Minority language education in Russia: enforcing the voluntary teaching of non-Russian languages

Minority language education in Russia: enforcing the voluntary teaching of non-Russian languages

On 19 June 2018, the draft law on the voluntary teaching of non-Russian languages passed the first reading in the Russian State Duma. Our expert Dr. Konstantin Zamyatin, research fellow at Durham University, UK, argues that, while the Kremlin pretends it aims at ensuring the rights of citizens, it actually intends to use the free choice of language teaching as the means of assimilation to advance its nation-building agenda.

Current developments

The draft law amending the 2012 Federal Law on Education passed the first reading in the State Duma, a lower chamber of the Russian parliament [1]. The draft law was submitted to the State Duma in April 2018. The authors of the draft law, a number of the deputies mostly from the ruling party United Russia, claimed in the explanatory note that the amendment was needed to specify the law in order to maintain the balance between the free choice of the language of upbringing and instruction and the possibilities of studying the state languages of republics, and, thus, to avoid ambiguous interpretation of legal provisions in practice.

The draft law is intended to specify that (a) the teaching and learning of the state languages of republics has to be carried out on voluntary basis and not to the detriment of the state language of the Russian Federation, (b) the right to receive pre-school, primary and basic secondary education in native language as well as the right to study native languages within the range of possibilities offered by the education system has to be exercised taking into account the linguistic demands of students and their parents, (c) the voluntary choice of language learning is to be defined in bylaws of educational institutions, and the opinion of students and their parents is to be taken into account on the basis of the written demand of the parents.

In May 2018, the State Duma assigned its Committee on Education and Science to be the committee responsible for the draft. In its evaluation, the Committee proposed for the second reading an addition that the Russian language should be separately mentioned and included as a native language covered by the right of students to choose their language of instruction and the right to native language learning.

The State Duma assigned its Committee on Nationalities Affairs as another committee jointly in charge of the draft law. The evaluation of the Committee pointed out that the draft law needed a substantial revision. According to the Committee, when the authors of the draft intend to enforce voluntary learning not only of native languages but also to apply the same approach to the state languages of republics, they in effect equalize their statuses. However, this way the draft law does not merely ‘specify’ the law but introduces a new regulation, because the current legislation does not envisage the ‘voluntariness’ of the state languages of republics. The drafters substitute the subject of legal regulation, when they introduce the element of choice in the current provision that “the languages of education are defined in bylaws of educational institutions”. The effect of such substitution would be the removal of the study subjects of native language and state language from the obligatory part of the main educational programs based on the federal educational standards and shaped by the federal authorities and its transfer to the variable part shaped by the participants of educational process, which would result in a lower education quality of language teaching. The Committee noted that the ambiguity emerged because the issue of state language teaching is not regulated in the federal educational standards and proposed that the work on the draft law should be synchronized with their amendment.

In line with the last proposal, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science circulated the draft federal educational standards of primary and basic secondary general education among the experts in the regions to hold the discussions and make their suggestions. The sample study plans attached to the draft standards envisage the allocation of one hour for the study subject of native language and one hour for the study subject of native literature weekly. This is much less than the recent three to five and up to six hours per week according to the previous sample plans (the fourth sample syllabus for the national schools with the Russian language of instruction and native language as a study subject and the fifth sample syllabus the national schools with the native language of instruction and Russian as a study subject). In practice, the volume of language teaching in many republics has already decreased to one hour per week since autumn 2017 [2]. Furthermore, the existing plans do not envisage classes for the study subject of a republican state language. In practice, the voluntary character of studying the state languages of republics means that the students would receive the option of choosing Russian that is another state language of all republics.

The issue is in the joint jurisdiction of the federation and the regions. Thus, the regional legislative and executive authorities were requested to send before the first reading their opinions on the draft law. All those regions who responded sent their positive opinions about the draft except Tatarstan who sent a negative opinion.

In public discussions, the draft law met harsh criticism both before and after the first reading, and an internet petition against the law collected about fifty thousand signatures [3]. The protest was expressed not only online. For example, individual deputies in the regional parliaments of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygeya spoken out against the measure. The State Duma decree on passing the law in the first reading obliges the Committee on Education and Science to change the draft before its second reading in order to ensure the language teaching, but does not state explicitly what these amendments should be. Reportedly, Duma deputies promised in response to the criticism that the language teaching will remain in the obligatory part of the main educational programs [4]. The second reading is scheduled for 18 July 2018.

Background and the context

Russia’s language legislation and linguistic rights

Since the Soviet times, languages other than Russian were present in the education system as a native language of instruction or as a study subject of native language. In practice, only a few languages functioned as the native language of instruction for part of non-Russian children and only in some republics, first of all, in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Sakha (Yakutia) in primary and secondary school and to a lesser degree in some other republics in primary school. In most other ethnic regions native language was taught as a subject only and only to a part of non-Russian students, while Russian remained the language of instruction [5].

In post-Soviet Russia, the 1991 Language Law and the 1992 Education Law recognized the right of citizens to receive basic secondary education in their native language and to choose the language of instruction within the range of possibilities offered by the education system as well as to learn it; the authorities have to ensure this right by establishment of the necessary number of corresponding education establishments, classes, groups, as well as by creating conditions for their functioning. These are not individual but collective rights and their implementation depends on the regions that create the possibilities to study languages. The 1993 Russian Constitution recognized everyone’s right to use his or her native language, to a free choice of the language of communication, upbringing, education, and creative work. The federal state also guarantees all its peoples the right to preserve their native language and to create the conditions for its study and development.

In addition, the Constitution designated Russian as the state language of the entire country and recognized the right of republics to have their constitutions and to establish their state languages. The latter was a postfactum legitimation of what most republics had already done back in 1990 in their declarations of state sovereignty. Almost all republics of Russia established in their constitutions both their ‘titular’ language(s) and Russian as their state languages [6]. The status of state language of a republic was envisaged both as a symbol of the republics’ national statehood and as a practical tool to promote titular languages by introducing their compulsory use. However, the parallel status of Russian prevented fully-fledged official bilingualism, so that the titular languages could become compulsory for use only in some republics and in some spheres [7].

Several republics established in their constitutions the requirement for the compulsory knowledge of both state languages of the republic by the head of republic. Eight republics established compulsory teaching of their state languages as a study subject to all students irrespective of their ethnicity, that is, also to ethnic Russian students.

Erosion of non-Russian language provision

Since the late 1990s, the Kremlin started an offensive against the position of non-Russian languages in public sphere. After a Russian Constitutional Court ruling of 2001, the regional provisions on language requirements for republican presidency candidates were deemed unconstitutional as the regions were not entitled to regulate human and civil rights and thus to impose restrictions on passive suffrage [8]. In 2004, a decision of the Constitutional Court fixed a compromise between the Kremlin and Tatarstan on the language issue. The Court ruled that Tatarstan cannot switch the Tatar language’s alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin because it had no jurisdiction to do this but recognized that it was in the jurisdiction of regional authorities to make the teaching of the non-Russian languages as the state languages of republics compulsory [9].

In 2007, the education reform stripped the republics’ education agencies from the power to pursue their own education policies and enforced the free choice of the language learning that now had to be defined exclusively by children, their parents and schools (the similar twist was used in the Soviet 1958 education reform). The reform provoked an outrage in the republics, and after the negotiations they were assured that the language teaching will continue [10].

Throughout the post-Soviet period, the protests of Russian-speakers against the compulsory teaching of state languages of republics were organized in some republics, and complaints were filed to courts, first of all, in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Komi. Some Russian-speaking parents and also some parents of the titular nationalities were against the compulsory teaching of the titular languages because allegedly it was carried out at the expense of the core subjects. In their view, these were useless languages without future, while the children should rather prepare for the unified state examination which is held in Russian. Ethnic activists arranged counteractions in favor of such teaching and presented the languages as the core of the ‘national identity’.

Abolishment of the compulsory study of the state languages of republics in 2017

In summer 2017, the Kremlin insisted on the abolishment of the compulsory teaching of the state languages of republics. The authorities portrayed teaching of these languages to be at the expense of Russian. This was part of the official discourse that emphasizes the deteriorating position of the Russian language not only abroad but also in some republics of Russia, its “degradation” in political and socio-economic terms, the worsening of its knowledge and its “contamination with the foreign words” as well as “the factual displacement of Russian from the school curricula in favor of the national language” [11].

After Vladimir Putin’s statement at the session of the Council for Interethnic Relations in July 2017 that “forcing the person to learn a language which is not his/her native is impermissible” [12], the Public Prosecutor’s Office demanded in autumn the republics to increase the volume of the teaching of Russian and to enforce the teaching of the state languages of republics only on a voluntary basis. Subsequently, the regional Public Prosecutor’s Offices initiated inspections in schools, whether this was also implemented, and found many instances when languages were taught without the written demand of parents, as now became necessary.

The policy measure was the next step in an incremental change of the existing regime of diversity management in Russia, even if Tatarstan was in focus. This confrontational move was perceived there as another step in the diminution in the republic’s power and status. Earlier last year, the Kremlin refused to prolong the power-sharing treaty with Tatarstan. Tatarstan and other republics had little option but to comply. Tellingly, the Tatarstan’s legislature itself had to remove the compulsory teaching, despite the previous public statements of the republic’s president and some prominent politicians that it will be maintained. Yet, this time it is not only an insult that antagonizes the Tatar elite but also the one that has repercussions in the wider segments of the population. As a consequence, a few thousand Tatar-language teachers would start teaching, ironically, Russian after a three-month retraining or otherwise lose their jobs. Some rallies in support of the titular state languages took place in the capitals of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan but without much effect [13]. It came as a surprise to many commentators that the authorities of these republics acceded swiftly to the new linguistic dispensation [14].

However, one should not take the rhetoric about ‘free choice’ being enforced in ‘parliament’ under a ‘federal’ arrangement at its face value and should remember that the authoritarian regime has its methods to ensure the passage of its will. The recent policy developments also demonstrated that the Kremlin was willing to accept the alienation of part of regional elites as an appropriate cost. The announcement of the policy change made last year by Putin himself in the lead-up to the Russian presidential election signified that this was a symbolic populist gesture to show the care about the Russian language in hope to increase the support of the ethnic Russian majority as a gain.

Language education policy and nation-building efforts

The covert target of the policy are arguably those numerous non-Russians (one in four, according to the population censuses data) who still maintain their ethnic identities but declare Russian as their native language. In the latest step, the choice of one language in education implies the refusal from another language, because no bilingual option is available with some exception, notably in Tatarstan, Chechnya and North Ossetia [15]. Arguably, the hidden agenda is to encourage the language loss and ethnic assimilation of non-Russians in order to foster the all-Russian national identity. Education is envisaged as the key instrument for building a nation. Schools in republics are seen as an obstacle for this goal because they were said to promote alternative ethno-regional identities through teaching local languages, literatures and histories [16].

The teaching of non-Russian state languages was stopped in all republics, but, for the time being, the teaching of native languages continues in reduced volumes. However, the intention behind the draft law to encourage non-Russians to name Russian as their native language. The draft law is further intended to discourage non-Russian children and their parents to demand native language teaching that will result in less and less children having access to it. In its turn, the linguistic assimilation will result in an increased refusal of children and parents to demand the teaching of native languages in the next generation. This is again the old twist when the notion of the “second mother tongue” was introduced in the late Soviet period to mark the efforts at creating the “Soviet people”.

The latest step is also a symbolic act to emphasis an exceptional role of Russian vis-à-vis other languages of Russia. In a Soviet propaganda style, the step was accompanied by an article in one of the central newspapers that justified the policy change “from the perspective of the contemporary science” [17]. The paper argued that individuals not only have the right to maintain the native language but also the right to forget it and switch to a language of opportunity, that is Russian.

The policy change will further accumulate resentment among the ethnic intelligentsia. However, with only minor public unrest followed, the Kremlin is reassured that it keeps the situation under control and will be encouraged to take further measures directed at centralization and unification. Its emphasis on the ethnic Russian component in the nation-building agenda will increase. Its next goal may be the abolishment of non-Russian language instruction. At the same time, the ‘soft power’ to promote the Russian language and culture in the neighboring countries may suffer, because this policy also weakens the credibility of the Russian criticism of the closure of Russian-language schools in Ukraine.


[1] Законопроект № 438863-7 О внесении изменений в Федеральный закон “Об образовании в Российской Федерации” (в части изучения родного языка из числа языков народов Российской Федерации и государственных языков республик, находящихся в составе Российской Федерации, http://sozd.parliament.gov.ru/bill/438863-7.
[2] Справка об изучении государственных нерусских языков в Республике Коми, Республике Мордовии, Республике Марий Эл и Удмуртской Республике. Инициативная группа «За наши языки», https://vk.com/rflanguages.
[3] Обращение к Президенту Российской Федерации В.В. Путину «За сохранение изучения родных языков народов Российской Федерации в обязательной предметной части учебных планов общего образования». Инициативная группа “За сохранение родных языков в обязательной части учебных планов общего образования”, https://www.change.org/p/президент-российской-федерации-владимир-владимирович-путин-нет-закону-против-родных-языков.
[4] Lyubimov, Dmitry, Alpaut, Ramazan and Coalson, Robert. A Common Language: Russia’s ‘Ethnic’ Republics See Language Bill As Existential Threat. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 20 June 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-language-bill-ethnic-republics-existential-threat/29306974.html; Goble, Paul. Circassians Denounce Kremlin’s Language Bill as as ‘Purely Imperial Policy’, Windows on Eurasia, 22 June 2018, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/06/circassians-denounce-kremlins-language.html.
[5] Zamyatin, Konstantin. The Education Reform in Russia and its Impact on Teaching of the Minority Languages: an Effect of Nation-Building? Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, Vol. 11, No 1, 2012, pp. 17-47; see also Prina, Federica 2015. National Minorities in Putin’s Russia: Diversity and Assimilation. London: Routledge.
[6] The Republic of Karelia designated Russian as its sole state language; some republics, first of all Dagestan, designated several languages of their major nationalities as their state languages.
[7] Zamyatin, Konstantin. An Official Status for Minority Languages? A Study of State Languages in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics, Uralica Helsingiensia 6. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society.
[8] Определение Конституционного Суда Российской Федерации от 13 ноября 2001 г. N 260-О “По запросу Совета Республики Государственного Совета – Хасэ Республики Адыгея о проверке соответствия Конституции Российской Федерации пункта 1 статьи 76 Конституции Республики Адыгея”.
[9] Постановление Конституционного Суда Российской Федерации от 16 ноября 2004 г. N 16-П “По делу о проверке конституционности положений пункта 2 статьи 10 Закона Республики Татарстан “О языках народов Республики Татарстан”, части второй статьи 9 Закона Республики Татарстан “О государственных языках Республики Татарстан и других языках в Республике Татарстан”, пункта 2 статьи 6 Закона Республики Татарстан “Об образовании” и пункта 6 статьи 3 Закона Российской Федерации “О языках народов Российской Федерации” в связи с жалобой гражданина С.И.Хапугина и запросами Государственного Совета Республики Татарстан и Верховного Суда Республики Татарстан”; Cashaback, David 2008: Assessing Asymmetrical Federal Design in the Russian Federation: a Case Study of Language Policy in Tatarstan, Europe-Asia Studies 60 (2): 249−275.
[10] Zamyatin, op. cit., note 5 above.
[11] Zamyatin, Konstantin. A Russian-Speaking Nation? The Promotion of the Russian Language and Its Significance for Ongoing Efforts at the Russian Nation-Building, pp. 39-64. In: F. Grin and P.A. Kraus (eds). The Politics of Multilingualism: Linguistic Governance, Globalisation and Europeanisation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 39-64, in press (October 2018)
[12] Goble, Paul. Putin: Non-Russians Must Learn Russian But Russians Mustn’t be Forced to Learn Republic Languages. Windows on Eurasia, 21 July 2017, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/07/putin-non-russians-must-learn-russian.html.
[13] Шарафиев, Ильнур. Разделение детей на татар и русских. Meduza, 3 ноября 2017 г., https://meduza.io/feature/2017/11/03/razdelenie-detey-na-tatar-i-russkih; Чистякова, Виктория. Митинг в поддержку башкирского языка в Уфе собрал более 300 человек. Коммерсант, 16 сентября 2017 г., https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3413892.
[14] Bowring, Bill, Minority Language Rights in the Russian Federation: The End of a Long Tradition? (June 7, 2018). Handbook of Minority Languages and Communities, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3192470.
[15] In these republics, some polycultural programs are tested in classes with schoolchildren of a mixed ethnic background that were developed based on the Draft Concept of the Development of Polycultural Education in the Russian Federation of 2 April 2010; the draft being never approved.
[16] Zamyatin, op. cit., note 11 above.
[17] Тишков, Валерий. Язык политической нации. Известия, 27 ноября 2017 г., https://iz.ru/673152/valerii-tishkov/iazyk-politicheskoi-natcii.

Image: © Бизнес Online, https://www.business-gazeta.ru/blog/369357.

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