The police investigators were insistent and very pointed in their questions, according to Yulia Razina: Why did her husband douse himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in this central Russian city’s main square?
How did he get along with relatives? With his friends? Had he lost his job?
“‘This was a political protest,’ I told them,” Razina said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “Ancient people have a custom that when a person is oppressed, offended, that he goes to the gates of the offender to prove his case.”
Albert Razin’s death on September 10 in a hospital, hours after he set himself alight, stunned residents of this city 1,100 kilometers east of Moscow, in Russia’s Volga-Ural region.
It drew attention to a city better known as the home of the legendary weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov. More importantly, it drew attention to the issue that Razin, 79, was so passionate about that he was willing to kill himself – the fate of his native language, Udmurt.
With linguistic ties to Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, and even Hungarian, Udmurt is spoken as a native language by just 324,000 people, according to 2010 census figures. About 560,000 people claim ethnic Udmurt heritage, living primarily in Russia’s Udmurt Republic, as well as in Kazakhstan and Estonia.
The language is one of dozens spoken throughout Russia, primarily by ethnic groups other than Russian Slavs. And it’s one of many that is in danger of dying out.
This is what Razin, a scholar of philosophy and longtime advocate of the language, felt so strongly about.
For hours before he lit himself on fire, he had stood on the main square in Izhevsk holding two signs that read: “If my language dies tomorrow, then I’m ready to die today” and “Do I have a Fatherland?”
Razina said her husband had never discussed the possibility of killing himself.
“Never,” she told RFE/RL. “He always talked about the value of life. He spoke of patience. And the Udmurt have this saying: ‘If patience is not broken, the soul cannot be broken.’ People would come to [him] saying that life had lost all meaning. And he could find the right words for everyone, and people would come back to life.”
Nonetheless, she said she understood why he killed himself. “He was desperate,” she said. “He just threw up his hands. When you understand that this world is no longer for you….”
Russia For Russian
Razin had sought to raise awareness about the fate of Udmurt and other languages for years. The issue gained new urgency for him in 2017, when President Vladimir Putin said that children should not be compelled to study languages that are not their mother tongues and that are not considered official, “state languages.”
The comment came after mounting complaints from ethnic Russians in some regions with large non-Slavic populations.
Activists and advocates for Russia’s ethnic minorities have also complained that Putin’s rhetoric increasingly echoes Slavic nationalist themes that have then been widely embraced. They say that has led to further discrimination against non-Slavic ethnic groups and their cultures.
In 2018, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed legislation that canceled the mandatory teaching of indigenous languages.
In Udmurtia, the Udmurt language was never a mandatory subject in schools, so the legislation had no direct effect on its instruction.
In other regions, for example, Tatarstan, which has a much larger and politically powerful ethnic constituency, the law created problems since both Tatar and Russian are considered state languages, and both were mandatory in schools.
Shortly after the legislation was adopted, Tatar was removed as a mandatory subject in Tatarstan, and it is now taught only as an elective after a written request by a student’s parents.
‘It Can’t Get Any Worse’
Razina said that during the 2018 presidential election campaign, her husband wrote to Putin and told him that if he wanted to continue leading the country, he would need to take into account the needs, or demands, of Russia’s smaller ethnic groups.
She said that she and her husband, who married in 1996, had sold, and bought, and sold again, three country homes over the years as a way to raise money for his studies and advocacy. He never wanted to seek out sponsors, she said.
“It was a lot of money for us,” she said. “Because when you live on just one pension and bring literature to the world, it’s not small change. But he liked to publish illustrated books. And our friends helped us.”
“He always said, ‘it can’t get any worse’ during the Soviet era, when children were forbidden from speaking their native language among their own families. Teachers would come to homes and request that families only speak in Russian,” Razina said.
Razin always insisted that Udmurt children should learn Russian and Udmurt, she said. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to liberalize the country in the late 1980s, Razin welcomed it, because he thought it would be beneficial for small ethnic groups.
“He was glad that there were changes in this national question. Before that, the Udmurt were not allowed to raise their heads at all,” Razina said.
The evening before her husband killed himself, Razina said, she returned home to their modest apartment late. He was sitting on the sofa watching television with the sound on, rather than wearing headphones as usual.
“He didn’t speak to me,” she recalled. “He just smiled at me.”
Razin left a farewell note that his stepdaughter Sofia – Razina’s daughter from her first marriage – later discovered. In it, he apologized for not being able to do more to support his family financially.
He “believed that if a person follows the path of financial values, then he says goodbye to human ones,” Razina said. “He was very depressed because he was suspected of being some kind of pro-American or having pro-Western ties, although he was a genuine patriot.”
A funeral ceremony for Razin, held on September 12 at Izhevsk’s main theater, drew hundreds of well-wishers and mourners. It also prompted a new call from a group that promotes Udmurt culture and language to address the plight of disappearing languages.
“With his sacrificial death, Albert Razin has called on Russia and the whole world to pay attention to the catastrophic situation of the Udmurt language and to implement measures to save it, to create all conditions to protect and preserve it.,” the activists wrote in a post on the social-media site VKontakte. “Now, we cannot continue to ignore the Udmurt language’s problems or remain indifferent to its death.”
Razina said she hoped her husband’s death would produce some change from the authorities, a recognition of the peril facing the dying languages of Russia’s ethnic minorities. But she said she was not optimistic.
“Gradually, everything goes away – not only the language, not only the Udmurt,” she said.
Daria Komarova for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service