June 25, 2024

He has published collections of poetry, written more than 20 books, as well as plays, translated works by foreign literary giants like Moliere and is rated as a master of his native language.

His prodigious output, however, is not matched by the size of his readership. His children can’t understand a word he has written.

Todur Zanet writes in Gagauz, an obscure Turkic tongue used by so few people that, the writer worries, the main value of his literary output probably lies with future scholars interested in dead languages. “At least they will have something interesting to study,” he said.

“Our language is dying and within two or three generations it will be dead,” Mr. Zanet, 65, said in an interview in Comrat, the capital of his home region of Gagauzia, an autonomous ethnic enclave in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

Others are less pessimistic and note that while used routinely at home and work by only a few thousand people, Gagauz is similar to Turkish and several other Turkic languages widely used in parts of the former Soviet Union like Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

The Gagauz language might be small and shrinking, said Gullu Karanfil, a linguist and poet who teaches Gagauz and Turkish at Comrat State University, but, “it is part of a big linguistic family” with more than 300 million people, more than the number of Russian speakers worldwide. “It will not die,” she insisted.

Turkey, Russia and the United States each fund small centers at the university to promote their own tongues and by extension influence, a rivalry rooted in post-Soviet language politics, a particularly pernicious legacy of Moscow’s previous rule.

Since Moscow’s empire began to unravel in the late 1980s, heated arguments and even wars have broken out over languages.

The conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan that again erupted in violence two weeks ago, began in 1988 after Armenian writers complained that the region had no textbooks or broadcasting in their language. That grievance quickly fueled wider demands for cultural and political self-determination.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent his military into Ukraine in February last year after claiming that Russian-speakers there needed to be protected from Ukrainians intent on creating a mono-linguistic Ukrainian-speaking “Nazi” state.

That was not true but it reflected the emotional power of language loyalties across vast expanses of territory that, in the Soviet era, had been bound together, from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, by the hegemonic sway of Russian.

Ignat Cazmali, a former Soviet military officer and historian from Gagauzia, founded a museum in his home village of Avdarma, east of Comrat, to try and untangle the settlement’s often painful journey through periods of Russian, Romanian, Soviet and now Moldovan rule, each of which had its own dominant language.

Soviet communism, he said, “was never about internationalism but an ethnocracy,” a system designed to ensure the dominance of ethnic Russians and their language while playing a multitude of smaller ethnic groups and languages off against each other.

The result was a matryoshka nesting doll of mutually reinforcing linguistic and ethnic grievances. The Soviet Union contained 15 different ethnically based republics, the biggest of which was Russia. When it broke apart, smaller dolls inside like Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia — and the minorities they in turn contained, like the Gagauz — spilled out and clamored for the primacy of their own languages.

Under pressure from huge street protests asserting the identity of Moldova’s Romanian-speaking majority, the Soviet republic’s mostly Russian-speaking communist legislature in 1989 declared “Moldovan” — meaning Romanian — the “state language” and relegated Russian to a “language of interethnic communication.” Two years later Moldova declared independence.

The rise of Moldovan nationalism alarmed minority groups like the Gagauz, which mostly spoke Russian and feared falling victim to the identity politics of Moldova’s Romanian-speaking majority. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine had similar fears about losing out to newly empowered Ukrainian speakers.

Few Gagauz people by this time spoke their own native tongue. It had been taught in local schools for a brief period starting in 1958, but was then dropped as Moscow accelerated a drive to impose Russian. But fear of rising nationalism among the Moldovan majority set off a parallel push by Gagauz intellectuals to revive and assert their own language.

Todur Marinoglu, a Gagauz language activist in the 1980s, recalled that this immediately attracted the attention of the K.G.B., which infiltrated the movement to sideline activists genuinely interested in the local language and promote others mostly interested in keeping Moldova within the Soviet Union.

Mr. Marinoglu was placed under surveillance and taken in for questioning on suspicion of being a “pan-Turkic” militant in cahoots with Turkey, a member of NATO. He insisted that his only real concern was reviving his native tongue.

Realizing that the Soviet Union was falling apart, local communist elites in Gagauzia jumped on the Gagauz language revival bandwagon, at least briefly, though many did not speak it. They supported the establishment in 1988 of Ana Sozu, which translates loosely as Mother Tongue, the region’s first newspaper entirely in Gagauz. Mr. Zanet, the writer, became its editor.

A year later, they declared Gagauzia an independent state, ostensibly to protect the Gagauz language but mainly to protect their own position against Romanian-speaking Moldovan nationalists.

The breakaway state folded in 1994 after Moldova agreed to grant the region autonomy. This entity has been dominated since by politicians who all speak Russian and have little or no knowledge of either Gagauz or Romanian, despite a legal requirement that all officials in the autonomous government know the local Turkic tongue.

“There were never any official documents written in Gagauz,” Mr. Marinoglu, the former activist said, “so nothing changed. Everything is in Russian. This is the tomb of our own language.”

Of the 45 secondary schools in the region, 42 teach in Russian, two in Romanian and one in both. They offer classes in Gagauz as a second language but many parents want their children to focus on mastering Russian, a marker of education and social status.

Natalia Cristeva, the head of the regional education department, said she was working to promote Gagauz; in 2021 she started a program of trilingual kindergartens, with children required to speak Russian, Romanian and Gagauz on different days.

She said it had come as a big shock when the United Nations in 2010 declared Gagauz an endangered language — one of more than 2,600 languages, out of a total of 6,700 spoken worldwide, now classified as being at risk of extinction.

As a child, Ms. Cristeva spoke Gagauz at home with her father but, after going to school in Russian and working entirely in Russian throughout her career, she now struggles to speak her native tongue fluently.

Efforts to keep the language alive secured what should have been a big boost in 2018 when, after months of heated debate, the regional parliament passed a new law to “widen the sphere of the use of Gagauz,” which included the requirement that officials know how to speak it.

Elena Karamit, a co-sponsor of the legislation and the director of Mr. Cazmali’s museum in Avdarma, said the new rules have been patchily enforced.

“If people on top spoke Gagauz and started using it in public they would give an example. But they all speak Russian,” she said in an interview, conducted in Russian.

Irina Konstantinova, the Gagauz-speaking director of a local branch of the Moldovan Academy of Sciences, said the requirement had at least helped lift a stigma attached to Gagauz since Soviet times.

Her office has developed a dozen text books for civil servants who want to learn the language, children’s books and a series of Russian-Gagauz dictionaries covering specialist vocabularies for fields like medicine and trade.

Mr. Zanet, the writer and newspaper editor, has kept his tiny-circulation journal alive thanks to support from Turkey’s overseas development agency but is still gloomy about the survival of his native tongue.

“There is no future for small languages,” he said. “The future belongs to big languages — English, Russian, Chinese and Turkish.”

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