Sunday, May 14, 2017

Soviet Definition of Nationality by Language Breaking Down in North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 15 – Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, people in the North Caucasus typically spoke several languages, identified in terms of religion or political allegiance, and shared many aspects of a common mountaineer culture, a background that is reflected in the numerous names found in many of the ethnic groups now.

            The Soviet authorities, however, as Amina Suleymanova points out, defined the nations in the North Caucasus as well as elsewhere in terms of a single language, thus imposing divisions on people who knew multiple languages and moved easily among various communities (

            And Moscow did this not in order that nations should be created that would last forever but rather as a transition to a common “Soviet” identity, in which these peoples would lose their ethnic identity in a broader Russian-speaking one.  That policy has had three contradictory results, Suleymanova suggests.

            First, people who would now be called Avars became Chechens, those who would be called Ossetians became Ingush. Second, national languages became more important as identified but also were undermined by Moscow’s policies. And third, as these national languages have lost ground, some earlier regional identities are re-emerging in powerful ways.

            To explore some of these complexities, the OnKavkaz journalist interviewed Akhmed Yalykapov, a specialist on the North Caucasus at MGIMO, and Zurab Gadzhiyev, a Daghestani historian.

            Yarlykapov notes that prior to 1917, people in the North Caucasus routinely knew to perfection several languages and did not live in isolation with each other. After 1917, that changed. Gadzhiyev says that identities were “religious not ethnic” and that people identified in terms of those super-ethnic categories or in terms of sub-ethnic ones like clans.

            The contemporary understanding of nationality, Yarlykapov says, one based on languages and the idea that each nation had been separate for centuries, reflected Soviet nationality policy.  But of course, Moscow wanted to use that as a transition step to full integration of these peoples into “a single Soviet community.”

            “But in a paradoxical way,” he continues, “this led to fragmentation and ever greater ethnic isolation” as well as to the idea that some sort of “pure nationality” in fact existed, an idea that survives even among those who don’t know their own national language but who identify in terms of this or that “nation.”

            Gadzhiyev points out that Daghestanis were united especially when confronted by outside aggression and did not see linguistic differences as important because almost everyone there spoke two, three or more languages and could find a lingua franca. Now those languages are under threat, and most speak only Russian or a single Russian-influenced national language.

            Many North Caucasians today, Yarlykapov says, stress language because they see it as a marker of their customary law and traditions, forgetting that “all the ethnic codices of all the peoples of the North Caucasus are similar.”  Gadzhiyev suggests they do so because “almost nothing [of these culture codes] remains.”

            The Daghestani historian says that supposedly eternal adat principles are born and die. Things that used to be prohibited are now permitted and vice versa, a trend that makes the notion of an eternal nation based on eternal values absurd, a view the Moscow scholar shares as well who says it is nonsense to believe that preserving a language keeps people like their ancestors.

            Gadzhiyev concludes that of course “a way of life, culture, national traditions and language are closely connected.” National languages are critical, but if they pass away, people may turn back to larger culturally defined regional identities of the kind that existed when residents of the North Caucasus spoke not one language poorly but many well.

            While neither of Suleymanova’s interlocutors draws this conclusion, it seems obvious that the passing of national languages, along with Russian xenophobic hostility to “people of the Caucasus,” may lead to the recreation of a broader “mountaineer identity” – one that could prove a greater threat to Russian control than those based on language alone.

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