Sashura sent me a link to Dmitry Sukhodolsky’s piece in Russia Beyond the Headlines (an offshoot of Rossiyskaya Gazeta) about the many languages of Russia and the difficulty many are having in surviving. There’s an interesting discussion of Karelian (“Karelians living in the more distant areas of Tver Region and other spaces have kept their language alive until the present, even though they live closer to Moscow than Valdai”) and a sad reference to “the Kerek of Chukhotka, of whom there are just four people,” but what prompted me to post it was the last section, on Dagestan. Apparently “speakers of unwritten languages are treated with flagrant scorn” there:

Those who speak the non-written languages – who might amount to everyone in a village, or at least half a village – are traditionally calculated as being members of one of the more numerous linguistic groups (the Avars being the most numerous). Thus, they do not benefit from the slightest relief from taxes, cultural-fund or other social benefits. […]

One example is that of the Botlikhs. There have been countless meetings and endless petitions in the Botlikh village to recognize the cultural autonomy of Botlikhs and their language belonging to the Andi group of Avar-Andi-Tsez languages of the Nakh-Dagestanian family.

Yet they continue to be classified as Avar speakers, just as they were under Stalin, the Soviet Union’s Commissar for Nationality Issues, in the 1920s. The result is that only 200 Botlikhs, out of a population of 6,000, know their own language.

Yes, I realize there are more pressing issues in Russia in general and Dagestan in particular, but I wish the languages of small groups of powerless people wouldn’t get swept quite so brutally into the dustbin of history. (By the way, the comment thread on that article is amazingly civilized and full of useful information.)


  1. Turkic languages may be doing fine, but what about dialects? I’m afraid this one won’t last for much longer.

  2. Dagestan is such mix!
    I was really surprised to learn about Karelian in Tver/Kalinin.

  3. Sashura, most Russians are surprised to learn about Karelian (and also archaic Belorussian) in Tver because it is so quintessentially Russian region of some of the oldest Russian cities. I was certainly stunned to listen to the villagers there at the age of 16. Of course one has to realize that Karelians and Belorussians settled there is more recent historic times, after the Time of Troubles when Catholic Poland and Protestant Sweden (after advancing their troops all the way to Moscow) took over Orthodox lands, and XVIIth c. Russia offered refuge to their co-religionists from the West and North-West, settling them in Tver’, then depopulated by war, famine, and plague.
    Belorussians of Tver’ have lived “off the books” since the end of czarism. The Karelians at least experienced some autonomy through the 1930s.

  4. Juha, re: Bastan. Most of the Mishars of Oka River Basin (as well as Sura River and Nizhny Novgorod) have assimilated long ago, especially those who shared Orthodox faith with the Russians. Muslims fared somewhat better. They are very apprehensive about being lumped together with the “other” Tatars (from Crimea and from Kazan) whose languages differ quite substantially. The Mishars often insist that their isolated villages preserved the old language, while in Kazan, the language has been “corrupted with modern influences”. But at least one might still consider they parts of the same dialect continuum.
    Not so in Altay, where Altay-Kizhi and Teleut are lumped together as “Native Altaians” even though their Turkic languages are barely related.
    (WRT Mishars, I just recently mentioned in the Akunin thread on LH how the Russian population geneticists, looking for the origins of the Russian people, may be trying to exclude wide swaths of Russia from the studies, lest they admit a not-too-comfortable truth that many Russians descend from assimilated Turkic Mishars. The traditional Tatarophobia runs deep in Russian conscience…)

  5. David Marjanović says

    Wow. There’s Johanna Laakso in the comment thread.

  6. Trond Engen says

    The article says (or at least seems to imply) that the efforts for cultural and linguistic revival of Karelian and Vepsian are supported by Finland. Wouldn’t that be a problem for a nationalist Russia?

  7. Russia Beyond the Headlines (an offshoot of Rossiyskaya Gazeta)
    Actually, a Kremlin-funded project to improve Russia’s image in the world. That said, it’s not all bad.

  8. Trond Engen says

    Incidentally, Asya Pereltsvaig just posted on the Novgorod birch bark documents at GeoCurrents. She mentions, almost in passing, that one of the documents is in Karelian and by far the oldest known text in a Finnic language.

  9. Trond Engen says

    And what a comment thread!

  10. Amazing as it is, the Novgorod find has a curious side to it: it happened at the height of a ‘patriotic’ (and anti-Semitic) campaign against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ and ‘servility before the West.’ It may well have happened that birch bark notes did not get the recognition they deserved had some ideologue interpreted the find to be against the party doctrine that stated that Russians suffered in illiteracy under tsarism. Instead the scholars where successful in showing that the ‘gramotki’, as the birch bark notes are known, proved Russian superiority over the West in literacy, thus blending the significance of the discovery into the overall political trend.
    And the brilliant find was saved.

  11. Trond Engen says

    It’s striking that the distrubution is baded in a Novgorod hub, with only few finds elsewhere, and strictly in the south and southeast. That probably reflects either Russian speakers or the Novgorod sphere. If the latter, I wonder what may be hiding under the old towns further north and west. Let’s say in Viborg, or Tallinn, or maybe even Riga.

  12. May be it’s the result of a more determined search there, but Novgorod was also a thriving democracy, a trading capital and an area where the Mongol invasion didn’t reach.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Yes, of course. I have no problems seeing why Novgorod would be the center of this. What I meant to say is that in that case I’d expect there to be birchbark letters to be found, mostly in Russian but occassionally also in other languages, elsewhere in the Novgorod sphere.

  14. I see, I wonder if any attempts to find them in Finland or the Baltic republics where made.

  15. grr: were made

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    At least the Botlikhs are spared the sort of unedifying conflicts between rival orthographies we’ve been reading about in the other thread?

  17. Trond Engen says

    Now, the western extent of the Novgorod sphere can still be felt on the smell of incense from the churches, so we can deduce that the influence on Finland and the Baltic states was limited. Viborg was definitely in, at least early on. Tallinn may have been in. Riga was more of a longshot, imagining some spillover into the main alternative traderoute. But the eastern regions of Karelia, from the Onega to the White Sea (and beyond), were closely knit to Novgorod, and if written communication was as common as it seems, surely it must have been used also for the long distances up north.
    On another note, it strikes me as lucky that there are discarded sheets of bark to dig up at all, since birchbark is very useful for making fires.

  18. Trond, could there have been some tabuistic protection for stripping the bark of sacred birches in the Norse areas? AFAIK bast shoes (Russ. “lapti”, made of birch bark) weren’t used in Sweden. And the Finnish word, Virsut, is derived from dial. Russ. верзни (either lapti or any other stuff woven from birch bark strips), indicating that bast shoes weren’t traditionally used in old Finland either.
    Although I could find references to Swedish kont, a traditional backpack folded out of a large sheet of birchbark (björknäver).
    Still, Russian lapti were supposed to be ubiquitous, made new before Sunday service, worn through the week, and used for kindling after the week’s end. So bark strips were in wide use in Russia.
    Another peculiar thing about the geography of birch bark records is that none have been found North of Novgorod, even in extensively excavated towns such as Staraya Ladoga, the Aldeigjuborg of Norse rune-stones. There would have been no shortage of bark there, I suppose? Or was it too far North for the birch-trees to thrive? But lapti were common in Karelia and Arkhangelsk.

  19. David Marjanović says

    I thought the soil under Novgorod had some special condition (is it acidic?) that allowed the preservation of birch bark while it quickly rots elsewhere?

  20. Trond Engen says

    The birch is the most hardy tree we have in Scandinavia, forming a belt between the conifers and the naked mountains. Birchbark was used for many traditional products, but not for shoes. But now I wonder if the rugged Birkibeinar of the medieval civil wars may have worn lapti.
    Yes, that paucity north of Novgorod was what I meant to point out. If it’s not an artefact of preservation or something but really means that no birchbark writing took place there, it’s indication that it was perceived as almost inseparable from the Russian language, n’est-ce pas?

  21. David Marjanović says

    Ah, yeah: “heavy, waterlogged clay soil, which prevents the access of oxygen.”
    Also in the GeoCurrents post: “Birch bark document #403 (dating from 1350s-1380s) contains a little dictionary listing approximate Balto-Finnic translations of Russian words.”

  22. Birkibeinar
    wow, as the coincidence might have it, we’ve just talked about Birkie, a Birkibeinar-inspired 54 km U.S. ski race classic, yesterday on the way back from breaking trail for our homegrown 50-km’er traditional ski run, the Kings Peak Tour (still organized by two ex-Minnesotan brothers of Swedish extraction, now in their 70s, since 1971).
    In Russia, wearing lapti had the same social connotation; “lapotniki” was used perjoratively for the poorest villagers.

  23. Trond Engen says

    It may be worth mentioning that in the 11th and 12th centuries Scandinavia had close, but still somewhat underappreciated, cultural ties with Russia.
    The King’s Peak Tour sounds brilliant. I like that it seems to have stayed a local event to promote outdoors activity and community spirit rather than attracting the herd of semi-professional skiers and their entourage of bronzed corporate executive wannabes.

  24. John Emerson says

    Don’t have my reference here, but birchbark documents from ca. 700 AD were found in Dunhuang or one of the other sites in Xinjiang. Dryness preserved them.

  25. in the 11th and 12th centuries Scandinavia had close, but still somewhat underappreciated, cultural ties with Russia
    I don’t think it could be described as “underappreciated” in Russia, with its Chronicles insisting that the Russian Land has been started by the Varangians, and where most of the old rulers’ names were Norse (of those, Olga remains the 2nd most popular women’s name in Russia today). As I recall, the elem-school history textbooks asked the kinds to chart the river-path “from Varangians to Greeks” on the map blanks. OTOH maybe the kids don’t associate those Varangians with today’s Scandinavia?
    For me the connection always felt personal because as a kid, I imagined that the Garðaríki exile of Harald Hardrada took him to Yaroslavl, my mom’s and granny’s hometown. But of course Harald’s service with “Jarisleif Konung” (aka Yaroslav the Wise) must have been in the capital city of Kiev, not in the peripheral fort named after the Konung 🙂
    the herd of semi-professional skiers
    there is no dividing line 🙂 and quite a few Kings Peak skiers also compete in the Citizen Series circuit which are about as semi-pro as the community races may ever get. One simple reason why Kings Peak stays pretty local and small may be the fact it is located in Congressionally-designated Wilderness Area where large gatherings and commercial events are simply disallowed by law.
    birchbark documents from ca. 700 AD were found in Dunhuang or one of the other sites in Xinjiang
    and even older ones from Afghanistan, but those use ink rather than ink-less stylus like the Russian documents?

  26. Trond Engen says

    I meant cultural influence from Russia underappreciated in Scandinavia. The Viking Age exploitation is well covered, and the marriages of medieval kings too, but the cultural side of it, less so.

  27. Civilized medieval Russians taught barbaric Scandinavians how to trade.
    That’s why market square is called torget in Swedish ;-)))

  28. Trond Engen says

    SF: I used to think so too, but there’s a decent Germanic etymology for torg. There are a few other words, though. Lørje “shabby boat” comes to mind. But more importantly, our traditional housebuilding technique was probably imported about then.

  29. SFReader, there is a long thread on LH where we discussed torg, dragoman, and a few other old roots of controversial origins. Fun re-reading!
    traditional housebuilding technique was probably imported about then
    Oh, I didn’t even realize that they practiced loghouse-building from the horizontal logs, “the Russian way”. The first thing everyone notices about Norway wood architecture are stave churches, and those look nothing like Russia’s wooden churches … but not I realize that the two technologies must have coexisted!

  30. Trond Engen says

    DP: Fun re-reading!
    Yes, but frightening. That was only last year, and there are long things with my name under in that thread that I have only vague recollection of now.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Also: I was just about to send when I discovered that my iPad had changed your name to “Dirty Prussia”.
    The technique of joining horizontal logs is called laft, originally denoting a corner, apparently. Another word for the joined corner is nov, from the “navel” word.

  32. The technique of joining horizontal logs is called laft

    And borrowed / corrupted into modern Russian carpentry argot as lafet or Norwegian bowl, a fairly popular log-cabin building technique with a sharply angled seam, which, alas, replaces traditional rounded seams (“bowls”) of logs.

    Old Russia’s plotniki, a guild of carpenters specialized in log-building and traditionally dismissive of any tools other than ax, was decimated by the raskulachivanie of the late 1920s-1930s. The plotniki tended to live in woodland villages, farming in summer, building in winter; a successful plotnik would have been a very rich peasant indeed, and without exception, they were all uprooted during collectivization. In the villages of Russia’s North, it’s common knowledge that the last good log houses were built around 1931 (like my childhood summer break retreat in Kostroma region, built by famed Kus’ River plotniki who are no more). To make a “round bowl” seam between logs, a plotnik needed to select, and to dry, the logs very carefully, lest the logs shift and turn too much as they continue to dry. In contrast, Norwegian seam works even with logs which continue to dry after construction. But over the years, haphazardly selected logs get fungus damage (шушель as the Kostroma villagers called it, linked by Dahl with a more familiar шушера, meaning something flaky and unstable). Only the old houses are free of fungal infestation because their builders knew their craft (of course one simply can’t join logs in Norwegian-style laft if the only tool is an ax!)

    Yes, and the 2013 Kings Peak Tour is a success! 11 summiters yesterday afternoon, including my 16th year up there 🙂

  33. There Will Be Spring is a harrowing drama about forbidden love and people broken by war at the end of 40’s Finland.

    It is beginning of Continuation War and the battlefront near Russian border is getting closer. Young Anni and her family have to flee their home. They are forced to start building new life from nothing surrounded by hostile locality in a small village in intern Finland. From there on their daily life is hard work, prejudice and hate between Orthodox family and Lutheran locals.

    All the misery don’t stop Anni’s sensual awakening and desire for married local man, Tauno. She doesn’t understand though why he doesn’t give himself entirely to her. Anni is trying to keep her complex relationship to the whole family’s bully in secret but harmless hay robbery by her brothers leads to consequences that couldn’t be predicted. Fateful chain of events storms onward just when spring is bursting out and Anni’s believe in better future had awaken.

    (Extra information: There Will Be Spring is world’s first feature fiction where Karelian language is spoken as a main language of the film)

  34. Планета для всех: как в мире и России защищают права коренных народов

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