How? It was very simple. I photographed every single written word hanging on the walls and doors of the humanities institute, including every plaque on every picture, every name under every statue, every “WC”, the emergency evacuation maps, the notices about summer vacation study trips to China and France.

Why was I doing this? Don’t I want to have friends? Of course I do. But they’ll have to deal with the fact that sometimes I do strange things like climb 3 flights of stairs just to photograph the bathroom door.

You see, I just got finished reading the “Law on the Languages of the Nations of the Russian Federation” and “Law on Language in the Republic of Tatarstan,” which is not an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat. And throughout the former, there was a phrase that repeatedly caught my attention: “create conditions for.” The federal government will “create conditions for the preservation and equal and coexisting development of the languages of the nations of Russia” (the meaning of the word “nation” in Russian/Soviet history is in itself a fascinating and surprisingly complex story, to which I can’t do justice now. If you want to know more, start by looking up nation-building under Stalin). It will “create conditions for the publication of literature in the languages of the nations of the Russian Federation, financing of scientific studies in the field of preservation, study, and development of the languages of the nations of the Russian Federation, for the distribution of mass media, training of specialists in the aforementioned areas, and creation of systems of education with the goal of developing the languages of the nations of the Russian Federation, among other measures.” The thing is, “creating conditions” doesn’t actually mean anything. OK, so the government won’t obviously interfere.  But it also doesn’t promise that it will actually help in any way. That’s like your spouse asking you to help clean the house, and you decide to do your part by … leaving. That’s unlikely to go well for you.

Finnicky questions of diction aside, what is the actual situation in this actual officially bilingual republic, and why did I spend an hour and a half making the world’s most boring photo album? Well, first, here are the domains in which Tatar is the/a language of communication (based on my observations and those of Helen Faller, who has done a lot of work on Tatarstan since the late 90s):

  • private conversation in which all participants are Tatar
  • comment from one Tatar to another that is not intended to be overheard by the non-Tatars present
  • Classes and conversations among the students majoring in Tatar literature or Tatar language pedagogy
  • conversations among old people who work at the bazaar
  • officially-printed, permanent signage affiliated with the government
  • at the Tatar-language theater, which shows exclusively musicals and plays originally written in Tatar and mostly about Tatar traditional life (note: all productions at the Tatar theater are available with Russian translations by headphone)
  • A small but significant proportion (I haven’t counted yet and don’t want to lie) of the publications of the various institutes of humanities, languages, and pegagogy
  • mosques (particularly inconvenient for the non-Tatar Muslims of the republic)

Here are the domains in which Russian is the language of communication:

  • literally everything else

So what does it mean when the “Law on the official languages and other languages in the Republic of Tatarstan” says that “The state languages in the Republic of Tatarstan are equally Tatar and Russian”? Turns out, not a whole lot. You have the right to speak Tatar everywhere, but your sphere of communication will be limited to the iconically Tatar. You cannot get a job in Tatar (although you may be required to speak Tatar in order to have the job). You cannot evacuate a building in Tatar. You cannot order your lunch in Tatar. You cannot see an internationally-renowned play translated into Tatar. You cannot become an engineer or a train conductor or a classical musician in Tatar. You cannot study a foreign language in Tatar. In fact, until about 10 years ago, not one Tatar-foreign language dictionary existed. It was literally not possible to look up a word in, say, English or French and get the translation without going through Russian. Fortunately, and largely thanks to my university here, that is slowly changing.

A stable diglossic society would see both languages used in all domains of use, albeit not necessarily by the same people. But outside of the school system, Tatar is only useful in those domains where Russian has never belonged, because they are specific to Tatar culture. And in 25 years of Tatarstan language policy, Russian has ceded precious little to allow for the expansion in use that is, in fact, the condition “for the preservation and equal and coexisting development of the languages” (§1,  “Law on the Languages of the Nations of the Russian Federation”).

So why the photos? Mostly I wanted to see if my suspicion was true, namely that only (1) signage directly related to the study of Tatar language pedagogy and (2) official, permanent signage of a governmental nature would be printed in Tatar or in both official languages, whereas most everything else would be printed in Russian only. This turned out to be true. This implies a couple of underlying assumptions by the groups who make those signs:

(a) there is no need to enable Tatar speakers to conduct their daily affairs without Russian

(b) spaces shared by both groups do not need to be cluttered by bilingual signage (except so far as the law explicitly dictates- governmental organs, etc.)

In other words, Tatars should use Tatar or Russian, non-Tatars should use Russian, and mixed groups should use Russian.

If that sounds like equal status to you, maybe it’s time you caught up with your old friend Webster (or, if you’re Russian, Ozhegov. If you’re Tatar, sorry, I can’t help you. Can’t seem to find a monolingual Tatar dictionary–they’re all Tatar-Russian. Fancy that).

I was pleased to notice as I made my pictures that Tatar has the most prominent place on the official office/department signs, and even more pleased to see that every professor’s name was rendered in the original spelling (you can tell because Tatar contains a number of characters not found in Russian (ә, җ, ң, ө, ү, һ)) — Tatars according to Tatar convention, Russians according to Russian.

One thing surprised me, though: across all departments and types of signage, bilingual signage was actually very rare. Other than the plaques at the main entrance to the building, the vast majority of signs that contained both official languages also had English. That goes not only for the signs that identified each office and classroom, but even for a large poster, presumably some class’s final project, on pedagogical methods for teaching Tatar. The implied underpinning of this practice is this: Russian is “our” language, and if we use anything else, we are communicating internationally, and we have to use the whole international package.

At this point we’re getting into some pretty impressive doublethink: Russian and Tatar are both widely acknowledged to be part of Tatarstan’s heritage and essential to its current culture. Both enjoy officially equal status. And yet in actual practice, Tatar is often put on the same level not as Russian, not even as other national languages of the republic, but on the same level as foreign languages. It’s about as disowned as a language can get. And I’m not just reading that out of the trilingual vs. Russian-only signage; here’s the President of Tatarstan, Röstäm Mingnekhanov (in Russian, Rustam Minnikhanov), speaking about the constant debate regarding whether Tatar should continue to be taught to non-Tatar children:

“Language is necessary! Any language! If everyone knew 2-3 languages, could that possibly be bad? Is Tatar necessary, unnecessary…what nonsense! Of course it’s necessary! Of course while a child is in daycare, he should learn all the languages…including Russian, and Tatar, and English, and, if possible, Chinese. And Spanish. And French….It will pay off. [Let’s say the child] moves abroad. His ability to learn, to study…Tatar language could be his basis…”

Fascinating, right? Learn Tatar so that you can develop the skills to leave Tatarstan and learn another language? The importance of one of your official languages in a Russian republic is comparable to that of Spanish? Might want to get on that.

I don’t bring this up to suggest that Minnikhanov is a bad leader or that he doesn’t understand or respect Tatar. He’s in a tough position. On the one hand, there’s been this big push toward revitalizing Tatar, and he’s got to at the very least not undo the progress that his predecessor made in that respect. On the other hand, Russian parents in general are none too thrilled about the time that their precious baby bumpkins spends learning such a needless language (in their eyes–and who can blame them, given the restrictions on Tatar’s use mentioned above?). So advocating Tatar teaching not for its own sake, but in the context of global mobility and marketability may be the strategy that can worm its way into Russian-speaking parents’ hearts. That being said, his comments are indicative of how deeply ingrained the belief is that Tatar is subordinate to Russian. Even by its own native speakers.

What all of this demonstrates to me is that language equality needs to be promoted in Tatarstan not through education. Largely thanks to work of scholars at KFU and other Tatarstan universities in the last 10-15 years, the availability and quality of educational resources for Tatar language have improved dramatically, yet education (in sociolinguistics called acquisition planning. What is lacking is new space in which Tatar can actually be spoken (status planning). Yes, you can go to school in Tatar, and you can sit your college entrance exams in Tatar. But unless you want to be an agricultural scientist or a Tatar language teacher, your course of study will take place in Russian. Tatar speakers need to have the option of other subjects–or perhaps other subjects need to have the option of Tatar.

Tatar is a small language relative to Russian, yes. But even speakers of small languages can interact directly with the outside world. They can translate and be translated. They can be taught and be used as the medium for learning other languages and skills. Music can be written in them and played on the radio or performed for mixed audiences. There is no need for Russian to serve as the mediator between Tatarness and everything else, and there is no reason that Tatar should be merely a symbol of Tatarness, like a garment that you wear so that other people know whether they should treat you as an Insider or an Outsider. Tatar, like every language, needs room to breathe, room to get mixed up with other languages around the edges, room to live and let its speakers live in it, and, for God’s sake, get at least a handful of non-native speakers to actually use it.

So while my fellow philology students may have been perplexed by my sudden enthrallment with the showcase of gifts sent from partner institutions abroad (all signage in Russian and the language of the sending institution), my little experiment turned out to have a lot to say about what’s been accomplished–and what hasn’t yet been seriously attempted–in realizing the promise of equality for Tatarstan’s two official languages.

(Endnote: If you’re curious about the sign-based approach to language dynamics, you’ll be interested to know that it’s a recently-developed approach to sociolinguistics called “linguistic landscape.” It has to do with which languages are used when, why, and who they are intended for. For me, it’s a particularly valuable approach when dealing with questions of language-as-communication vs. language-as-symbol, but there are lots of other ways to play within this framework. One guy, whose name escapes me, took the subway to every single stop in New York City, popped his head above ground prairiedog-style, took a 360° photo of the immediate surroundings, and then presumably made really cool maps of language distribution in New York–or at least, that’s what I would have done. I don’t know what he did. Anyway, if you want to know more about linguistic landscapes, here’s a good starting point.)