewhere. It’s also been nice to see a different side of a region that we hear about only in terms of conflict and terrorism, with Chechnya nearby.

Scotland’s other national drink

Irn-BruWith the upcoming vote on independence, there have been a good number of stories in the US media about Scotland. Of particular interest seem to be stories about the distinctiveness of Scottish life and culture (especially as differentiated from England). On NPR this week there was a story about Irn-Bru, an orange flavored soft drink very popular in Scotland. The story featured interviews with Scots professing their love the neon orange colored drink, connecting that passion with Scottish patriotism:

As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they’re so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, “Because it’s Scottish.”… Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru’s advertising slogans is “Made in Scotland, from girders.” Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

I have to admit that although I have visited Scotland several times, I have never tasted Irn-Bru, although I did liberally partake of Scottish ale, which has its fans as well, although it certainly pales in popularity to Scotland’s true national drink, Scotch whisky.

The NPR story led me to think about other soft drinks associated with specific cultures. The obvious example is Coca-Cola, a US icon, but less well known are some other drinks I have sampled. In Austria, for example, students I have taken on study abroad trips often discover and enjoy Almdudler, a carbonated drink made from apple, grape, and herb flavors. In Germany Spezi is popular – cola mixed with orange soda, as is Apfelshorle, apple juice mixed with minteral water. On hot summer days in Bavaria, I have enjoyed drinking a Radler or two, a mix of beer with lemon soda.

Particularly memorable for me was drinking cold Kvass in Moscow a few summers ago, when there were massive fires in the region, covering the capital in smoke, with the temperature the hottest it had been in years. Kvass is a slightly alcoholic drink (at most 1.5%) made from fermenting black or rye bread and one of the few drinks in Russia consistently served ice cold. In the summer there are Kvass stands all around, similar to root beer stands in the US at state fairs.

A drink I have heard about but never tasted is Inca Kola, a widely enjoyed soft drink in Peru. I would guess, given its popularity, that the Peruvian cola must be much better than the worst cola I have ever had, which was in East Berlin before German reunification. Coca-Cola, as a symbol of capitalism, was not available in the German Democratic Republic, instead a home-brewed version was made, Vita-Cola. To me it tasted like soap, but maybe it was just a bad batch, because with the nostalgia for things East German (“Ostalgie”), Vita-Cola has enjoyed a comeback.

Not in Putin’s plans: Crimean Tatars

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Crimean Tatars in traditional dress

Part of the tense, complicated crisis currently in Crimea is the role of an ethnic group indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula, the Crimean Tatars.  Their history has made them side much more with Ukraine than with Russia in the current stand-off.  They were forcibly removed by Stalin from Crimea, which they consider their ancestral homeland, and in the waning days of the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, gradually began returning to Crimea.  Today they represent some 12% of the population of Crimea. Having suffered persecution under both Czarist and communist Russia, the Crimean Tatars are understandably nervous about Crimea coming back under Russian control. In fact, until the recent arrival of Russian military units in Crimea, the Tatars were among the few groups outside Western Ukraine actively proclaiming their allegiance to the new Ukrainian government. According to a recent article in the New Republic, the Crimean Tatars are not likely to go along with an increasing Russification of the peninsula and may  cause trouble for Putin’s possible plans to annex Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars differ from both Russians and Ukrainians in religion (Muslim) and language (Crimean Tatar).  Their language belongs to the Turkic language family and is one of the treasured cultural traditions the Tatars maintained in exile.  Today, however, living alongside other Crimeans speaking Russian and Ukrainian, there are fears that the language is endangered.  Should the language die out, so would a crucial element of the group’s cultural identity and cohesion.  In an interesting reflection of socio-political realities, the written language has gone through myriad transformations, from using Arabic script, to Turkic, to Cyrillian, to a Latin-based alphabet. 

Boston bombers: Internet’s role

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Chechen fighters on the streets of the capital, Grozny, in January 1995 (Wikipedia)

How do you figure out who you are?  Obviously a complex process with input from a lot of different directions – family, school, friends, religious faith, meditation, work, online roles, and more – with which goes into the mix to create our persona different for each individual .  For a lot of people what they perceive as their home culture can have a powerful influence on shaping how they see themselves.  This may be the case even if the connection to that culture is remote and tenuous.  Since the Boston Marathon bombing there was been a lot of speculation about the relationship of the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspected bombers, to their home land of Chechnya. In a recent article in The Economist, the Brothers’ difficulty in accommodating to life in the U.S. (more so for the older of the two), may have lead them to seek “mental refuge” in their home culture (and possibly religion).

With the exception of a recent visit by the older brother to the region, most of that contact with the culture appears to have come through Web sites and online chats.  According to the article, “The internet and social networks that served as a channel created an illusion of engagement without experience or memory. The brothers never fought in the Chechen wars or lived in Chechnya for any length of time. Yet their lives and their sensibilities seem to have collided with its violent and tragic history.” The target they selected (the United States), apparently at least in some part out of loyalty to their cultural heritage, seems strangely at odds with the Chechen patriots on the home ground.  The latter fought the perceived (and real) repressor of Chechen rights and freedoms:  Russia. Could it be that the Internet today serves as an amplifier and, at times, a distorter of a culture’s views and values?

“Foreign agents”

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.08.09 PMReports abound today on crackdowns on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Russia.  This follows the law passed in July that requires NGO’s involved in political activities to register as “foreign agents”, an expression in Russian which is more pejorative than in English.  This is in line with a worrying trend in Russia towards greater nationalism and growing suspicion of non-Russian ideas and people.  The organizations being raided include a number of foreign-based but also Russian human rights groups that monitor elections and report abuses of minority groups, in particular those in the North Caucasus.  It’s clear that President Putin not only wants to eliminate interference from foreign sources, he also wants to ensure free hand in dealing with troublesome groups asserting more rights.  Many see echoes of the Soviet era in the raids.  As the Guardian writes, “Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on NGOs is return to rule by fear”.

It’s not just the NGO’s that are being intimidated but also ordinary Russian who are getting the clear message that actions such as investigations of police brutality, of corrupt officials, or of the unfair treatment of minority groups are unwelcome and may result in actions such as tax review and repeated harassment.  This also comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church receives substantial official support while all other religions (including Protestant churches) are discouraged if not persecuted.  The options for group membership and activities in Russia seem to be getting more and more restricted.

Cossacks return

Cossacks1Ethnic tensions have a long history in the Caucasian foothills of southwestern Russia.  A recent story in the NY Times evokes a group familiar from Russian history that seems to be coming back in that part of Russia, at least in the Stavropol area, namely the Cossacks.  The Cossacks are a legendary fighting group (usually pictured on horseback), somewhat akin to the cowboys of the American Wild West, fighting at the frontiers of the expanding Russian empire, including battling the Caucasian tribes.  Tolstoy’s Cossacks illustrates that side of their history.  In today’s Russia the Cossacks are evoked in support of Russian nationalism; according to the article, “In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology.  Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.”

Apparently, men in Cossack uniforms are proliferating in Russia. According to the article, “Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.”  The newly reinvigorated Cossacks in the Stavropol area (where Tolstoy’s story is set) are running up against the demographic dynamics of the area, namely that Muslims from Caucasian ethnic minorities (Dagastani and Chechens) are increasing, while numbers of ethnic Russians are decreasing.  The Cossacks are not universally welcomed in their law enforcement role, as, in contrast to the police, they have no official status and are therefore not bound by the same legal restraints the regular police force faces.

Oma Export

Germany pensioners elderlyOne of the interesting issues in modern societies is how certain segments of the population are viewed and treated.   Recently in the news have been reports about retirees in Germany and orphans in Russia.  A recent article in the Guardian discusses the issue of Oma (Grandmother) export, namely pensioners leaving Germany to live in other countries due to the high cost of living in Germany and their modest pensions.  Examples are given of German senior citizens moving to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Thailand.   In some cases, the facilities to which the older Germans emigrate have German-speaking staff and offer activities familiar from German culture (singing folk songs), but this is an exception. This is a quite different phenomenon from the long-time practice of well-to-do German retirees moving to Mediterranean beach locations.  The current “Oma export” of  German citizens living off their pensions has raised concerns in Germany, especially when the people involved have limited faculties and few options. Such a situation would be hard to imagine in countries where it’s understood that families, no matter what, care for their own, such as in many Asian, African or Latin American cultures. Americans tend to have fewer scruples about sending family members off to homes.

Russian society, on the other hand, is trying to keep some of their most vulnerable members of society – orphans – from leaving the country, namely to be adopted by Americans.  The recent law passed by the Duma and signed by President Putin is meant as retaliation against the Sergei Magnitsky Act passed by Congress, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials involved in the death of an imprisoned lawyer in 2009 who had been a whistle blower on a tax-fraud scheme.  But it’s not just politics.  Russians have been less than enthusiastic over the idea of foreigners adopting Russian children, despite the low adoption rate in Russia, seeing it as a slap in the face, implying their society can’t take care of their own.  Russia is not alone in this, many other countries have expressed concerns or passed restrictive laws on foreign adoptions.  It would be interesting to see a study comparing attitudes toward adoption around the world.