My personal denazification: the life of “non-Russians” in Russia

June 29, 2022
  • Farida Kurbangaleeva 


The Russian government says that the goal of the current war is the “denazification” of Ukraine. Farida Kurbangaleeva believes that Moscow has carried out a “denazification” before – in relation to the "non-Russian" peoples living on its territory.
Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Scanpix
“Chukcha Tatar,” a stranger wrote me on Facebook. She, to put it mildly, didn’t like my post about the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to go for a knockout with an invincible argument. It was my nationality, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming nation” than to be a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Khokhol (a derogatory term for Ukrainian - Russia.Post). That is, a non-Russian.

This incident made me think about the “denazification” with which Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine. Contrary to his plan, since the beginning of the full-scale war many have pointed out that Russia itself needs to be “denazified” – and I completely agree. But it's not only that.

What Putin calls “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to make sure that Ukrainians don’t exist as a people. That is why in the occupied territories, according to the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian books are being confiscated from libraries and burned, while the study of the Ukrainian language in schools has been canceled. No language – no culture, no identity, no people. Other nations in Russia know denazification firsthand. Sometimes there was more blood, sometimes less – yet, in any case, the process was rather successful.

Losing my native language

My personal denazification began when I was a little over three – when I went to kindergarten. At that age I spoke my native Tatar perfectly. A relative likes to remember how fluently I explained the pictures from a book about nature: “Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте” (“This is an inedible mushroom, this is a good one”).

I admit that I could hardly repeat the feat now. Kindergarten teachers were severely punished: a Soviet child should have only one language – Russian. Everything else is of the devil, forget it.

Denazification did its job, and by the first grade I understood Tatar well but could speak it only with difficulty. This is how I communicate now: I understand everything, but when I respond I switch to Russian. Why waste time confusedly choosing words.

In school, Tatar was the opposite of a favorite subject for many. Plus, you knew that learning it was absolutely pointless. It’s rarely spoken at home and elsewhere it’s not spoken at all, and you’re unlikely to need it in the future. Some of my classmates who were Tatars didn’t go to Tatar class, instead attending local history classes together with Russian children: that is, by that time they practically didn’t know their native language.

It was the late Soviet Union, when the myth of the friendship and equality of the peoples was still actively promulgated.
"Look how well Farida studies', my teacher Anna Viktorovna turned to my classmate Roma. 'Even though she's a Tatar.'"
I suppose that my mother also heard the same approving maternal intonation. Immediately after graduating from school – before entering the physics department at Kazan University – she worked as a nanny in a kindergarten. Another nanny, a woman from a Russian village, affectionately called her “my little chaplashechka.” Around the same time you might hear in a Kazan tram: “Hey you! Stop that talking in your language!"

But let's not digress. This is about my memories, not my mother's.

A meaningless subject

I can say that almost all my Tatar peers from the city – those who were children in the 1980s – are a generation of language-disabled people. It was embarrassing and shameful to speak Tatar. Mostly, it was people from the village who spoke Tatar. Of course, there was also a stratum of urban intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that Tatar was almost unheard in the cities. Except in the national theater.
Therefore, when “sovereignty” was proclaimed by Tatarstan in the 1990s, and the Tatar language was made compulsory, it was mostly people from the village who began to teach the subject in schools and universities. Many of them spoke heavily accented Russian and didn’t carry themselves as confidently, besides dressing worse, than their colleagues teaching physics, algebra or English. They were seen as “bumpkins” (“kolkhozniki”).
"It's hard to imagine that a child was ever scolded for a bad mark in Tatar class. Moreover, some parents openly admitted that they encouraged their children not to learn it."
No one was worried about the report card – they’d still give you four or five at the end of the day, why ruin someone’s life over a meaningless subject. The situation was the exact same at technical schools and institutes.

The time came when we ourselves became parents. What could we say to our children in our mother’s native language? If we focused – a couple primitive phrases. Grandparents tried to make up for the lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.

I’ve seen the same scene several times: the mother of a “late-speaking” child is blamed at the playground by other mothers – it’s all because at home you speak to him in two languages. Is it really wrong, you must decide. Among these "mentors" were parents who sent their young ones to early development schools, where children learn English "as early as possible" – either from the moment when the child begins to roll over or hold his head up. After all, everyone knows the sooner you start learning a second language, the better.

That said, Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They have long been accustomed to Tatar names, national holidays and interethnic marriages. They know the words “исәнмесез” (“hello”) and “рәхмәт” (“thank you”) and even jokingly say “Алла бирсә” (“God willing”). When I went to Moscow, I realized that in other regions of the country the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of national minorities. Russia, though multinational, is still xenophobic.

Rather telling was my experience as a host on the Rossiya TV channel. The year was 2007. Non-Russians Alexandra Burataeva and Lilia Gildeeva had already managed to break through on federal TV, yet the feeling of being an unpleasant surprise was still there. We need to clarify here that Burataeva and Gildeeva and not ethnic Russians . Does “Non-Russians” serve this goal?
"From time to time, I would come across calls on the internet to 'remove that churka' or questions like 'what, they couldn’t find a Russian?' or 'just where are the Katyas, Mashas and Natashas?"
Colleagues generally treated me decently and welcomingly. That is if you don’t consider the amusing questions about whether I had made the Hajj pilgrimage and whether I had eaten horse. And the question that any national minority in Russia is used to:

“And how are you called in Russian?”

“I’m not, that’s my only name.”

Anger, bargaining, reluctant acceptance.
Tatar Latin Janalif and Tatar Arabic script, 1927. Source: Wiki Commons
Non-Russians’ in a Russian environment

I know a lot of cases when Fidail became Fedya, Gulnur Guley, Kamil Kolya. I don’t even have to go far for one: my grandmother Khadicha Fazleevna lived for 50 years in a communal apartment with the nickname “Aunt Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that while studying in Moscow at the Russian State University for the Humanities, she often introduced herself as Maryana. She felt that she would be treated better like that. One girl from her university acquaintances would periodically tell her: “Wow, you’re so normal – just like us.”

I remember how a Sberbank employee, while holding in his hands my Russian passport, asked, having seen my full name, of what country I was a citizen. The director of the school that my eldest daughter went to doubted that she possessed intellectual abilities on par with those of her Muscovite peers: “Southern children (!) mature faster physically, but sometimes lag behind mentally.” A midwife in a Moscow maternity hospital clarified whether it was customary in my country to vaccinate newborns.

One time my wallet was stolen from me at the mall. The first thing the policeman said when he arrived was: “Churbany?” (a derogatory term for non-Slavic people - Russia.Post) I fell into a stupor, as, in my mind, a law enforcement officer doesn’t have the right to utter such a word. I responded: “It was two Slavic-looking women” – which clearly threw the policeman into a stupor.

My second cousin Azamat couldn’t rent an apartment in Moscow. Hearing his name on the phone, Muscovites wanted to know: “What are you, an Uzbek?” – and hung up on him. He didn’t have a chance to tell them about his good position at Sberbank or stable salary. He managed to rent only through acquaintances.

So as not to limit ourselves by anecdotes from my life, I phoned my non-Russian friends and acquaintances. I didn't put in much effort, didn't seek anyone out, didn't beg for comments. This is all one-degree-of-separation stories.

Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny: “Once I submitted documents for a passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport official and said I wouldn’t leave until I received the document. The guy clearly didn’t expect such effrontery. He thought for a second, then took my passport out of his desk.”

Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War, I switched schools a lot. In the fifth grade I studied in Cherkessk. One day we were talking about Chechens during class and the teacher said, looking straight at me: ‘You’re all just terrorists, you need to be isolated.
"During university, I couldn’t get a job. Not as a waiter at a cafe, not as a salesperson at a store, not to hand out flyers."
A few years ago, I was refused entry to a Moscow nightclub on New Year's Eve. The guard looked at my passport and turned me away; when I asked for a reason, he answered ‘no comment.’”

Alexandra, a Buryat from St Petersburg: “I didn’t want to go down into the metro, where we were always looked at with hostility. Once we were going somewhere with the whole family and heard someone say: ‘They bred here.’ Another time I was walking to the escalator, and a stranger started to nudge me out of the line with his shoulder. I kept walking. Then he abruptly pushed me aside and said: ‘You must always let Russians go ahead, you understand?’”

Alexandra is a co-organizer of the Buryats Against War in Ukraine initiative. She asked the Russia-based subscribers to report incidents of xenophobia from their lives. The messages have been coming for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra has nearly stopped sleeping and wrote me one day at 3 AM that she, like many of her respondents, needed a psychotherapist.

“Speak it at home”

But I shall return to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar was again made an optional subject in Tatarstan. It wasn’t just Russians – who had lobbied for the new law – but also many Tatars who happily gave up learning Tatar. What do they need it for? Everyone understands that it’s absolutely pointless: Tatar is hardly spoken anywhere, and it probably won’t be needed in the future either. Fine – at least at this stage they haven’t banned speaking it at home. The message was: “Speak it at home.”

Thank you so much, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. This is also losing the language, just stretched out over time. I can prove this using the example of my Russian acquaintances who have been living in the Czech Republic for many years.

A mother rejoices for her 15-year-old daughter: “You have to [be happy], yesterday she wrote a postcard to her grandmother without a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks her native language perfectly (because she speaks it at home) but has big problems with grammar. The daughter’s children will speak a little worse and write really bad. Her grandchildren will speak broken language and tell their friends that their grandmother was Russian – cool, don’t you think?

Without systematic classes and academic programs, textbooks and teaching materials, courses and constant practice, the language can’t be preserved. Especially if its study is optional. Imagine if Russian would be studied in schools the same way – “if you want.” Or chemistry or algebra. How many students would want to go to these subjects? The language will be lost in a couple generations with this approach of “learn it if you want, if not – don’t.”

"None of my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan speak Tatar and aren’t going to learn it."
To illustrate this, I’ll give examples of conversations with my girlfriends. Both are intelligent, with higher education and a lot of empathy. They’ll never call me “Chukcha Tatar.”

Dialogue #1 (took place before the compulsory study of Tatar was abolished):

“Tatar on the schedule every day, how sick [we are] of it! Katya (her daughter – name changed) gets really tired because of it. They should get rid of it already!”

“What will you do if they do?”

“I want English to be there, and it would be nice to have Italian. I dream that she’ll go to Italy to study.”

“Still, not everyone gets to go there. Many will live their whole life in Tatarstan.”

“So what? And why do they need Tatar?”

“To talk with friends, for example. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar so you can speak it with me? After all, I speak to you in Russian.”

“Get out of here! Isn’t that too big of a sacrifice – learn Tatar just to talk to you?”

Dialogue #2, though I’ll quote it as a monologue (delivered after the compulsory study of Tatar was abolished):
“Thank God that they got rid of Tatar. I shudder every time I remember school (pronounces the phrase ‘my homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan’ in Tatar, deliberately distorting the words). It’d be better to have some local history instead. I have a bunch of Russian colleagues at work who came from Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here, they have to pass a Russian exam, can you imagine. But they’re oppressed there, forced to learn Kazakh. I’ve even thought: it's good my grandparents came to build the KAMAZ plant and not, hypothetically speaking, Baikonur. Or else I would’ve had to suffer like them – forced to learn Kazakh or figure out how to get Russian citizenship.”
Tatar sign on a madrasah in Nizhny Novgorod, 2007. Source: Wiki Commons
“Denazify the Tatars”

Hold on a second, please. My grandparents never came to build the KAMAZ plant. And other grandparents didn't either. They’ve lived their whole life on this land. Before that, their grandparents lived here for centuries. They spoke, read and wrote in Tatar. Until someone decided to manage and regulate this process. Denazify the Tatars, so to speak.

Sure, Putin introduced the term, but not the process itself, of course. The policy of unification of inorodtsy (non-Russians) was carried out back in the Russian Empire and reached its climax under the Soviet regime. Over the past 100 years, the Tatar alphabet was changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and for some time after it, the Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. The script wasn’t touched even back when the “No Musicians or Tatars” sign hung on the fence of the Lyadskoy Garden in the center of Kazan.

At the end of the 1920s, the Tatars were transferred onto Yanalif, an alphabet based on the Latin script, and then to Cyrillic in 1939 – even though Cyrillic is the most inappropriate option from the standpoint of Tatar phonetics. As a result, the Tatars were cut off from a huge chunk of literature, poetry and philosophical and religious works created using the Arabic alphabet. In effect, from their own history and culture.

My father, who was born in the 1940s, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar Sloboda, a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this area has been turned into a colorful, touristic lubok print with a pronounced national flair. But it must be understood that until 1917 the Tatars didn’t really have a choice: for the most part, they didn’t have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.

According to my dad, in his childhood there wasn’t a single Russian in the neighborhood who couldn’t speak Tatar. And by the middle of the 20th century, a lot of Russians lived there. His childhood friends, Polina and Katya, switched to Tatar whenever they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that where the process of denazification didn’t penetrate, remarkable results could be observed – genuine, and not ostentatious friendship of the peoples. With true equality, mutual respect and preservation of national identity.

Nowadays, such a story seems fantastic, and I can’t find an answer to the question: why wasn’t it shameful for those Russians to speak Tatar and where did these Russians go? I also feel guilty that I myself didn’t put enough effort into promoting and preserving the language in my family. I think we should’ve hired a tutor. I think we should’ve bought a self-study book. I think we should’ve spoken more with old relatives. Better late than never. Somehow. It might be messy, but we have to try to speak with the kids.

Original published in Holod. It has been shortened here with author's approval.

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