Modernization Processes Increasingly Threaten Russia’s Smaller Nations

July 3, 2014

Staunton, July 3 – Russia’s smaller nationalities may “wither away” as a result of the revolution in information technology and of the threat that fast food poses to their national cuisines unless special measures are taken soon, according to speakers at a UNESCO-sponsored conference in Yakutsk and others at a forum on tourism in Khakassia.

At the Third International Conference on Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in Cyberspace in Sakha, speakers noted that only five percent of the world’s languages are represented on the Internet, a pattern that undermines efforts to keep the most threatened languages alive.

This is a particular problem in Sakha, that republic’s head Yegor Borisov told the group. In his republic, there are representatives of more than 120 different ethnic group, and many of them can go online only in a language other than their own. That can be changed only by the actions of the state because small groups do not have the economic clout to attract business support in this area.

According to UNESCO officials, 136 of the languages of peoples of the Russian Federation are in the group at risk. Twenty are considered to have disappeared already, 22 are in critical condition, 29 are under serious threat, and 49 other, including Kalmyk, Udmurt, and Yiddish are approaching that state.

Some Russian scholars dispute these findings and conclusions. Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, has argued that despite such alarmist predictions, “language diversity will be preserved among contemporary nations and the broadening of the language repertoire of individuals”.

But many others, both Russian and international scholars and also representatives of smaller nationalities, view Tishkov’s position as one that promotes first bilingualism and then accepts the gradual decay and ultimate disappearance of the smaller language groups and the nations they hold together.

Meanwhile, at the Fourth Cultural-Tourist Forum Siber Il in the Khakass Republic, Sergey Smolkin, a St. Petersburg expert from the National Institute of Health, warned that non-Russian groups face a threat from another direction: the rise of fast food and the decline of national cuisines.

Traditional national foods as in Khakassia, he continued, are well adapted to local conditions and help the population stay healthy. But many of the fast or convenience foods sold in new restaurants and stores are not, and the shift from traditional to fast food is undermining the health and well-being of the nation.

Pointing to the impact of a Finnish program to promote healthy eating which has cut mortality rates significantly, Smolkin called for the development of “a useful Khakass national fast food” that would combine the virtues of national cuisines with the convenience of fast foods and thus ensure better public health.

Other speakers said this problem is widespread and affects many of the non-Russian peoples in Siberia and the Russian Far East. One, biophysics specialist Igor Shein said that what will happen in the future depends on the current generation: If we make the right choice, he suggested, “Siberian cooking in all its variety will remain.”

If we fail to do so, the scholar said, “the only thing that will remain from it is pelmeni and vodka,” anything but a healthy diet.