The site Minority languages of Russia on the Net is a treasure trove of information if you read Russian, and even if you don’t there are some useful links, like articles from The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire (e.g., The Nivkhs). Via Christopher Culver’s site Безѹмниѥ.

Update (Sept. 2019). First link replaced with archived version.


  1. While the Russians are certainly one of the largest and most important ethnic groups in the world, they made up only about 52% of the total population of their former empire, until recently, called the Soviet Union. The rest of their domain was composed of minority languages belonging to many different families, many of them non-Indo-European.

    Almost every language group conceivable was represented in the Soviet Union. There were still some Swedish speakers in Estonia and German settlers near the Urals invited in by Catherine the Great; there were even Greek and Albanian speaking minorities in the southern Ukraine and Aramaic and Arabic speaking minorities in Armenia and Uzbekistan respectively. There were Eskimo speakers in the Far East. Bernard Comrie in his book on languages of the Soviet Union said that these Eskimos were actually Alaskan (Yupik)Eskimos who had back tracked into Siberia. Not a smart thing to do!

    It was originally thought that the Paleo-Siberian languages (Koryak, Yukaghir and Chukchi) might be closely related to many of the American Indian languages. Modern genetic and linguistic research has cast doubt upon that however. For example, Chukchi is an early cousin of Eskimo and Aleut (which appear to have links to both Ural-Altaic and Indo-European) while Yukaghir turns out to be a distant relative of Hungarian and Finnish (Uralic), ditto Koryak.

    One of the few good things that the Soviet regime in Russia (1917-1991) did was to record all of the minority languages of the Soviet Union and compile dictionaries on them too. Cyrillic based alphabets were created for languages that had been unwritten or were maybe poorly written in Arabic like Abkhazian, Chechen, Tate, Yakut, Yukaghir and Chukchi.

    As Mario Pei points out in his “Story of Language” book, Leibniz had recommended three centuries earlier that Peter the Great undertake a study of all the languages of the Russian Empire and record them; The Soviets were simply doing, on their own volition, something that the brilliant Leibnitz had once suggested to a czar.

    It was great that the Soviets did this because all of these languages will probably be extinct in about another 200 years.

  2. I’m afraid “200 years” is probably optimistic for most of them.

Speak Your Mind