On the Destruction of Minority Languages in the Former Soviet Union

In the former Soviet Union, a large number of small nations are fighting to retain their native language, and so far the results are not encouraging. Two nations I’ve been following in this regard are the Talysh, who speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi, and the Circassians, who speak a language whose origins are unknown and which only has two living relatives, Abkhaz and Abaza.

The Talysh saw their homeland divided into two different empires in 1813 as a result of the Treaty of Gulistan. Currently, Talysh live in Iran and Azerbaijan. Opportunities to learn Talysh are limited, particularly in Azerbaijan, who much like has a policy of complete assimilation into a Turkic identity. Most observers agree that the Azeri government dramatically underestimates the Talysh population, and the Talysh are generally treated as an inferior ethnic group. There is a Talysh-Mugan government in exile, but Azerbaijan’s petroleum reserves have caused the world to turn a blind eye to the nations many, many problems, including the threat to the Talysh.

The Circassians were deported en masse to the Ottoman Empire, resulting in the deaths of well over half the population due to disease, starvation, exposure, drowning and Russian massacres. Currently, there are around 800,000 Circassians in the Russian Federation, while there are perhaps five million in Turkey and several hundred thousand in the Middle East, primarily Jordan and (until recently) Syria.

I’ve been reading posts by members of these two nations on social media over the last few months with an eye to the language-preservation issue, and particularly after I read that Putin adviser Vladimir Tolstoy, a descendant of Leo Tolstoy and a disgraceful traitor to everything his great ancestor stood for, stated that all citizens of the Russian Federation should speak Russian as their native language.

This, of course, violates the very essence of the Russian “Federation.” V. Tolstoy has openly admitted that the agenda of the Russian Federation is no different from that of the Russian Empire: forced assimilation into the dominant ethnic group. This has been the agenda of every act of “nation-building”: oppression (or physical destruction) of minority groups to create a single “nation.” Most empire are simply failed attempts, and it seems Russia is the foremost example of this phenomenon, with Azerbaijan following the same pattern.

Several factors are necessary for a group of people to consider themselves a nation. One of the most critical elements is a national language. Loss of language inevitably leads to the loss of the nation. When the modern German state was created, multiple ethnic groups speaking their own languages were forcibly assimilated into the German ethnos or exterminated. Similar processes went into the creation of France, England, Spain, and the other “nation states.” Minority languages were eliminated, and the minorities were gradually assimilated.

In the case of the Talysh, the major obstacle is their artificial division into Azeri and Iranian sectors. With little opportunity to create a united front, the authoritarian governments of both states have been able to keep the Talysh disorganized. With the Circassians, the Kremlin is actively working to reduce opportunities to study Circassian in yet another effort to assimilate the North Caucasus peoples and other nations in the Russian Federation. Additionally, since most Circassians live in diaspora, they face not only assimilation (particularly in Turkey, where forced assimilation of non-Turks has been taking place since the creation of the modern Turkish state) but also the adoption of different perspectives, different regional alliances, causing rifts between the various Circassian communities around the world.

Urbanization and the necessity of adopting the majority language to succeed already causes irreparable harm to minority languages. With the extra impact of discriminatory policies, outright efforts to linguistically assimilate minorities that Russia and Azerbaijan exert will destroy these languages and, ultimately, the nations who call them their own. I’m encouraged by the work of dedicated members of both the Talysh and Circassian nations, but without outside help they face a very tenuous future.

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