Impact of war and emigration on minority language activism in Russia
North Caspian Report No. 3 (19 February 2024)
Vlada Baranova
This report is based on an interview with Vlada Baranova, PhD, conducted by Dor Shabashewitz in December 2023. The original version of the interview in Russian was published on RFE/RL.
Language activism has many definitions. One of them, used by the Russian NGO Strana Yazykov, implies that “any activities aimed at bringing minority languages to domains and spaces where they were not used before” constitute a form of language activism. However, motivations may vary. We have seen Russian soldiers of non-Slavic background decorate their tanks with inscriptions in minority languages while fighting in Ukraine. Is this what we want to call language activism?

For the purpose of this discussion, language activists are defined as those who care about endangered languages more than the state language policy prescribes and who view support for minority languages as an important part of their agenda. They are usually volunteers, although in Russia they often end up working for state institutions which deal with culture and education.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had many consequences for Russia’s ethnic minority communities. Activists working with the languages of Russia felt very confused in the beginning. They had to reorganize their activism in a way as it was clear that they could not proceed with everything they were doing before the full-scale war. Russia’s ethnic policy and language policy were changing rapidly, and the activist community had to adapt.

What we are seeing now is that the aims of language activism have changed for many people; they are not strictly linguistic anymore. Prior to the war, Russia’s language activists have largely avoided the topic of ethnic minority rights. They would mostly deal with strictly linguistic and cultural issues — in part because the fear of political repression was already there, in part because of their background.

Many language activists in Russia have a background in the arts — some, for example, were accomplished filmmakers by the time they decided to engage with a minority language. This means that their approaches and aims often came from cultural institutions and not from grassroots activism, and that is exactly what has been changing. Today, virtually everyone understands that language activism is inseparable from politics. To some, this means that they now need to stand up against the Russian state, fight for language rights, protest against the war and rethink their ethnic identity. Conversely, others think they have to adapt to the new reality and learn to make compromises with the state as it is today in order to further their goals.

Three strategies

Ultimately, this means that the language activist community is diverging into three groups: those who radicalize themselves into decolonial activism and direct action, those who increasingly cooperate with the state and those who choose neither option and try to keep a low profile.

Language activists who remain in Russia are more numerous than those who have left the country, and in Russia it is only safe to choose between the latter two strategies: you either work with the state or you lie low. Direct cooperation with regional or federal agencies often implies voicing one’s support for the war in exchange for personal safety and access to resources needed for promoting minority languages.

Being a language activist in today’s Russia has become complicated, which is why we are seeing fewer new projects in the field. They still do emerge but they are less open than they used to be. Activists do not want to talk about their work or look for new people to recruit. In the years prior to the full-scale invasion, we were seeing many Zoom conferences and workshops where activists from different communities would share their knowlege and experience. This form of cooperation is in decline, or at least it is not nearly as public anymore. Activists still talk to each other but they do it in small, private group chats. As a result, it has become harder for new people to enter the field.

Language activists who openly support the war are still relatively few; most of them work at state instutions. To sum up, the activists who have emigrated are getting more political, they talk about ethnic self-determination and engage in anti-war activities, whereas those who have stayed mostly try to keep a low profile.

This is explained in part by the fear that even strictly linguistic activism may be viewed as a threat by the authorities. However, it is not always about language-related activities per se. An activist who teaches a minority language or creates content in it can also be against the war on a personal level. They may not feel that these two sets of views are interconnected, but they still suppress their political opinions to not harm their language work because the state would likely view this differently.

To put it simply, people do not want attention because they think any kind of attention can be dangerous. It is clear that Russia’s policymakers want to reduce the role of ethnic minorities and their languages to mere symbols of a “multinational” state, preferrably in the form of ethnic batallions fighting in Ukraine and traditional dance collectives on TV. Genuine language activism intended to support the use of minority languages in daily life and introduce them to new domains is different and may be viewed as undesirable. This is not always true but no one knows when exactly it is, so activists choose to avoid the risk, especially when decision-makers in each region have a different idea of who can be an “enemy of the state”.

Politicization in exile

At the same time, a rapid politicization is noticeable in the activist circles in exile. Terms like colonization, empire, decolonial and indigenous used to be quite marginal in the field. Now, they are practically mainstream. New decolonial projects appear every now and then, such as the media outlet Beda and the online radio station OIRADio. Even more interestingly, political opposition figures who have not previously engaged in ethnic and linguistic activism are now using minority languages in their work or at least symbolically acknowledging their existence.

Many independent news websites and blogs which cover Russia-wide topics began publishing articles on minoritized cultures and languages and giving a platform to non-Slavic Russians willing to share their experience with xenophobia and inequality — these topics are getting significantly more traction these days. For instance, a group known as Feminist Anti-War Resistance has launched a multilingual newspaper using languages like Tuvan.

However, it would be wrong to say that all of these developments are related to the ongoing war. A base for them was laid during the COVID-19 pandemic when the topic of erased ancestral identities first began trending on Russian social media. It coincided with the period of time when people had to spend more time at home, which in turn has led to a rapid development of remote education infrastructure. This infrastructure has been increasingly used for teaching minority languages, among many other things.

The war and the mass emigration that followed only made it more popular. For many, the full-scale invasion was the last straw which made them feel detached from the Russian identity, causing an identity crisis and a search for a new community to feel at home in. For many others who had already had a minority identity for years, this desire to disassociate themselves from Russia was what made them switch from a cultural affiliation with their ethnicity to a more politicized approach where they now view themselves as members of a distinct nation.


The Russia–Ukraine war has sparked an unprecedented level of interest in minority identities and languages among the Russians who have emigrated. Besides gaining more attention from independent media outlets, anti-war movements and social media users, language activism in exile is getting more politicized. Markedly apolitical and focused on exclusively sociolinguistic goals prior to the war, today it is often associated with the concept of decolonization and routinely employed by emerging secessionist movements.

For those who remain in Russia, however, engaging in language activism is more dangerous than ever. Fearing political repression for not being the “right” kind of Russians, activists are forced to choose between keeping a low profile and cooperating with the authorities which is often the only way to fund their projects.

The evergrowing popularity of minority languages in the émigré community is inspiring, but we should not forget that a vast majority of their native speakers remain in Russia. There, the future of these languages does not look nearly as bright. As the Russian government is running out of the money needed to wage the war against Ukraine, it is only a matter of time that more cuts are made to the already low budgets of the state institutions tasked with teaching and supporting minority languages. We can only hope that the growing activist community in exile eventually finds ways to help the situation in real-life language communities in their respective native regions.
Vlada Baranova is a sociolinguist and migration researcher. She writes about the endangered languages of Russia with a special focus on Kalmyk. She is a member of the Exodus-22 Team, an independent group of social researchers studying the mass exodus of Russians from the country.
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