How to live together: the Russian model

Ruslan is a 32 year old academician. He was born in a mountain village in the Caucasus but was educated in the West. He interned at the most famous Western research centres and he is fluent in Russian, Arabic and English in addition to his native language. His essays in Russian are exemplary, not only for the academic content, but also for their literary style.
The mountain dwellers in the Caucasus, like other ethnic minorities, know at least two languages from birth, but more often they know more, because different ethnic groups live in the neighbouring villages. Ruslan’s mother is a Russian school teacher. She came to the Caucasian mountain village after University, married a local man and has educated several generations of mountain dwellers.

There were many school teachers like Ruslan’s mother. Thanks to them, mountain dwellers had the opportunity to learn about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and were acquainted with Russian faith and Russian culture at a young age.

Recently, a monument to a Russian teacher was raised in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, in remembrance and gratitude of the hundreds of Russian women who courageously came to the Caucasus to work in the schools.

Asya was Russian, and she died a few years ago at the age of 80 in one of Tatarstan’s famous villages of the Nijegorodskaya region, where she had moved many years earlier. She got married, mastered the Tatar language – and not just everyday conversational Tatar, but also the literary language. She learnt Arabic from the village elders and converted to Islam. She learnt the Koran and started to teach children religion.

This is only a part of a wider phenomenon. For half a century, doctors and teachers acted as the guardians of culture in remote parts of Russia.

Russian school teachers no longer go to mountain villages, the Volga or to the Far North. Village schools are closing down; they are being relocated or amalgamated. In Russia’s remote regions, there are no specialists, academics, doctors or engineers and there is a deficit of people to man local-history museums – a network of local-history museums has existed for more than 200 years - but now only the bare bones of this remain. Little is left of the diverse joint cultural projects that Russia once boasted.

For example, the young Dagestanis and other Caucasian people who are recruited into the army do not form garrisons in the Caucasus, but all over Russia. Far-sighted politicians of the mountain regions understand this is one of the strongest means of maintaining the unity of the country.

In the 80s, the beginnings of a national movement stirred in many of Russia’s backwaters – it was even thought that these movements would be realised on a massive scale. Nowadays, in whichever former Soviet Republic of the Caucasus or Central Asia you look, people are lamenting their lost links, the mutual cultural enrichment and the education system that is no longer in place.

Twenty years have passed. The deficit of national cultural identity is over. For the vast majority of the 250 mn former citizens of the Soviet Union, life has got worse, according to the most elementary measures. The destruction of a communal civilisation has also brought about a decline in national culture. Many have understood that national slogans masked political motives.

Intercultural links proved stronger than nationalistic ideas of isolation. In a country with more than 160 ethnic groups, there is no national policy. But the tradition of cultural exchange and mutual support comes from ordinary people and not from the government. This becomes all the more important when people face frightening challenges.

People have not changed their attitude towards Georgians after the events in Georgia in 2008. Georgian actors, singers and surgeons did not leave Russia, even Georgian burglars have stayed put. People love Georgian wine, film and jokes as much as ever.

There aren’t many Russian restaurants in Russia, but then there are a huge number of Ukrainian and Georgian ones.

Throughout Ingushetia, a few years ago, there was a spate of murders of Russian school teachers. This did not force the Russian population to flee, neither did it lead to a war, as happened 20 years ago in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. In fact, Ingush neighbours defended the Russians and Russians stood up for the Ingushes when they were challenged by the army.

We do have difficulties. There are problems from the past, emotional wounds which haven’t quite healed. But the past twenty years have shown us one thing; no one can solve our problems better than us ourselves.

We are united by another thing. In our language there are two different words: ‘rossiyane’, encompassing all the ethnic groups of Russia, and ‘russkye’ – ‘Russian’, from the main part of Russia. When we, Caucasians, Tatars, Yakuts, Buryats or Novgorodians, go abroad, there we are all simply known as ‘Russian’.

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