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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 18:24 GMT
Russia's disappearing languages
By Chloe Arnold
BBC News, Russia

Northern Russia is home to more than 40 indigenous peoples, all of whom have their own language. But many of them are on the brink of extinction.

Nenet people with reindeer
Many of Russia's indigenous people have given up traditional lifestyles and moved to towns
Fayina Lekhanova has a broad face with a flat nose and dark, deep-set eyes. She looks exactly like the Eskimos I remember from the books I read as a child but, as she explains, the Eskimos are just one of dozens of tribes indigenous to Russia's far north.

The vast expanse of the Russian Federation, from the Kola Peninsula in the north west to the Sea of Chukotka in the north east, is home to 41 indigenous peoples.

They have evocative names like the Saami, the Nganasan, the Itelmen, the Ulchi and the Tuvinian Todzhins. The area they have traditionally inhabited makes up more than half of the entire territory of Russia.

But today their numbers are dwindling, and their languages are dying out. Some have never even been written down.

Nomadic tradition

Fayina is an Evenk, from Russia's Far East.

Map of Russia

Like many of the country's indigenous people, the Evenks were traditionally migrant groups, travelling across huge areas as they hunted and fished.

In summer and winter alike, they lived in yurts, or tents made of thick felt, and they wore reindeer skins to stave off the extreme cold.

Fayina is also a volunteer at a group that supports Russia's 200,000 ethnic groups. As an Evenk, she says, she is one of the luckier ones.

There are more than 30,000 Evenks living across Siberia and, although only about a fifth of them speak their native language, it is taught in schools. "My language is probably safe for the moment," she says, "but the Kereks, for example, aren't so fortunate. There are fewer than 30 of them left.

We try to keep our culture alive with concerts and festivals but with every passing year more of our roots fade away
Vera Tuzakova

"We thought there were just eight, but some scientists recently found a group of about 20 travelling across the tundra and the taiga. They all spoke Kerek but, once they have gone, there will be no one left speaking the language."

In most of the tribes, she says, it is now only the older generation that still speaks the language. Over the last few decades, many of Russia's indigenous people have given up their traditional lifestyles and moved to towns and cities instead.

Soviet education programme

But Rodion Sulyandzige, the director of the support group, says that the rigorous education programme of the Soviet period is also to blame for the demise of so many languages.

Roman Abramovich in the Chukotka region of Russia
The governor of the remote Chukotka region is Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich

"At the beginning of the school year, the authorities would round up all the children of the native tribes and pack them off to boarding schools," he told me.

"They had no contact with their parents or their families, and so they quickly lost their mother tongues and picked up Russian instead."

He says, sadly, that he himself was a victim of the scheme. Although he is an Udege from Primorye, near the Sea of Japan, he knows just a few words of his native language.

"Imagine what it was like for these children to come home at the end of the school year and not be able to speak to their parents," he says.

"Of course, I agree that the children needed to be given an education, but I think we're only now beginning to realise what a terrible mistake it was to have done it like that."

'Hope rests with teachers'

And then I speak to Vera Tuzakova, a Selkup, from the Tomsk region in Siberia.

She sings me a moving song in Selkup about the native villages that have disappeared - Laskina and Mumusheva and others - leaving behind just the birds' nests in the trees.

"We try to keep our culture alive with concerts and festivals," she tells me. "But with every passing year, more of our roots fade away."

Fayina says her greatest hope for saving the dozens of languages on the verge of disappearing rests with the teachers.

"It's hard because there are very few books for them to teach from, so they have to be creative," she says.

"And their wages are appalling - they earn just 1,300 roubles ($50) a month. But if we can teach the children, they can teach their parents, and in that way we might preserve some of our mother tongues for a little longer."

Otherwise, she says, in just a few years many of the world's oldest languages could be lost forever.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 February, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Russia
03 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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