Regions

How grassroots activism in the North Caucasus is using technology to develop regional languages

May 12, 2022
Adam Lenton
Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University
Adam Lenton on how Russification continues to erode the rich linguistic landscape of the North Caucasus, while private citizens are stepping in with innovative solutions such as Avzag, a multi-language dictionary of Caucasian languages.
Though the Russian Constitution guarantees citizens the right to express themselves and be educated in their native language, in practice most of the approximately 170 other languages spoken in Russia today are at risk of decline and even extinction. New technologies, however, are empowering grassroots activists to coordinate and develop solutions to this problem. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the North Caucasus. I spoke with Muhammad (Alkaitagi) Magomedov, a software engineer and activist at the forefront of this movement, find out more.

New technology and cross-region collaboration

Muhammad began his activism just under three years ago as a student at Innopolis University in Tatarstan, when he began thinking about questions of identity and about the specificities of the Caucasus. “Like most software engineering students, I was looking for some pet project,” he tells me. “For developers we do programming at our job, but our hobby is also programming,” he added, “so it occurred to me that I could use my skills to do something with language.”

After almost two years of development, Muhammad launched Avzag in December 2021, a multi-language dictionary of Caucasian languages. As of May 2022, it has grown to 17 languages across the North Caucasus, totaling over 11,000 words – the majority of which have been crowdsourced by enthusiasts collaborating across the region.

Unlike many existing initiatives that focus on a single language or require constant input from software engineers, Avzag can grow organically from community input. “I put in some serious effort designing it in a way that would allow me to step away,” and Muhammad says he hasn’t worked on Avzag since December. “While the data set is not so big for now,” he added, “it’s growing,”
Another unique feature of the app is how it facilitates interaction between languages. Since all entries have an English translation, it is possible to search for a word and receive translations in multiple languages at the same time. 

This has already led to new discoveries.

“I saw in one linguist group in Telegram that somebody posted a screenshot from the app, noticing that we have a common word across several languages,” he noted. 

Basing the interface in English, rather than Russian, was a dilemma for Muhammad. “Duplicating all the words into a second language would be practically difficult, and so I had to make this choice,” he explains. 

In the end, he opted for English: “one of the reasons to build these dictionaries with an English interface was to detach our languages from Russian.” “It’s not a question of liking or disliking Russian,” he added, “it’s just a question of balance.”

Demonstrating the agency of Caucasians is a priority for Muhammad: “Caucasians must be building their presence and their world community on their own, not through a Russian mediator.”

He cited the example of UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, also from Dagestan, as instrumental to this. “He’s always presented himself as Dagestani, and one day it clicked in my mind when I saw “USA versus Dagestan” in the announcement for one of Khabib’s fights,” he said. “So, you see, at least within the sphere of martial arts and UFC, Dagestan is viewed as a subject, as an independent entity that acts on its own and produces some great result, not merely as a province of Russia,” he added.

“I think it’s a path we should lean toward in areas besides just martial arts, and that’s my goal with these language apps.”
“It’s hard for me to even imagine Dagestan without such a multiplicity of languages."
I asked Muhammad whether there was something unique to Dagestan that influenced his journey. He agreed, pointing to the region’s rich linguistic diversity. “When I think of Dagestan it is very much for me a world like Elder Scrolls or Lord of the Rings,” where “you have a lot of states, languages, nations – it really is a fantasy world, except that it’s real.”

He recalls his school years, when he studied in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital – a melting pot of different ethnicities and languages – with a mixture of fondness and wistfulness. “I don’t remember a single time that my peers ever asked about my ethnicity,” he explains. “I have this memory that we are many people with our many languages and it’s beautiful.” “It’s something worthy of preservation,” he added.

For activists like Muhammad, the reality is that this Dagestan is rapidly disappearing. Languages die out for a variety of reasons, with urbanization, globalization and political change each contributing to broader language shifts across generations whereby one language increasingly dominates both public and private spheres to the exclusion of others.

“In 30 to 40 years in Dagestan there will only be Avar [the largest language in Dagestan, spoken by around 30% of the population],” he lamented, adding that even this was the best-case scenario, and one that was looking increasingly less likely than a scenario in which there would only be Russian.
"Had I been a speaker of Avar, Chechen, Circassian or Ossetian, I don’t think I would have gone down this road because those languages have institutions, support and recognition to begin with.”
Map of Dargin languages in Dagestan (Kaitag marked in yellow). From Koryakov, YU. B. “Lexical-statistical classification of the Dargin languages” (2012), available at: http://www.lingvarium.org/koryakov/works/Korjakov-2012-Dargwa_Doklad2.pdf.
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 and slianie, 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.
One example of this collaboration is the launch of Avdan, an app which is designed for children to learn their native languages through memorizing vocabulary, thematically organized and accompanied by audio pronunciation and images. It involved collaboration between Muhammad and Ossetian businessman Alikhan Khoranov, and was initially released in Ossetian (Iron and Digor dialects). In an interview with Ossetian blogger Alik Puhati, they describe the key role new technologies play in enabling such collaboration. Just a few weeks after its December release, it already had around 4,000 downloads across Android and iOS, and in the coming months releases are planned in three Dagestani languages, Circassian and Abkhaz.
“I ask Muhammad why we’re seeing such grassroots activism at this moment. He identifies three main factors: technology, Russification and a discourse of decolonization."
Innopolis University, Tatarstan, 2016. Photo: Lesya Polyakova
“Of course, for me as a software engineer, I see technology playing a huge role,” he tells me. “If it wasn’t for technology, we wouldn’t be able to have these Telegram chats in which I, a Dagestani, and Ossetians and Circassians can talk and discuss various initiatives.” “It provides opportunities and equalizes people,” he adds.

Assimilationist policies have also driven activism. The recent abolishment of compulsory language teaching in Russia’s ethnic republics, initiated by Putin in statements from July 2017 – when he argued that it was incorrect to mandate the study of non-native languages in Russia’s republics – was both symbolically and substantively powerful for many individuals. 

“The Russian government pushes hard to strip us of our linguistic rights and not only linguistic rights, and of course there will be people like me who do not agree with this,” he says.

The final factor is an increased awareness and discussion of colonialism. Though Muhammad and other activists are on the cutting edge of technology, he explains how more traditional academic discourse has also shaped this activism by raising important questions.

“This struggle with Russian imperialistic ambitions is a major pillar of our joint Caucasian identity, I would say,” he explains.

“It's practically proof that the problems are very much the same, and we better try to collaborate on them in the future.”
Muhammad’s education at Innopolis University in Tatarstan, dubbed the “IT capital of Russia,” has been foundational in his journey. Muhammad explains that Tatarstan “managed to build an excellent, world-class institution in their republic with top professors, with top scholars from around the world, who put tremendous focus on practical things.” He adds, “you can’t synthesize things, produce things out of nothing – the technical base for all of my projects is my education in Tatarstan.”

He has also managed to win republic-level grants to fund his projects. “My thesis work on Andax narratives came into existence during a hackathon in Kazan in September, where the topic was IT solutions for supporting the Tatar language.”

“I told them that I’m from the Caucasus,” he explained, “but we face the same problems.” “And I went into a Tatar competition and presented my view to them based on the Caucasus’s problems, and they liked it, gave me first place, which I guess is proof that the problems are very much the same, and we better try to collaborate on them.”

“Tatarstan is an example toward which other Russian republics and minorities should look.”
Traditional Circassian dress, 2022. Photo: Alina Khutova
Staying afloat

I asked Muhammad how his plans have changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially in light of the recent exodus of tech specialists. He tells me that a key concern is financing these projects (which remain free to use). Even where there has been investment – such as Avdan – the app has not yet turned a profit.

“It’s a question that occupies my mind quite a lot,” he admits. “So far I’ve been able to sustain it all on my own,” but “recent developments make it extremely hard to receive any sort of donations, because initially in Advan, for example, we had a donation button clicking which the user could donate $1.00 to us.” The exit of the likes of Google and Apple has cut off such opportunities.

If previously it was possible to operate, even without a profit, it is now hard just to keep afloat. “We’re left in this difficult situation,” he says, “but we’ll see what we can do with what we have.”

As concerns the possibility of moving abroad, Muhammad has mixed feelings. He says that he had hoped to move to Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia, upon graduating, to open a studio and continue working on technology for developing Caucasian languages and culture given its centrality as a hub for other enthusiasts.

This already seems uncertain. And while many of his compatriots have moved abroad, Muhammad feels torn by such a possibility. “I will perhaps feel this guilt for not being here when I’m needed here,” he explains.

It is an understandable dilemma.

After all, it is only on the apps that Muhammad created that the Kaitag language (as well as the Kubachi language) is represented. And without institutional support, there are few others willing and able to develop solutions for these languages. As Muhammad admits, “If there were a working institution for Dagestani languages, and in particular for the Kaitag language, would I do all this? I don’t think I would.”
One thing that gives him hope is that a Caucasian community is already starting to grow independently. Plus, the advantage of the IT initiatives created is that they cannot be easily undone or destroyed.

I asked Muhammad what reaction surprised him the most from his work. He paused for a moment. “I received a message from a Dagestani guy,” he said, “I didn’t know him, but he just told me: bro, you’re building our future.”
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