The Russian government and pro-Kremlin media say that the aim of Russia’s current war against its neighboring country is the “denazification” of Ukraine. But Farida Kurbangaleyeva argues that Russia’s government has in fact performed “denazification” earlier as well—on the “non-Russian” peoples living in the Russian Federation.
Chukcha tatarskaia—“you Tatar Chukchi”—an unknown woman wrote to me via Facebook. To put it mildly, she had not liked my post about the aftermath of the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to deliver me the knockout punch with an irrefutable argument. For her, this argument was my ethnicity, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming people” than being a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Ukrainian yokel. That is, there is nothing more shameful than not being Russian.
This incident made me think of the “denazification” that Putin has used to justify his military invasion of Ukraine. In spite of his plan, from the start of the full-scale war many people started talking about how about Russia itself needed to be denazified—and I completely agree with this. But this is not the end of the story.
What Putin is calling “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to eliminate the Ukrainians as a people. This is why in the occupied territories, as the Ukrainian authorities report, Ukrainian-language books have been removed from libraries and burned, and the study of Ukrainian has been canceled in schools. Where there is no language, there is no culture, no identity, no people. Meanwhile, in Russia, other peoples have been similarly “denazified” already. With more or less bloodshed, but in any case, quite successfully.
My personal denazification began shortly after my third birthday—when I first went to nursery school. At that age I spoke fluently in my native Tatar. One of my relatives loves to recall me energetically explaining the pictures to her from my book about the surrounding world: Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте. (Mena bu ashake gumba, a mena buse—aibate: “This is an inedible mushroom, and this one is good.”)
I have to admit that it would be hard for me to repeat the stunt now. The nursery-school teachers had been given strict instructions: Soviet children should only have one language—Russian. Everything else was the devil’s work, forget it.
The denazification worked—by the first grade I still understood Tatar, but already had a hard time speaking it. That’s how I am now: I can understand everything being said to me, but I switch to Russian to reply. Why waste time fumbling for the right words?
For many people, Tatar language was a much-despised subject at school. And it’s not surprising: you knew that there was absolutely no reason to study it. People rarely spoke it at home, and in some places not at all, and it was unlikely to come in handy in the future either. Some of my Tatar classmates didn’t even go to Tatar language classes, preferring to take local history classes with the Russian kids instead. That is, they practically didn’t know their native language at all.
This was the late Soviet period, when the myth of the “friendship of peoples” and equality was still actively promoted. “Look at what a good student Farida is,” my teacher Anna Viktorovna would say to my classmate Roma. “Even though she’s a Tatar girl.”
I suppose that my mother had also encountered the same sort of approving motherly intonation at her first job at a nursery school (when she was just out of school and hadn’t yet entered Kazan University as a physics student). One of the other teachers—a woman from a Russian village—would tenderly refer to my mother as “my little chaplashka.”[The chaplashka is a typical Tatar skullcap, but it can be used as a condescending term for Turkic peoples.] At around the same time you could regularly hear people on the Kazan trams saying, “Hey you there! Quit talking in your language!”
But I digress. These are my memoirs, not my mother’s.
I can say that nearly all of my urban Tatar agemates—people who were kids in the 1980s—are a linguistically handicapped generation. Speaking Tatar was awkward and embarrassing. The primary native speakers at this time were people from the villages. Of course, there was also the urban Tatar intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that one almost never heard Tatar spoken in the cities. Except maybe in the national theater.
Because of this, when the republic declared its “sovereignty” in the 1990s and Tatar became a required subject, the majority of the people who came to teach it in schools and universities were villagers. Many of them spoke Russian with a strong accent, lacked a certain confidence and even dressed more poorly than their colleagues in physics, algebra, or English. People treated them correspondingly, referring to them condescendingly as “Soviet farm workers” [kolkhozniki].
It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at their schoolkid for getting a D in Tatar. What’s more, some parents openly admitted to encouraging their kids not to study it. No one was worried about the final grade report—by the time graduation rolled around, they would get all As and Bs. Who would want to ruin someone’s life over a pointless subject? The same situation held in the technical schools and universities.
The time came for us to become parents ourselves. What could we say to our kids in the “mother tongue”? At best a few primitive phrases. The grandparents would try to make up for lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.
I’ve observed the following scenario several times. At the playground, a group of mothers gangs up on the mother of a “late-speaking” child. “It’s all because you speak two languages at home. That’s not right, you have to pick,” they say. Some of these “instructors” themselves send their kiddos to “early development schools” where the kids are taught English as early as possible—either from the moment the child starts turning over, or maybe when it can lift its head. After all, everyone knows that the earlier you start learning a second language, the better.
Meanwhile, the Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They’re long since used to Tatar names and holidays, and mixed marriages. They know the words isanmesez [исәнмесез] (hello), rakhmat [рәхмәт] (thank you), and sometimes even say Alla birsa [Алла бирсә] (God willing) as a joke. When I left for Moscow, I realized that in other regions the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of ethnic minorities. Russia is both a multi-ethnic and a xenophobic country.
My experience working as an anchor on TV channel Rossiya was pretty revealing. It was 2007. Alexandra Buratayeva and Lilya Gildeyeva [who are ethnic Kalmyks and Tatars, respectively] had already made their names on national television, but the negative wow-effect was nevertheless plain to see. Online, I would periodically run into requests like “get rid of that churka” [a racial slur mostly used for people from the Caucasus and Central Asia] or questions like “What, you couldn’t find a Russian woman? Where are the Katyas, Mashas, Natashas?”
My colleagues mostly treated me with decency and goodwill. Well, if you don’t count the entertaining questions like whether I’d been on the Hajj or eaten horsemeat. Or the kinds of questions every member of an ethnic minority gets, like:
“What is your Russian name?”
“This is my only name.”
Rage, negotiation, unwilling acceptance.
I know of many cases when a Fidail has become a Fedya [Ted], a Gulnur., a Gulya, and a Kamil, a Kolya [Nick]. Even closer to home, my grandmother, Khadicha Fazleyevna, lived for fifty years in a communal apartment where she was known as “Auntie Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that when she was studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, she usually told people her name was Marianna. She thought that people would be nicer to her that way. One girl from her circle of university friends would periodically say to her, “Gosh, you’re so normal—just like us.”
I remember that once a Sberbank employee, holding my Russian Federation-issued passport and reading out my full name, asked me what my citizenship was. That the principal of the school my daughter went to wasn’t sure that her intellectual capacity was the same as her Muscovite agemates: “Southern children (!) achieve physical maturity more quickly, but sometimes lag intellectually.” A midwife in a Moscow birth center asked me whether newborns are swaddled in my country.
One time my wallet was stolen in a mall. The first word uttered by the policeman who came to investigate was “Darkies?” [churbany]. I was stunned, because in my understanding no defender of public order has the right to utter this word. I replied, “It was two women of Slavic appearance,” which obviously stunned the policeman in turn.
My second cousin Azamat was unable to rent an apartment in Moscow. As soon as they heard his name over the phone, Muscovites would ask, “What are you, an Uzbek?” and hang up. He didn’t have time to tell them about his excellent job or steady salary at Sberbank. He was able to rent only through people he knew.
To expand my examples beyond my personal life, I called all my non-Russian friends. I didn’t have to make any effort to seek anyone out or ask insistently for comments. These are all stories of just “one degree of separation.”
Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny (Chechnya): “Once I submitted my papers for a foreign-travel passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport officer and declared I wouldn’t leave until I got my passport. The man clearly hadn’t expected such audacity. He thought for a while and then took my passport out of his desk.”
Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War. I went to a bunch of different schools. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Cherkessk. One time in class, people started talking about Chechens, and the teacher said, looking right at me, ‘You’re basically all terrorists, you need to be isolated.’ When I started at university, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t become a waiter at a cafe, a salesman at a store, or someone handing out advertisement flyers [like other university students]. A few years ago, I was barred from entering a Moscow nightclub on New Year’s Eve. The security guy looked at my passport and refused to let me in. When I asked him to explain why, he said, ‘No comment.’”
Alexandra, a Buryat from St. Petersburg: “I never wanted to go down into the subway, where people always gave us dirty looks. One time I was riding with my whole family and heard someone say, ‘They’re breeding up a storm.’ Another time I was walking toward the escalator and a stranger started to shoulder me out of the line. I kept going, so then he shoved me aside roughly and said, ‘You should always let Russians ahead of you! Got it?’”
Alexandra was one of the organizers of the initiative Buryats Against the War in Ukraine. She asked Russia-based subscribers to talk about examples of xenophobia they’d encountered living in Russia. She’s been getting messages for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra nearly stopped sleeping. One time she wrote me at three in the morning to say she (and many of her respondents) needed a therapist.
But getting back to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar language was once again made optional as a school subject in Tatarstan. It was happily dropped not only by Russians, whose pressure had largely caused the law to be passed, but also by many Tatars. Why bother? Everyone knows that there’s absolutely no point: almost no one speaks Tatar anywhere, and there’s unlikely to be any need for it in the future. At least at this point in history, speaking Tatar at home isn’t forbidden. The idea was just that: “Speak it at home” and even “How terrible that they used to forbid that.”
Thanks a lot, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. It also means the loss of language, just dragged out a bit. I can confirm this through the example of some Russians I know who have lived in the Czech Republic for many years.
Here’s a mother who delights in her fifteen-year-old daughter: “You wouldn’t believe it! She wrote a card to her grandma yesterday without making a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks Russian very well (because they speak it at home), but the grammar is a real problem for her. This girl’s children will speak Russian a bit worse and barely be able to write. The grandchildren will speak in broken Russian and tell their friends that their grandma was Russian. Cool, right?
Without systematic lessons and academic programs, textbooks and teaching aids, courses and constant practice, a language cannot be preserved. All the more so if it’s optional. Imagine if people studied Russian in schools as an elective. Or chemistry, or algebra. Would many students want to take these subjects? Losing a language when it’s “study it if you want to” is just a matter of two or three generations.
No one among my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan knows Tatar or is planning to learn it. As an illustration, I offer a few sample conversations with my girlfriends. Both are cultured, educated women and highly empathetic. They would never call me a “Tatar Chukchi.”
Dialogue No. 1 (which took place prior to the reversal of the Tatar language requirement in schools):
“Tatar’s on the schedule every day, I’m so sick of it! Katya (her daughter, whose name has been changed) gets so exhausted by it. I wish they’d get rid of it already!”
“And what will you do if they get rid of it?”
“I want them to bring in English, and Italian would be good too. I’d love for her [Katya] to go to university in Italy.”
“But it’s not like all the kids are going to go do that. Many of them will spend their whole lives in Tatarstan.”
“So? What do they need Tatar for?”
“To talk with their friends, for instance. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar, so you could speak it with me? I speak Russian with you, after all.”
“You got to be kidding! Isn’t that an awfully big sacrifice to make—studying Tatar just so I can talk with you?”
Dialogue No. 2, quoted as a monologue (it was delivered after Tatar was made non-obligatory):
“Thank God, they got rid of Tatar. When I think back on my school days I just shudder (she utters in Tatar the phrase ‘My homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan,’ purposefully mispronouncing the words). They should just make them take local history instead. At work I have a ton of Russian colleagues who used to live in Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here. They have to take a Russian-language exam if you can believe it. But in Kazakhstan they’re really mistreated—they’re forced to learn Kazakh. I even thought lucky my grandparents came here to build the KAMAZ [auto factory] instead of Baikonur [a cosmodrome built in Soviet Kazakhstan]. Otherwise, I’d be suffering—having to learn Kazakh or trying to get Russian citizenship.”
Just a minute! My grandparents didn’t go anywhere to build factories. And my other grandparents didn’t either. They spent their whole lives living on this land. And before that, for centuries, their grandparents lived on the same land. They spoke, read, and wrote in Tatar. Until the moment when someone decided to administer and regulate this process—to denazify the Tatars, you might say.
Yes, Putin started using the term, but he didn’t start the process, of course. The policy of stan “foreigners” was pursued under the Russian Empire as well and hit a high point during Soviet times. Over the past one hundred years, the Tatars have had their alphabet changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup and for a little while afterwards, Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. This writing system was left alone even when the gate of Lyadsky Garden in downtown Kazan sported a sign saying, “No musicians or Tatars allowed.”
In the late 1920s, Tatar was switched to yañalif—an alphabet based on the Latin one, and then in 1939 to Cyrillic—by the way, easily the most inconvenient option for Tatar phonetics. Consequently, Tatars were cut off from an enormous store of literature, poetry, philosophical and religious works written using the Arabic script. And, by extension, from their own history and culture.
My father, who was born in 1940, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar district—a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this neighborhood has been transformed into a colorful tourist trap with a gaudy ethnic flair. But we have to remember that before 1917 Tatars didn’t have a choice: they did not have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.
According to my papa, when he was growing up in the neighborhood, not a single Russian lived there who didn’t know Tatar. And around mid-century there were quite a few Russians living there. His childhood friends Polina and Katya would switch to Tatar every time they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that places spared the denazification process saw wonderful results—a genuine, not sham, friendship of peoples. With true equality, mutual respect, and the preservation of ethnic identity.
Nowadays this tale sounds fantastical, and I can’t find an answer to my question: why did those Russians not mind speaking Tatar, and where did those Russians go? I also have a feeling of guilt for not putting enough effort into developing and preserving the language in my own family. I think I should have hired a tutor. I think I should have bought a self-instruction manual. I think I should speak with my elderly parents more often. At least now, at least a little. And even in a sloppy way, I should still try to speak Tatar with my kids.
So, there is a grain of truth in what the unknown woman on Facebook said. In some sense I really am a “Tatar Chukchi”—an incomprehensible hybrid, a person without kith or kin and without a language, trying to seize hold of her roots before they wither away.
And what will happen later, when Ukraine prevails in the war with Russia, securing both a moral and a physical victory? What will happen when the Ukrainians liberate the occupied territories, when they bring Ukrainian back into the schools, when they publish wonderful new books written in Ukrainian? And when Russia (I really want to believe this) will truly and finally be free? What will happen, not with the Ukrainians, of course, but with us—the denazified Russian-dwelling chebureks? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think I know what will happen.
I recently stumbled across an openly xenophobic comment on Facebook. The thread was discussing the sanctions that the US government was afraid to implement against Alina Kabaeva. One of the contributors wrote, “What do they expect from her? She’s a typical Tatar woman: husband, kids, family. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.” This comment was liked by someone with whom I share a few dozen friends, someone who’d posted lots of fiery statements against the war in Ukraine.
When I expressed astonishment in response, the Facebook-friend posted a bunch of smile emojis and wrote, “Sorry.” But when I noted that I didn’t find it funny at all, his tone changed abruptly. He wrote repeatedly that he was “speaking with me as an equal” and advised me to “not be stuffy and blow things out of proportion.”
Thus, we non-Russians will go down with this warship. We’ll go where the free Ukrainians—who speak their native language at home, and at school, and at work, and wherever they want—sent it.
We’ll head for the bottom along with our country’s liberal civil society, which will genuinely rejoice over Ukraine’s victory, and then set about building “the beautiful Russia of the future.” But a few things in this new Russia will stay the same. No one there will force anyone to study non-native or pointless languages. After all, this is a violation of rights and freedoms and is basically non-democratic. There will be fewer and fewer people trying to study them on their own. Those who wish to can speak them at home or take elective classes. And not blow anything out of proportion. Those who attempt to get uppity about it will be declared ethnic nationalists and Russophobes.
You’re hearing this from me, the “Tatar Chukchi.”
Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “My Personal Denazification,” Holod, 28 May 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo (above) courtesy of Wikipedia. Farida Kurbangaleyeva (Фәридә Корбангалиева/Färidä Qorbanğälieva) worked as a presenter of the program “Vesti” (“The News”) on the Rossiya channel until 2014 and, later, as a presenter on the channel Current Time. Now an independent journalist, she lives in Prague.