Central to Muhammad’s activism is the preservation and development of his own native language, Kaitag. Though Dagestan is unique in Russia for having 13 official languages (in addition to Russian), Kaitag is not one of these: since Soviet times, the language has officially been considered a dialect of Dargwa, and though they are from the same language family, they are not mutually intelligible. The situation is comparable to the differences between, say, Russian and Ukrainian, Muhammad tells me, where many Russians consider Ukrainians to be a subethnicity of a broader Russian ethnic group, and Ukrainian a dialect of Russian.
The Soviet Union’s nationalities policy was a double-edged sword. While groups that were officially recognized benefitted from extensive privileges in terms of language education, cultural institutions and local bureaucratic quotas, there also existed significant pressure on other groups to assimilate – filtered through the concepts of sblizhenie
, or the rapprochement of smaller groups with larger ones and their fusing together. Given that this policy was intended to accelerate historical development – and eventually do away with national identity altogether – such assimilation was vigorously pursued
as a way to demonstrate Soviet success. In Dagestan, Kaitag suffered from these policies.
“They clamped a number of ethnicities into one group,” Muhammad explained. “It caused us tremendous damage.”
This Soviet legacy remains powerful, Muhammad tells me, as many people today – including academics – continue to deny the existence of Kaitag as a separate language, pushing instead for ethnic Dargins to rally around the Dargwa language.
There’s also a powerful pre-Soviet legacy in Dagestan
that further complicates language development. In some ways like the Greek poleis,
Dagestani villages would often form self-governing units known as djamaats
. “I was with my grandfather, and I told him that I’m working on an app to develop the Kaitag language,” Muhammad says, “but he said that there’s no such thing as the Kaitag language, that each village has its own language.” “This is the traditional Dagestani view,” he adds.Developing a language ecosystem in the North Caucasus
Muhammad’s experience in Dagestan helped inform his cross-regional vision, for which the notion of a language ecosystem plays a pivotal role. “The death of one language will hurt the others too,” he explained
, and while many communities in Russia’s regions are often isolated from one another, there are those who embrace this understanding.
“The most resourceful people embrace it,” he said, adding: “I don’t know whether it is correlation or causation.”
Muhammad has built a community with other like-minded activists, particularly Circassians and Ossetians. “We face similar problems and are geographically very close to each other,” he explained.