Skip to main content

Why people are annoyed when I write in my native tongue

The Tatar language is unintentionally left in the childhood kitchen for many years. We get to follow the language from childhood with əbika, to school and university where it’s ignored, and to Berlin today where the loss of the language suddenly becomes clear. The language comes back, slow and steady, through poetry. But why did it disappear in the first place? In this text by the Tatar poet Dinara Rasuleva the politics of the Russian Federation is interwoven with the personal experience of losing one’s native tongue and finding a way back to it.

Credits Dinara Rasuleva Translation: Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya Photo: Georgy Krivosheev April 10 2024

Yulia, my friend from school, and I used to write fantasy novels about our cats and their adventures in space, filling with them our thick school exercise books, then we shared them with each other or read out loud. In the evenings Yulia often came to me and we could just sit next to each other and write. Sometimes my əbika came in and asked something, and I answered her in Russian. I didn’t want to show Yulia my other, non-Russian, rustic side, and I hid it very well: I spoke Russian without accent, I wrote without mistakes, and my novels were just as fascinating as hers, whereas by my appearance no one could tell – blonde hair and light eyes – and I liked it very much as it gave me the sense of belonging. Sometimes, when we met someone outside, people thought that I was Yulia and dark haired dark eyed Yulia was Dinara, because there are Tatar women of Asian type with dark hair, and many people think those are the only ones. One day I realized that the only thing betraying me was my name and I dreamed of changing it to Adelaida or Aida. These plans failed, but I continued to write in Russian, first young adult stories, then adult short stories and poems, and corrected anyone who would, God forbid, put a wrong emphasis or make a mistake, becoming a Grammar Nazi of the Russian language.

For me, the Russian language was the default one and the norm, until I emigrated to Berlin and – as if I emerged out of murky water – understood that all my life I had written in a language other than my native.

Until I was six years old, I spoke fluent Tatar, my native language. I didn’t go to childcare and so I spent all my time with my əbika. She moved from her native village Өçile to Qazan, when she was 18 years old. She had to study Russian because it was the language spoken in the factory where she got a job, as well as in all other enterprises. But outside her workplace, with me, she spoke Tatar only.

My mother was born in Qazan and she studied in a Russian school, then in a Russian university, because the majority of schools and universities, unless narrow focused, were and are Russian. My mother spoke two languages fluently, but with me she spoke Russian. I think she wanted to assimilate me to my environment, and because of the large rustic part of the family, Tatar language was all around and did not seem important. It was important to read and speak clearly in Russian to get enrolled into a good English school.

My father was born in a city, so for him Tatar was something valuable and disappearing. He only spoke Tatar with me trying to make me feel the value of the native language. At that time, he failed. Even if I answered him in Tatar, and after I started school I left the language at the threshold like slippers.

To each other, my parents spoke like this: mom in Russian, dad in Tatar. Mom swore in Russian only, while dad didn’t swear at all, following his way to Islam.

When I turned six years old, I was enrolled in a good English school. I was learning English quickly, just as I was forgetting Tatar.

I understood immediately that during classes we spoke Russian only, even Tatar girls to each other, and the cleaner and more without accent your Russian was, the better. (Tatar language is from a different language family than Russian, it is a Turk one, and the mouth, tongue and brain get used to a completely different sound and intonation). Children with a strong Tatar accent were considered ”country people”, and I was happy that I had no accent and was “urban”.

Soon enough I felt embarrassed to speak Tatar in the presence of my school mates and friends.

I can’t explain where these stereotypes came from, but it seemed as if they were everywhere, even in the air. I don’t remember if children exactly bullied anyone for speaking Tatar or speaking with an accent, but I do remember my embarrassment in front of my friends when əbika spoke Tatar to me and I answered her in Russian. It felt as if my mouth refused to pronounce Tatar sounds in the presence of Russians.

I was annoyed by my too Tatar name. Often it was shortened to Dina, or confused with Diana, Dilyara, Dilshoda. Many friends just called me Dee.

Much later I found out that Russian colleagues gave Russian names to many of my relatives, because it was hard for them to remember and pronounce Tatar ones.

This way Gulşajan became Galina, Mirsalim became Misha, Ramsiya became Raya, and some of them even used these Russian nicknames in everyday life, just for simplicity.

My school physics teacher used a shortened patronymic name: Gareevich instead of Abdulgareevich, so that the students could pronounce it. Another teacher just changed his patronymic name to a Russian one. During the latter years, I met many people with Russian names, and later discovered that they had been ashamed of their real names all their lives, as they sounded too difficult or funny for Russians and became reasons for ridicule and mockery, so these people took Russian pseudonyms. Now some of them have returned their real names.

Much to my shame, in school I felt cooler than other Tatar girls because I didn’t have an accent and could pass for a Russian. Now I understand that my Slavic-like appearance saved me from a large share of xenophobic aggression. At the same time, accepting those rules, I myself became a part of this discourse of violence.

Before I didn’t understand that I felt shame for my native culture and pride for assimilation to a different one.

I just wanted to be cool.

When I began to write poems, still in primary school, it was as if I didn’t have the choice of the language in front of me, as Russian had already become the default one.

Tatar seemed like it was sealed in a three litre jar together with cabbage and cumin – it became a language spoken in the kitchen only. At a conscious level, I was not ashamed of my native language, but I limited it within the volume of this jar and didn’t take it anywhere else in my life. Wherever I went, to school, to university, to my friends, to my work place, to write poems, my Tatar was kept in a jar under the kitchen table, whereas Russian and later English were the basic language of all other parts of my life.

After the death of my dad and əbika my Tatar began to dry out, becoming forgotten, as it was kept not even in the kitchen, but somewhere in a closet of my brain. The size of this jar was already a half litre.

Why did it happen to me, despite the larger part of my family teaching me to love my native language?

I think there are several reasons.

In large cities such as Qazan, where people are mixed and half of the population is Russian, Tatar language was presented as the second-class language, a rural and simple one, whereas Russian was the language of the cities and progress, the language of the great Russian culture, the language of intelligent people, writers and poets. It all came from Russian as default language in the majority of public offices, in most of media and literature, and had an impact on everyday level through jokes and parodying of Tatar accent, mocking difficult Tatar names and through changing to Russian nicknames and overall dichotomy of the city and the village, where the word “village” was used as a pejorative, meaning ignorance and condemnable simplicity.

Later, when I met people from different cultures in Berlin, I learned that many had a similar experience of the loss of their native language. The Belarusian poet Yulia Tsimafeeva wrote an essay “Калі язык развязаўся” (When the tongue got loose) where she described her shame and the division of languages into “rustic” Belarusian and “intelligent” Russian.

Only many years later, when I moved to Berlin and a great distance appeared and grew every day between me and Qazan, only when I heard other people’s stories, I understood that this partly intentional, partly unintentional practice was a result of the state imperial discourse and influenced a hundred of ethnicities and cultures of people living in the vast territories of the ex Soviet Union.

Historically, Tatar language was inscribed with the Arabic alphabet (starting from Islamic introduction to the Turk world and change from the ancient Turk alphabet). In 1923 began the campaign to Romanize most of the languages in Soviet Union, and from 1927 to 1938 the Tatar language was transcribed to Latin alphabet (jaalif). In the 1930s, Turkey became a potential enemy for the Soviet Union. For Soviet officials, the Latin alphabet was a symbol of the Western world, which became a motivation to transcribe the majority of Soviet Union languages to Cyrillic, including Tatar in 1939.

The Cyrillic alphabet doesn’t correspond to the phonetic system of Tatar language, and despite some new letters being added, it still doesn’t correlate with some sounds.

In 1999, Tatarstan passed the law about returning to the Latin alphabet, but it was suspended by the Decree of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, when Russia adopted the law of the Unified Graphic Foundation, establishing the Cyrillic alphabet as the only allowed alphabet for all the peoples of the Russian Federation.

In early 2016, the Department of Tatar and Turk Philology of the Qazan Federal University which, among other subjects, taught Tatar language teachers, was closed “due to uselessness.”

In 2017, the Russian Federation passed a law abolishing the compulsory study of the Tatar language in schools.

On June 19, 2018, the State Duma of the Russian Federation passed a bill according to which education in all languages except Russian became optional. This bill repealed previously adopted laws of the national autonomies and reduced education in national indigenous languages to two hours per week.

On September 10, 2019, Udmurt activist Albert Razin performed an act of self-immolation in front of the regional government building in Izhevsk city, where a law was being discussed on reducing the status of the Udmurt language. From 2002 to 2010, the number of Udmurt language speakers decreased from 463,000 to 324,000. Other indigenous languages have also demonstrated similar declines in the number of speakers. The number of Tatars speaking Tatar language has decreased from 4.9 million (88% of the total population) in 2002 to 3.6 million (68% of the total population) in 2010 and to 2.76 million (59% of the total population) in 2021, that is almost halved in 20 years.

In 2020, the State Duma and later the Federal Council of the Russian Federation adopted a set of amendments to the Russian Constitution. One of the amendments stated the status of the Russian language as “the language forming the statehood” and the Russian people as the ethnic group that defines the nation. According to the 2010 Russian census, only 77.7% of the Russian Federation population identified themselves as Russians; in 2021, this number increased to 81%. Still 19% of the total population identifies themselves as non-Russian – this is more than 27 million people.

In 2022, after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, I suffered poetic muteness and didn't write poetry for many months. Then the first poem in Tatar came to me. It sang about the loss of the tongue, in simple childish words. Then I started the lostlingual project, a poetic experiment where I used my native tongue limited to what I could remember of it, a study of its loss and replacement by other languages, and its return through experimental trans-lingual poetry.

When I started sharing these texts in my social networks, my Tatar friends fluent in the language, commented that I used non-existent words (though in my head these words had some meanings), and pointed out my grammar faults. All my life I thought I was innately literate because I wrote correctly in English and Russian, even though I didn’t know the grammatic rules. Seeing my mistakes in Tatar, I understood it was not innate literacy but reading experience, as I read a lot in Russian and English and almost nothing in Tatar. Because of this, the words only exist in my head in oral format, and my head invented how they were written.

I don’t correct these mistakes and non-existing words, as evidence of how the language not just becomes forgotten, but mutates and transforms into something new.

What started as a very personal and, in some sense, an anthropological study, became a poetic experiment.

The limited language capacity made my poetry completely different from what I wrote in Russian – the language I am most familiar with.

For a long time, I was afraid to write in Tatar, as it seemed impossible, knowing the language on my childish level. Gradually I understood that poetry is a flexible tool allowing one to write on any language level (even without any language at all), and I learned to use what I had.

The letters and words create ornaments on the pages, in reading they become music and in this way create images and meanings. Auto-commentaries explain puns and jokes that the readers illiterate in Tatar would not have understood otherwise. Besides, writing in the language of my childhood pulls out forgotten and deep buried memories and the topics of the texts go deep in places they would never go in Russian.

Some years ago I tried to translate something to Tatar, but it turned out to be so difficult, I had to use a dictionary, and didn’t fully understand the resulting text. For lostlingual I don’t use a dictionary and if there’s something I don’t know I just write in another language, one out of three I use everyday, or new words come themselves during memory deployment.

During the project I understood myself better and changed my approach to literature and literacy. I knew that poetry can take different forms, multilinguistic, occasionalisms, one-word poems, poems without words at all. Now I see that words themselves also can be in any form: existing and non-existing, dictionary and written with “mistakes”, and languages can mix together in one word. Moreover, poetry doesn’t need to be in written form: many indigenous languages exist only in oral form, and their poems, songs and tales are passed down orally and are preserved this way.

My lostlingual texts have changed during this last year and a half: they’ve become prolonged and more complex, Tatar spreads wider. During this time I haven’t studied Tatar intentionally, but subscribed to a couple of Tatar meme-accounts on Instagram and Telegram, and found a society of Tatar women and female activists of Tatar language, and we communicate in Tatar, though not as frequently as I would like to. The language returns to me gradually.

I remember when my friend and activist Marcel Ganiev invited me to his Tatar Identity podcast. It is in Tatar, but Marcel said we could change to Russian or English if necessary. I was sure that would be the case as my Tatar would not be sufficient. But it so happened that we spoke in Tatar for an hour and a half without stopping. I used simpler words instead of some forgotten ones or words in another language, and later these words came to my mind, appearing for several days.

We said goodbye to each other, and I noticed that my thoughts switched to Tatar, possibly for the first time since my childhood. I got a feeling I was in some parallel world, in some other reality, to such an extent I was afraid of an accident (I was riding a bike) and rode with special carefulness. Later, when I began talking to my friends and colleagues in English and Russian, my thoughts switched back.

Writing poetry in Tatar means losing most of the readers that have been reading me in Russian for many years. When I began publishing poems in Tatar I got responses: “What does this mean”, “I do not understand this”, “you got yourself an agenda”. The last comment is a sentiment on the topic of cancelling Russian language and culture, which is unfortunately characteristic not only for Russian propaganda. It is hard for me to write and share my poems if no one reads and responds to them, but multilinguality, auto-commentaries and a few Tatar female readers saved the situation. Nevertheless, it was a huge step out of the comfort zone, and in time I found myself in a publishing limbo: Russian literary journals no longer invited me to be published as I was no longer a Russian female poet, while there are no Tatar literary journals publishing what I write, and other Tatar journals are not very interested.

People still ask me, when can we see your new poems in Russian, are you going to write anything in Russian again?

But there are people who want to read in Tatar even though they don’t understand, they ask me to record audio, and because of them I started to make reels, and this created a new dimension of audial perception, through rhythms and melodics, rather than meanings. Sometimes translations suddenly appear simultaneously with the poems (multilingual as the originals, or indirect as I translate what is hidden between the lines of the original). Multilingual texts assembled themselves from familiar sentences and words like a puzzle.

Even though my audience decreased in numbers, I feel that what I do now is much more important and valuable. Writing through experimentation and widening the boundaries of the possible leads to discoveries and surprises, and this is a whole new dimension of my relationship with poetry. I am inspired by the feeling of mutual travel with those who follow my experience, also trying to return what was lost and find themselves and their languages.

During the first months of the lostlingual project I was in Sweden at the “Room to Bloom” feminist art conference, and decided to speak about my project instead of the usual reading of Russian poems in translation. When I shared my story about the loss of the language, I asked the audience to come to the stage if they shared my experience. Ten female artists came out of the audience and appeared on the stage next to me.

I proposed that each of us should write down a sentence in our native language expressing the pain or anger over losing it. I suggested if they could not write in their native language, they should instead write in a language that suppressed and replaced it.

In this way we created a collective poem in nine different languages and read each one their line in turn, repeating it and weaving our voices into a collective spell. The feeling of overall loss transformed into a feeling of belonging and acceptance.

This inspired me to organize TEL:L a creative lab of writing in forgotten native languages. “TEL” means “language” and “speech” in Tatar whereas the second L is for the English word “tell”.

Some intensive courses last three to four hours, the main courses are ten weeks. We immerse ourselves into memories of childhood, family stories, lullabies and mythology, games and fairy tales, culture and literature.

Participants are at very different language levels, for the poetry we don’t need many words, but a desire and curiosity. Once during a short workshop, a participant created a poem knowing only one word in her native Buryat language: she wrote it in all alphabets the language used to be written, demonstrating the history of the nation and its colonization. Djɵgɵür, a constant participant of the lab, speaks fluently in his own native Sakha language, but had never written in it, so he discovered a new dimension of the language when he started writing in it. Malika was inspired by the lab meetings and called her grandma in Kharkiv and tried to speak Tatar with her, and found out that her grandma was not a Tatar but Bashkir. From their dialogue, she created a poem in three languages in which they were speaking.

At TEL:L graduation we performed in Berlin, the participants shared their stories and texts. Many people in Europe and other parts of the world don’t know about our cultures and languages, considering us Russian if we have a Russian passport, but in many ethnic republics activists tried to revive the languages and popularize them by contemporary theatre and music. Since I left Tatarstan nine years ago, many Tatar culture initiatives have appeared there, created by people who care about the national culture, such as bilingual Mon theatre, in Russian and Tatar, so that people not knowing Tatar would also become interested and see performances.

The situation is more complicated for literature which is hard to fit into pop-culture, because one needs time and language for its making and comprehension.

There is a Tatar language publisher in Tatarstan, though still no room for growth and development of contemporary literature in languages different from Russian, as well as no support for queer, feminist, neuro-divergent or psycho-divergent writers and poets and those who don’t want to reproduce patriarchal and propaganda patterns. There are no festivals, book fairs, publishers for any type of literature except for the one reproducing continuously the Soviet narrative in the “Writers’ union” style.

Contemporary Tatar poetry almost doesn’t exist. When speaking of contemporary literature, I mean the freedom of writing, not year of publication, as now I am reading Tatar poet Ğabdulla Tuqay’s 1909 diaries, and they are quite contemporary, there is freedom of form and thought there (though while in school, we read his completely different texts that pushed me away from him for a long time).

The same thing is going on with many other languages, some of them are already threatened with extinction.

Last year I got a link to an open-call, it was something like “Resurrection of the Tatar culture!”.

It sounded wonderful! I opened the link and found out, the texts were supposed to be in Russian only, and that half of the jury was Russian speaking people. This is the contemporary situation.

For me this tragedy is related to xenophobia and nationalism, to the hierarchies and structures of power, that I considered normal when I was younger. More accurately, I just didn’t notice it – this was the order of the world outside.

It is often said that the family is to blame for the children not knowing the language and that it is not a responsibility of the state or society to teach them. My personal experience states otherwise. In our family philosophy, Tatar people stood higher than Russian ones, we said “marça”, a derogatory word in Tatar, meaning “Russian person” (at that time I didn’t notice it, and later learned that it was a common pattern of oppressed people in relation to oppressors). To many of my relatives I spoke Tatar only. My dad emphasized the importance of knowing our native language. Despite this, outside my family circle, I always turned to Russian even with my Tatar friends, as if I existed in two different worlds, as if there were two different “me”, and now I am trying to sew myself together.

I remember when I read a line in my native language for the first time from a stage, it emerged suddenly from the text, and I understood I didn’t have this shame of speaking Tatar outside the family any longer. This way, Tatar came out of the confines of my parents’ kitchen. Though I was almost thirty then, and there was neither that kitchen, nor that family anymore: everything happened inside myself.

Another five years went by until I recognized that I could write in Tatar (and it was necessary to know the language fluently) and allowed myself to do so.

It was an important process for me, albeit a tiny one, but a contribution to conservation and revitalization of my native culture from non-Russian points of view, which have been imposed on us for way too long. It was interesting for me to discover these new (though in fact ancient ones, post-colonial and de-colonial) models and perspectives, while analyzing and learning the history of my family, delving into memories, rediscovering traditions and studying the experiences of other cultures with the similar Russification history.

During my lab time, I observe as the exchange of these stories awakens empathy, curiosity and respect for other cultures, it provides us with a better understanding of our own culture, and the beauty of the diversity of the world becomes more visible from different points of view, not just an European one, and as my own biases, limits and internal xenophobia become clearer, and therefore easier to respond to.

We have a proverb: “başlagan eş – betkən eş” (a job started is a job finished). Now I am in the process of rediscovering my identity and my perception of literature, and I want to share and exchange and write and explore this together. Maybe, our mutual rediscovering and (re)finding / re-appropriating our native language will lead someday to the situation where cultures and languages of the repressed ingenious people will rise to the level of the colonizers’ cultures and languages, and will become free of repressions and hierarchies. Maybe, one day I will open a feminist novel in Tatar and read it fluently, maybe I will even write such a novel myself.

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved