Ruslan Isayev is the North Caucasus correspondent of Prague Watchdog. These are his thoughts on the situation of his native language, the Chechen language.
Chechnya, like many other Caucasian republics, finds itself in a state of profound colonization by Russia. As elsewhere in the region, there are very few people who know and speak the pure form of their native tongue. In their everyday lives Chechens speak Chechen to one another, but it is a Chechen that has undergone so many transformations and is mixed with Russian to such a degree that it is often hard to say whether a person is speaking Russian or Chechen.
Not all Chechens understand pure literary Chechen. Because the Chechen language has long been subject to an unwritten ban by the authorities, it has failed to develop in richness and colour. While the number of Chechens able to read their native language has shown a dramatic increase in recent years, until the appearance in 2005 of the dictionaries by Professor Aliroyev the most recent reference work they had to rely on was Karasayev and Matsiyev’s dictionary, which was published in 1978.
Even now the authorities are trying to push the Chechen language into the background, in order to make room for things that are materially more profitable, such as reconstruction, the budget, and so on. It is noteworthy that since Ramzan Kadyrov came to power in March, Chechen has been promoted to the level of state language – most probably because the President finds it much easier to express himself and understand others in his native tongue. However, this has not led to an increase in the number of Chechen-language store signs, a primary indicator of the status of a language.
A professor at one of Grozny’s universities tested it in practice, asking for a glass of fruit juice in a store, for example. The word for juice in Chechen is mutta. “Nine times out of ten they couldn’t understand me,” the elderly Chechen professor complained bitterly.
Cultural colonization via the Russian language began in the Soviet era. Children at the schools in the towns and cities of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic studied any language but their own. In the villages there was a class in Chechen language and literature, but it received such a meagre slot in the schedule that it was probably only taught by teachers who were language enthusiasts. It was impossible for two Chechens to converse in their own language on public transport in Grozny without attracting the attention of the Russian passengers. They were sometimes given a reprimand, as though the Chechen language were the bearer of something inherently hostile.
As a pupil at school in Grozny I can remember the schoolmistress smacking me with the pointer and shouting at me that I was “forbidden to talk in that dog’s language.” I can also vividly remember how I, as a fourth former, embarrassed my Communist uncle with the question: “If we’re Chechens, then why are forced to learn German, English and Russian, but not Chechen?”. It is only now that he has confessed to me his discomfiture at the time.
Yes, Grozny was once a beautiful, leafy and international city where the representatives of different nationalities lived together as a friendly family. That is more or less how the Chechen-Ingush ASSR is remembered. But at what cost was that internationalism maintained, and did it really exist? Most probably not, since internationalism by its very essence implies the presence of different linguistic groups. And in fact, there was only a single “friendly Russian-speaking nation”. How many Vainakh families became “Russified”, almost losing their national identity, and living in ignorance of their traditions, their laws, and above all their language? National identity was considered to be medievalism, obscurantism, and so on. Such was the stigma imposed on national traditions, for the authorities knew only too well that by cherishing them the Chechen people would be able to preserve itself in the multilingual Russian environment. It has now become fashionable to speak Chechen, but in the old days one could observe the absurd spectacle of two people talking to each other, one in semi-Chechen, and the other in standard Russian.
In spite of all the apparent Chechenization of the republic, only one daily Chechen-language newspaper is available in Grozny – and it is merely a vessel for official propaganda. Most of the four-pages of the publication are devoted to Chechen translations of the decrees of the President and the government and other official cant.
For two years now in the republic, April 23 has been declared the “Day of the Chechen Language”. It causes the authors of this venture no embarrassment that only one day in the year is set aside for the language that is the mother tongue of the vast majority of the population. On that day there are readings of Chechen literature, well-known writers appear on the media and prizes are given tto those who have made “the most outstanding contribution to the cause of the promotion of the Chechen language.” A day of the Mongolian language could be declared in Chechnya with just as much success. Why not?
In spite of its ancient history, the Chechen language is presently experiencing a period of stagnation. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that many Chechens know that success in today’s society depends not on knowledge of nenan mott (the mother tongue) and its spirituality, but on very tangible and material things.
By Ruslan Isayev
Translation by David McDuff.
August 20th 2007 · Prague Watchdog