Exercise of the right to education in the mother tongue in the Republic of Mordovia

Сиресь Боляєнь виступає на конференції «Корінні народи і мови в глобалізованому світі. Виклики, можливості та загрози», що проходила 11 жовтня 2019 р. в Інституті естонської мови у Таллінні.

In the first half of October 2019 Syres’ Boliayen’, Erzyan Inyazor (chief elder), visited Estonia.

Among many important meetings with representatives of Erzyan community in Estonia, Estonian politicians, public activists and journalists, Syres’ Boliayen’ also visited conference named “Indigenous peoples and languages in the globalized world. Challenges, opportunities and threats” which was held in Institute of Estonian language in Tallinn.

Inyazor took active participation in discussions with scientists, and also had the opportunity to share his opinions on current situation and future prospects of Erzyan nation. We call your attention to the article of Syres’ Boliayen’, written especially for Estonian audience.

“The revival of the Czechs as a nation is not the merit of military power or political talent. The cornerstone here is a powerful intellectual effort to restore literary Czech language.” Milan Kundera.

We need to grasp the main idea of this deep thought expressed by the prominent Czech writer in order to understand the root of the problems in which the Erzya people is wrapped.

Erzya, like Czechs, like Estonians, is an ancient indigenous people of Europe. We did not build empires, but for a long time we lived in empires created by foreigners. Our lands were colonized, and our cultures were despised. In order to become “first-class” people in the empire, we had to forget our mother tongue and origin. We were given an opportunity to pretend to be our oppressors so that we would not feel oppressed. Many compatriots did not resist the temptation and chose the path of renegation.

In order not to dissolve in the imperial sea, not to disappear without a trace, our predecessors chose the only right way – to support, develop, popularize national languages. This path eventually led you, Estonians, to national revival and state independence. We, Erzyas, sincerely rejoice in your success and are grateful for any support you give us.

Today, the Erzya needs that “powerful intellectual effort” of which Kundera spoke. Such an effort cannot be taken if its own national intelligentsia does not exist. However, where do these national intellectuals come from? The cradle in which the national intelligentsia is born is cultural and scientific institutions: universities, academies of science, theater and cinematography, publishing houses and media outlets. It is in these centers that our national, Erzya, worldview should be formed. Here we should discuss the goals and objectives of the Erzya national movement, the challenges that the Erzya people is facing, as well as the ways to overcome them. Staff for these centers should be formed by the Erzya school. It is impossible to create universities, newspapers or online editions without a school that provides education in Erzya language.

Why do Finno-Ugric languages disappear, especially within the Russian Federation? That is because a language needs to evolve. If you simply engage in “language preservation” – it will inevitably disappear. After all, a language is a dynamic system through which we describe the world and everything in it. The world is developing, new inventions and phenomena, which require a response from a language, are emerging. If a language remains in the framework of a “folk festival”, it will inevitably disappear.

What is the today’s state of the Erzya language in the Republic of Mordovia, and in the education system in particular?

In the early 1990s, the Erzya and Moksha national movements took advantage of a short period of democratic thaw and were able to achieve the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of Mordovia. The Constitution defined three official languages: Russian, Moksha and Erzya. Moreover, the Constitution states that the Government takes steps to develop the languages and cultures of the peoples living in the republic. These norms have remained in force until now. Nevertheless, what is the real practice of using the Erzya language in the education system?

As of 2018, 805,000 people live in the Republic of Mordovia. Among them there are 40% of Erzyas and Mokshas, 53% of Russians, 5% of Tatars.

In 2019 there were 7 higher educational establishments functioning in the republic. In none of them the educational process is carried out in the Erzya language.

There is also no school education in Erzya. That is, there are no schools where the educational process is carried out in the Erzya language – where mathematics, physics, chemistry and other subjects would be taught in the Erzya language. In fact, only the Erzya language and literature are taught in Erzya.

To the minimum extent necessary for a child to simply not forget his/her mother tongue (which is three lessons a week), the Erzya language is only taught in small schools in mono-ethnic villages. For example, in the villages of Atyashiv district, 85% of the population is Erzya.

In district centers where half of the children from villages study, as a rule, Erzya language is not taught more than 1 hour per week.

In cities, the Erzya language is studied within the variable part of the curriculum from the 1st till the 7th grade.

The right to choose one’s native tongue in urban schools is a bare declaration. Almost everywhere parents are confronted with the fact that in the class where their child will study, the language of teaching will be Russian.

There is no doubt that in such circumstances, it is difficult to find parents who would openly conflict with the school administration and insist on the right to education in their mother tongue.

This kind of protest is possible only among the national intelligentsia, but it is also under heavy pressure from the Russian authorities. The story of Erzya language teacher Vasilii Bokin, who was prosecuted for publishing “Stop Genocide”, has not yet been forgotten.

Due to the adoption in Russia of amendments to the federal law “On Education”, the Erzya has de facto lost the status of a state language in the education system. The authorities of Mordovia are trying to avoid comprehensive learning of the Erzya language within the compulsory part of the curriculum. In those schools where the Erzya language is supposed to be learnt, this process is fictitious – very often it is taught less than one hour per week. Usually, this is not even a language study, but a conversation about the Erzya language once a week. Such situation guarantees, on the one hand, that children will not be able to speak the Erzya language, and on the other hand, the Russian authorities will always be able to say that they taught the language, but its disappearance is a “natural process”.

The changes in the legislation have not only led to the supplantation of the Erzya language from school education. Teachers of Erzya are no longer needed. Even those who teach in two schools at the same time cannot get enough teaching hours to have the same salary as their Russian language teaching colleagues. The result is that teachers of the Erzya language often reorient to teachers of the Russian language or quit teaching. That is, the Russian authorities are solving another important task on the way to complete Russification of the Erzyas – reorientation or dismissal of teachers of the Erzya language results in a rapid reduction of the Erzya intelligentsia. In addition, the school graduates were sent a clear signal – if you decide to become a teacher of the Erzya language, you will not find a job.

The intervention of the Russian Federation in the processes of development of the Erzya language should be studied separately. They prohibit us, like representatives of other Finno-Ugric peoples, to use the Latin graphic at the legislative level. This means that an Erzya newspaper, which is funded with taxpayers’ money, cannot be published in Erzya using the Latin alphabet, as it is forbidden by law. Such artificial constraints cause great harm to our language. After all, a language cannot be treated like a political party – “to withdraw from the elections”, “to deprive of registration”. The Erzya language is a living organism, even if it is wounded! If our national intelligentsia, writers, teachers, community activists feel that the future of the Erzya language is in Latin graphics – let it be so. Moscow must not indicate to us how to write: using Cyrillic or Latin alphabet. Perhaps the Erzya Latin alphabet will not strike roots. However, the Erzyans must come to this conclusion themselves, not with the help of Moscow officials.  

If we summarize all the problems related to the realization of the right to education in the mother tongue, we will have the following situation. The constitution of the Russian Federation and the constitution of the national republics guarantee us, representatives of the titular peoples, equality with the Russians. In practice, “meeting the national and cultural needs” of non-Russian peoples is reduced to folk festivals at which we must dance and sing in national costumes. As soon as we claim about our problems, as soon as we create public associations to protect our legal rights, the Russian authorities declare us “extremists” or “foreign agents.” It is happening not only in the Republic of Mordovia, and not only with Vasilii Bokin, but in all the republics of Idel-Ural. Politicians, civic activists, writers and scholars have been prosecuted, including Fauziia Bayramova, Rafis Kashapov, Iliie Ivanov, Nail Nabiullin, Fail Alsinov, Batyrhan Agzamov, Laid Shemier and others.

Moscow is actively preparing us to “pass Erzya question to the museum.” In 10-15 years, the federal center will no longer need any excuses – they will be able to safely say that there will be no need for Erzyan schools, because there will be no one to learn and teach.

What is the way out in the current situation in my opinion?

First of all, we need to make every effort to postpone the day when the Erzya language will be spoken for the last time. Erzyas must hold out until the Russian Federation ceases to perceive indigenous peoples and national republics as an unfortunate inconvenience. As soon as we can act legally and openly, as in civilized democratic states, we will fill the phrase “human rights” with the real meaning.

For this purpose, any activities aimed at the development of the Erzya language are useful. What have you and the Erzya diaspora done in Ukraine in recent years?

  • A book by Erzya poet Dmitrii Taganov “Śed́ejse tarka” has been published. A collection of poems by 24 Erzya poets “Erźań Valske” has been published. 1,200 copies of each of these books have been printed. We distributed them free of charge in the places of residence of the Erzyas.
  • Due to the efforts of the Erźań val Society, which is headed by me, we have celebrated 7 times the Day of the Erzya language in Kyiv. These were literature readings with the participation of Erzyas from all over Ukraine. Guests from Russia also came. In total, 110 guests took part in our events.
  • I have recorded 40 Erzya songs and recitals. Some of them, such as the poem “Kalmaź ĺectńema”, were recorded in a professional recording studio. Many songs composed by non-professional authors have been written: “Timoń Versńeń. Tundo”, “Vergiz moro”, “Čiŕe jutkso”, “Pejďema nuŕkamorot”, etc.
  • A series of educational videos in Erzya with subtitles in different European languages has been recorded, such as a “Tjušt́ań pškad́ema” video. These videos talk about our Erzya culture and traditions.
  • We made a series of podcasts, in which I spoke in the Erzya language about significant events in international politics. For the first time, news of the world economic trends, the military conflict in Syria and Iraq, the crisis in Venezuela, global warming and scientific discoveries in the field of astronomy were told in the Erzya language.
  • I paid my own money in order to record the works of Alexander Tikshaykin from his collected edition “Urozket́” in a professional recording studio, with the participation of Erzyas from Russia.

Secondly, we must obtain the broad support of the international community. The world must require from the Russian Federation to fulfill its international obligations and to comply with its own constitutional provisions. The Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia oppose a purposeful policy of assimilation. We are struggling. We are not going to die quietly and unnoticed. We are ready to pay a high price for the salvation of our peoples, for the exercise of our right to be masters of our land. Albert Razin proved this to the whole world.

I appeal to the Estonian society – support us, at least morally! The fire does not kill, but the indifference of people does.

Syres’ Boliayen’

Inyazor of Erzyan people

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