Udmurt is a Uralic language spoken in the Autonomous Republic of Udmurtia, Russia, where it is an official language just like the Russian language. Speakers of this language can be found throughout an extensive area located between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains, such as the Perm and Kirov regions and in the neighboring autonomous republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Mari-El. It is one of several related Uralic languages spoken in this diverse area of Russia, such as Mari, Erzya, Moksha, and Komi.
In Russia's 2010 census, 324,338 Udmurt speakers were recorded, a figure that almost certainly declined substantially over the course of the following decade. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, Udmurt is classified as an “endangered” language.
However, there are some young udmurtos who are struggling to gradually change that online. Artyom Malykh is one of these activists. He spoke to Global Voices about digital activism and language preservation, and his hopes for the future of the udmurto language.
Global Voices (GV): In 2019, the Russian government enacted a law that removed compulsory study of other languages in schools. In practice, this means that many under-resourced schools may simply stop offering courses in indigenous languages. How did udmurto speakers interpret this measure? What are language activists doing to promote udmurto use?
Artyom Malykh (AM): The new system has resulted in even more Russian language study. But it's important to remember that despite its official status, Udmurt has never been taught as an obligatory subject in every school across the region. In fact, it was only ever taught to ethnic Udmurt pupils in the rural areas of the republic where Udmurts are in the majority; meaning 30 percent of all the region's schools.
After the law was passed, the total number of Udmurt language lessons was cut back to one or two hours a week, and parents had to indicate Udmurt as their child's native language in order to ensure that they received an education in it. But in some places, parents chose Russian as Russian language proficiency is an obligatory part of the final school exam. Most people understood that the language's position would worsen as a result of the law. However, in comparison to nearby regions with indigenous languages such as Tatarstan and Mordovia, Udmurt already had a negligible place in state institutions so the loss was not felt as painfully as elsewhere. Likewise, Albert Razin and other Udmurt intellectuals urged local politicians to make a stand against the new amendments. Online petitions with the same demand also appeared. Unfortunately, the politicians didn't pay attention.
Artyom Malykh (AM): The new system prompted even more Russian learning. But it is important to remember that, despite its official status, the udmurto was never taught as a compulsory subject in schools throughout the region. What's more, they only taught it to udmurto students who lived in the rural areas of the republic where the udmurta ethnic group constitutes the majority of the population. That is, 30% of all schools in the region.
Following the enactment of the law, the total number of udmurto lessons was reduced to one or two hours per week, so parents had to indicate that udmurto was their children's native language in order to ensure that they received their education in that language. But in some places, parents opted for Russian since the linguistic competence of the Russian language is a compulsory part that they evaluate in the final school exam. Most understood that the condition of the language would worsen as a result of the law. However, by comparing it with neighboring regions where indigenous languages are spoken, such as in Tatarstan and Mordovia, the udmurto held an insignificant place in state institutions, therefore the loss was not as painful as that experienced elsewhere. Similarly, Albert Razin and other udmurto intellectuals exhorted local politicians to speak out against the new amendments. Online petitions also appeared with the same intention. Unfortunately, the politicians paid no attention to them.
GV: The suicide of the udmurto linguist Albert Razin in 2019 drew international attention to the difficult situation facing indigenous languages in Russia. How did the discussion change in the months following Razin's death?
A.M: There were different interpretations. Russian nationalists and some from the mainstream of society tried to portray his self-immolation as an act of madness. In general, people were shocked but also surprised that the fate of the Udmurt language was the reason for his suicide. The language issue never had a place in politics; most residents of Udmurtia are aware that the language is disappearing but don't acknowledge that its disappearance has any connection with institutions and the state. They believe that the only reasons for the vulnerable position of the language are the Udmurt people's failure and laziness in protecting it.
Nevertheless, many Udmurts are worried that due to Razin's act, the language issue has become newly politicized. They fear that there will be more scrutiny towards them, which will harm minority and linguistic institutions and projects. Researchers and intellectuals at state academic institutions generally weren't allowed to voice their positions in public or provide contextual information about the state of the Udmurt language. Nevertheless, some activists launched a petition demanding that the regional government support the Udmurt language. Their only response claimed that the Udmurt language faces no problems.
Activists from other indigenous peoples in Russia showed a lot of support and empathy for the Udmurt people, particularly since many of their languages face the same existential crisis. Their organizations sent official condolences to the Udmurt people, claiming that Razin's act was devoted to all Russia's indigenous languages and demanding that Russia's state policy towards its languages must be changed.
A.M: There were different interpretations. Russian nationalists and some mainstream members of society tried to describe their self-immolation as a fit of insanity. In general, people were horrified and surprised to learn that the fate of the udmurto was the reason for his suicide. The language problem never had a place in politics. Most of the inhabitants of Udmurtia are aware that their language is disappearing, but they do not recognize that their disappearance has any relation to the institutions and the State. They believe that the only reasons the language is in a vulnerable state are the udmurtos' own inability and apathy to protect it.
However, many udmurtos are concerned that due to Razin's action, the language issue was recently politicized. They fear that there will be increased scrutiny of them, which will harm the minority and linguistic institutions and projects. Researchers and intellectuals in state academic institutions were generally not authorized to express their positions in public or to provide contextual information about the state of the udmurto language. However, some activists made a request to ask the regional government to support the udmurto language. His only response was to state that he does not experience any problems.
Activists from other indigenous peoples in Russia showed quite a bit of support and empathy for the Udmurto people, especially since many of their languages experience the same existential crisis. His organizations sent official condolences to the Udmurto people, and declared that Razin's act was dedicated to all the indigenous languages of Russia, and demanded that there should be a change in the country's state policies directed at their languages.
GV: How would you describe the use of the udmurto language online and offline?
A.M: Udmurt is mostly used for personal communication in informal contexts. In formal contexts, people usually use Russian. The language is used in local media: in printed newspapers, radio, and television. Nevertheless, Udmurt-language media outlets are all state-funded and their readership and circulation is steadily falling. However, Udmurt is used online, particularly in social media. Udmurt-language bloggers are becoming more popular. There are a few websites in Udmurt, which are mostly the online versions of Udmurt-language newspapers (Udmurt Dunne, Udmurt.media, Oshmes) or websites about the language itself (Udmurt language corpus, regional encyclopedia or site of the Udmurt language day) . There's even an Udmurt version of Wikipedia, and VKontakte, Russia's largest social network, has offered an Udmurt-language interface since 2010. There are also a couple of mobile apps for Udmurt language learners.
A.M: The udmurto is used mostly in personal communication in informal contexts. In formal contexts, Russian is normally used. They also use it in the local media: print newspapers, radio and television. However, all udmurto-language media receive state funding, and readership and circulation is constantly decreasing. However, the use of udmurto online occurs particularly on social media. Bloggers writing on udmurto are gaining more popularity. There are some udmurto websites, which are mostly online versions of udmurto newspapers (Udmurt Dunne, Udmurt.media, Oshmes) or websites dealing with the language itself (compilations of udmurto language, regional encyclopedia or the site of the udmurto language day). There is even a udmurto version of Wikipedia, and VKontakte, Russia's largest social network, has offered a udmurto language interface since 2010. There are also some mobile apps for udmurto students.
GV: What is the main motivation of the activism that you carry out to promote the daily use of the udmurto language?
A.M: My primary motivation is to keep the language of my community alive. Udmurt must be used in as wide a variety of spaces as possible in order to ensure that it lives on. But alongside the internet, traditional media and an institutional presence are crucial for the language's vitality. Without a presence in school education or without a guaranteed place in day-to-day bureaucracy, language transmission cannot be sustained.
A.M: My main motivation is to keep the language of my community alive. It should be used in as many spaces as possible to guarantee its conservation. But alongside the internet, traditional media and an institutional presence are crucial to the vitality of the language. If it is not present in school education or if it does not obtain a guaranteed place in the daily bureaucracy, the transmission of the language cannot be sustained.
GV: What sparked your interest in using the internet to promote the use of the udmurto language?
A.M: I've used the internet for my language activism ever since I became digitally literate. In 2009, I founded the first social network for Uralic peoples, called Uralistica. For several years, it was a real competitor to Facebook and VKontakte among its target audience. In 2013, we launched a competition to create Udmurt-language terms for new concepts, such as those from IT and marketing. We crowdsourced new Udmurt words needed for modern life.
A.M: I have used the internet for my language activism since I acquired digital culture. In 2009, I founded the first social network for people of the Uralic race, called Uralistica. For several years, he was a true rival to Facebook and VKontakte among his target audience. In 2013, we organized a competition to create new terms of concepts in udmurto language, such as those that come from information technology and marketing. Thanks to the collaboration of the general public, we generate new words in you that are necessary for modern life.
GV: What are the main technical, linguistic or socio-cultural challenges of using the udmurto language online? And how are you and others working to overcome some of those challenges?
A.M: The main challenge for Udmurt speakers online is that the Udmurt alphabet is not present in Russia's digital ecosystem. The Udmurt-language keyboard is not a standard layout for Windows; Udmurt speakers have to install it themselves, despite the fact that there are already Udmurt language keyboards for PCs and mobile OS users. Most Udmurt speakers use the Russian alphabet online, leading to improper and inconsistent spelling. Furthermore, popular search engines such as Yandex or Google don't recognize Udmurt or other indigenous languages from Russia. They give poor search results in Udmurt, and often see an Udmurt word as a misspelled Russian word. We dream of having an Udmurt keyboard layout within the standard packages offered by Microsoft, Google, and Apple, and would like to localize some applications and programs (for example, including an Udmurt dictionary with text editing software). Nevertheless, there have been achievements, mostly thanks to enthusiasts with no state support. Just ten years ago, there were no online dictionaries. Now there are several.
Tolerance is another big issue. Many people prefer to use Russian in most situations because of the narrow audience of Udmurt speakers and sometimes because those who don't speak Udmurt bug them to use Russian, because they want to participate. So using Udmurt publicly is still an issue for most people because of the language's low prestige.
A.M: The main challenge for online udmurto speakers is that the udmurto alphabet is not present in Russia's digital ecosystem. The udmurto language keyboard is not available as a standard format in Windows; udmurto speakers have to install it themselves, although udmurto keyboards are already available to users of laptops and mobile operating systems. Most udmurto speakers use the Russian alphabet online, resulting in inappropriate and inconsistent spelling. Additionally, popular search engines, such as Yandex or Google, do not recognize udmurto or the other indigenous languages of Russia. They show poor search results in udmurto, and often consider a udmurto word as a misspelled Russian word. We dream of having a keyboard format in udmurto in the standard packages offered by Microsoft, Google and Apple, and we would love to adapt some applications and programs (for example, a udmurto dictionary with a program to edit texts). However, there have been some achievements, mostly thanks to fans of private initiative. 10 years ago, there was no online dictionary. There are now several available.
Tolerance is another considerable problem. Many prefer to use Russian in most situations due to the low audience of the udmurto, and sometimes, because those who do not speak udmurto harass them to use Russian, because they want to participate. Therefore, using udmurto in public is still a problem for most people because the language has low prestige.
GV: What are some of the other digital activism projects for you that you recommend?
A.M: IT Udmurtlyk is a group of passionate people who create keyboard layouts, Udmurt spellcheckers, e-textbooks, and apps. Other remarkable project is a special online Udmurt course launched during the COVID-19 quarantine provided by Udmurt teacher Olga Urasinova. Then there's my own educational program MAFUN Academy; we deliver free webinars on Uralic and other Indigenous languages and related topics like language revitalization and bilingualism. We've held two lectures where Udmurt was the medium of instruction. Another is the first Udmurt-language podcast called Olokin no Olomar no, run by Lukerya Shikhova and Maxim Agafonov. Another great project is the short video lectures about Udmurt language and culture made by Kuara with state support. Finally there's Daur TV, which broadcasts in Udmurt via VKontakte.
A.M: IT Udmurtlyk is a group of passionate people who create keyboard formats, spell checkers, electronic textbooks, and udmurto language applications. Another wonderful project is a special online udmurto course, created during COVID-19 quarantine, taught by udmurto teacher Olga Urasinova. Then there is my own educational program, Academia MAFUN. We offer free online seminars on the Uralic and other indigenous languages and related topics such as language revitalization and bilingualism. We organize two conferences in which we use the udmurto as the medium of instruction. There is also the first podcast in udmurto called Olokin no Olomar no, directed by Lukerya Shikhova and Maxim Agafonov. Another fascinating project is Kuara's short video lectures on udmurta language and culture, supported by the state. Finally, there is Daur TV, which broadcasts content to you via VKontakte.
GV: Where would you like the udmurto language to go in about 10 years?
A.M: I hope Udmurt will gain more institutional support from the state and that society will have a more positive attitude towards the Udmurt language and identity. I hope families keep passing the language from generation to generation.
A.M: I harbor the hope that the udmurto will obtain greater institutional support from the State and that society will have a more positive attitude towards the udmurtas language and identity. I hope that families continue to transmit the language from generation to generation.