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Trial by fire A scholar burned himself to death to protest the disappearance of indigenous languages and cultures in Russia. We reported from the city where he lived and died.

Source: Meduza
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

On September 10, the scholar and social activist Albert Razin walked up to Udmurtia’s parliament building in the region’s capital city of Izhevsk. The 79-year-old, who held the Russian equivalent of a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as one of Udmurtia’s highest government honors for researchers, held a one-man picket against the disappearance of the Udmurt language. Then, he poured gasoline onto his body and lit himself on fire. Razin died in the hospital that same day. While many Izhevsk residents have come to revere the Udmurt elder as a hero even if they had never heard of him before his suicide, the regional government of Udmurtia has been doing its best to act as though his final act of protest never happened. Meduza reported from the ground on Albert Razin’s life, work, and death.

For two days in a row, the low granite wall outside Izhevsk’s State Council building has been covered in flowers. The bouquets surround a portrait of the 79-year-old philosopher Albert Razin, whose self-immolation shook the city on September 10. Passersby regularly approach the ad hoc memorial. Some try to find explanations for Razin’s death in the circumstances of his private life.

“He was an old guy. Maybe he just went crazy?” speculates Igor, a middle-aged man. He’s ethnically Russian, but he nonetheless turns unprompted to the topic of Udmurt cultural preservation, the very issue for which Razin advocated. “There’s no persecution of Udmurts at all,” Igor says. “All my Udmurt relatives’ grandkids know the language. And they can study it — please, go ahead. But bringing that to the forefront…” Igor doesn’t finish his sentence.

Other passersby call the late Dr. Razin “a hero” and “a son of the Udmurt people.” Vera and Andrey are among those who express respect for the scholar; both are about 40 years old. They were simply taking a stroll through Izhevsk when they walked by the headquarters of Udmurtia’s regional legislature. In fact, they’re on a date.

Vera says she is “in shock” at Razin’s actions, “but it’s a good kind of shock.” She explains, “I never even thought that kind of inner strength was possible. My respect for people who live in Udmurtia has grown exponentially.”

Her companion, Andrey Kravchenko, jokes when he tells me his last name that it belongs to “the enemy” — the name is Ukrainian in origin. Andrey does not live in Udmurtia; he says he is “visiting the woman [he loves]” from two regions away, where he works in the oil industry. He explains that since he moved to Russia’s north, he’s come to understand that the country’s ethnic minorities really do experience numerous obstacles when they attempt to preserve their cultures. He says the Khanty and the Mansi, the groups indigenous to his current home region, have run into the very same problems as the Udmurts. “Ever since [the Soviet Union’s collapse in] 1991, there have been these illusions that Russia will get back to the issue of ethnicity. But then it all got onto a bureaucratic track. He [Razin] realized that he was hitting a wall.”

If Albert Razin’s most fervent supporters could hear what this random passerby was saying, they would agree with him without a doubt. Local Udmurt activists are certain that their people have been disenfranchised in the very republic that carries their name: Their language is dying, and many Udmurts prefer to assimilate into the ethnically Russian majority. Government officials and the public figures who support them tend to believe that Udmurts themselves do not want to keep their culture alive, and since Albert Razin’s death, they have argued that somebody else must have pushed the activist toward self-immolation.

Part 1

The stranger with the lighter

On September 9, the day before his death, Albert Razin picked up the phone and called his friend Andrey Perevozchikov, an Udmurt activist and blogger who makes his living organizing tours around the region. Razin invited Perevozchikov to drop by his office in Izhevsk’s House of Scholars, a building on Karl Marx Street that houses Udmurtia’s region-wide Scholars’ Union. Razin’s role at the House of Scholars was twofold: He led a club called Todoschi (“scholars” in Udmurt) within the Scholars’ Union and participated in a separate organization called the Council of Udmurt Elders. When Perevozchikov arrived at the House of Scholars, Razin said he was planning an individual picket outside Izhevsk’s State Council building and asked for advice in making sure the protest wouldn’t break the law.

Perevozchikov later described his friend and mentor’s office as “a small room right in the corner [of the building], across the hall from a bathroom.” Inside, there was a shelf stacked with books, a desk supporting “the most basic kind of laptop,” and a metal safe where Razin stored a supply of tea and mugs. The scholar received visitors often, and his office always smelled like herbal tea. When Perevozchikov arrived, however, Razin’s bookshelves were empty, and so was his safe. At the time, the change seemed insignificant, but Perevozchikov later found out from the House of Scholars staff that Razin had cleared out his office the day before their meeting. He had responded to questions from his colleagues by saying he had decided to try working from home.

Andrey Perevozchikov stands outside Udmurtia’s State Council building. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

The 32-year-old Perevozchikov was a frequent guest at the corner office in the House of Scholars. He and Razin first got to know each other three years ago: While the blogger was partway through a walking journey across all of Udmurtia, Razin found his phone number and gave him a call. The scholar had learned about Perevozchikov’s blog and his involvement in Udmurt culture not long beforehand: Perevozhikov’s profile on the social media site VKontakte said he was a “traveler and shaman” who followed “the traditional natural faith of the Udmurts” by worshipping deities like Inmar, Kyldysin, and Kuaz. All of that resonated with Razin, who regularly organized traditional ceremonies and holiday celebrations himself. The scholar sensed a kindred spirit and decided to get to know him.

After that first phone call, Razin and Perevozchikov began speaking more and more often, and they soon grew very close. The two activists talked about everything from politics to religion, and Perevozchikov told Razin “about all the things that happened in [his] life,” including arguments with other friends. The younger Udmurt activist said Razin was preparing him to become a pagan priest like himself, training him to conduct traditional ceremonies. “He took a good look [at me] and decided that I could be made into the next national leader [like himself],” Perevozchikov said after the fact.

The two friends also discussed the state of Udmurt culture and the Udmurt language. Albert Razin believed that both were dying out, and that process would herald the disappearance of the Udmurt people themselves within a few decades. Like many scholars of language death, Razin saw a solution in mandating the use of Udmurt for daycares located in predominantly indigenous villages. In Udmurtia’s cities, where the population is predominantly Russian, Razin proposed mandating Udmurt language lessons for preschoolers and schoolchildren of all ethnicities. He also argued that all government officials in Udmurtia should be required to pass an Udmurt language exam.

Razin foregrounded those policy proposals once again during the last interview of his life in front of the State Council building. In the video, recorded by Perevozchikov on September 10, the scholar argues, “If [even] plants and animals are recorded in the Red Book, there is all the more reason to protect [human] ethnic groups. Anything else would bring shame on the Russian Federation.” Razin was far from an extremist or a radical: His public appeals were rife with references to Russia’s Constitution, which the activist cited as a progressive, democratic basis for action.

Albert Razin’s final interview. September 10, 2019
udmtuno

That day, Razin held up two large cardboard signs. One read “And if my language disappears tomorrow, then I remain prepared to die today.” The other asked, “Do I have a Homeland?” Perevozchikov had seen both slogans in advance. Neither one raised any red flags for him, and he gave Razin his approval.

Before he left for the State Council building, Razin called the front desk and asked at what time Udmurtia’s regional deputies would be gathering for their September 10 session. He then asked Perevozchikov to arrive at the building an hour beforehand, at 8:00 AM, to help him hand out flyers to the legislators. The flyers labeled current government cultural policies “run-of-the-mill Udmurtophobia” and called them an extension of “Stalinist Russification” in the region.

When Perevozchikov met up with his mentor on the morning of September 10, he once again did not feel that anything was awry. The two men hugged each other in greeting as usual, and as always, Albert Razin was in a serious mood. Deputies greeted him as they walked into the building — many of them knew him already. Later on, however, Andrey Perevozchikov recalled that his friend seemed very nervous during his interview, and his voice shook. “I was surprised — it seemed like the picket was already over,” Perevozchikov noted.

The blogger was still standing in the square outside the State Council building when Razin stepped away and disappeared for a while. His Renault Logan would later be found parked outside his house even though he had driven to the picket in the first place; Razin lived not far from the parliamentary headquarters. After dropping off his car, the scholar walked back toward the building wearing a synthetic padded coat and a hat. His face was wrapped in a scarf. At first, Perevozchikov did not recognize him.

The apparent stranger clicked a lighter several times until a spark caught on, and then he “immediately burst into flame.” Perevozchikov, who by that point realized what was going on, ran up to Razin and tried to tear off his clothing, but the scholar pushed himself away. Engulfed in flames, Albert Razin braced himself: He bent his knees slightly, leaned forward, and clenched his fists. He didn’t say a word.

Perevozchikov ran into the State Council building and yelled for somebody to call an ambulance. He also found a fire extinguisher in a glass case, but when he pulled out the safety pin and pressed the trigger, it didn’t work. Perevozchikov was forced to start searching for help again. Ultimately, a few people who had parked outside the building used their cars’ fire extinguishers to put out the flames. By then, Razin was lying down, his body burned, next to the granite wall against which he had leaned his signs not long beforehand. Within a few hours, the scholar and activist died in a nearby hospital.

A black scorch mark remained on the stone when Andrey Perevozchikov stood next to it to speak with Meduza. His interview was interrupted when a man emerged from the State Council building and strode confidently up to the parapet where Razin had burned himself. Without introducing himself, the man shook Perevozchikov’s hand and said, “I was here with you at the time. Of course, you don’t remember me. You were in such a state. It’s a pity that it’s you who’s under investigation.”

Indeed, Udmurtia’s Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case arguing that someone drove Albert Razin to suicide. Perevozchikov is a witness in the case, but it is not uncommon in Russian jurisprudence for witnesses to be reclassified as suspects.

On September 10, Albert Razin’s adult daughter, Sophie, found two pieces of chocolate on her desk in the Razin family home. Though she didn’t notice it at first, there was a white envelope underneath the candy. It contained a note saying that the keys to the Renault Logan were in the mailbox.

The ad hoc memorial to Albert Razin outside Udmurtia’s State Council building. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza
Part 2

“The rebirth of an imperial mindset”

One of the largest and oldest Udmurt organizations in existence is headquartered in the same building where Albert Razin set himself on fire. Udmurt Kenesh translates as “The Udmurt Council,” and its director is Tatiana Ishmatova, a federal State Duma deputy. Ishmatova is a member of the United Russia faction, which is affiliated with Russia’s ruling party.

The day after Razin’s protest, Ishmatova wrote on her VKontakte page that “Dr. Albert Razin’s concerns regarding the Udmurt people’s problems have always found a constructive response in our organization.” Her post also argued that Razin’s stance had been “uncompromising, occasionally to the point of radicalism.” “It is difficult to understand what drew Dr. Razin to these extreme actions,” the deputy wrote, because “there is no good cause that is worth a human life, and all questions should be resolved within the bounds of a dialogue.”

Albert Razin was among the founders of Udmurt Kenesh in 1991. The scholar later left the organization. He felt that Udmurt Kenesh had become a bureaucratic, pro-regime institution that was insufficiently decisive in defending the interests of Udmurts. Other Udmurt activists agreed.

One of those activists is Alexei Shkliayev. He said current government policy amounts to “a complete denial of the ethnic question.” Shkliayev, like Razin, advocates for legally mandatory Udmurt-language education. Without such a law, Shkliayev argues, Udmurts themselves will be unwilling to fight for their own culture. To explain that reluctance, the activist pointed to what he said is the ethnic group’s amicable nature: In his view, Udmurtia’s indigenous people tend to avoid conflict and heightened attention of any kind. “They just take up whatever role they’re given,” Shkliayev said.

When asked to name the most effective measure that’s been taken to support the Udmurt language in recent years, the activist pointed to Russia’s 2012 Eurovision performance: The Buranovskiye Babushki, a collective of elderly Udmurt women, gained widespread popularity on the competition’s stage with a mixed Udmurt- and English-language song. When asked to name the most painful hit to Udmurt cultural preservation, Shkliayev said it was the 2018 law making the study of indigenous languages in Russia’s regions strictly voluntary nationwide.

The activists who spoke with Meduza confirmed that a year ago, when the State Duma passed that law, their last hope for achieving any significant status in the republic for the Udmurt language disappeared.

The parking lot outside Udmurtia’s State Council building, which features a wall decorated with a symbol of the sun. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

In a July 2018 statement to the chair of Udmurtia’s State Council, the Todoschi club argued, “Refusing to mandate language study has an ulterior motive: to wreak havoc on the preservation and use of non-Russian languages. It is a direct route toward making people’s native languages disappear, decreasing their ethnic self-consciousness, and liquidating their culture.” Within the club, the new law making language study an elective subject was received as a signal of “the rebirth of an imperial mindset” in Russia.

Andrey Perevozchikov added that being Udmurt in Udmurtia has come with a sense of shame ever since the Soviet era. He has only felt the prestige of his people’s language and culture rising within the past five years or so. “There have been some ethnic events for young people [recently], and you can hear Udmurt being spoken on public transport, in the streets,” the activist explained. “Before, people used to be embarrassed to speak their own language.”

Larisa Buranova, Udmurtia’s Ethnic Policy Minister, believes that the right moment to pass a law mandating Udmurt language study has already come and gone. According to Buranova, that moment was in the early 1990s, when there was “this wave of enthusiasm, everyone had flags, and so on.” But now, the minster told Meduza, the only way to preserve the Udmurt language will be “by interest, not by force.” In her opinion, it’s the ordinary people themselves who aren’t prepared for a stricter language policy, especially since ethnic Udmurts compose less than a third of Udmurtia’s population. The region houses twice as many ethnic Russians.

As Buranova put it, the question of how to preserve the Udmurt language “is not a living presence in government bureaucrats’ offices.” She added, “In this situation [after Albert Razin’s death], everybody — every bureaucrat, every musician, every businessman, and every mom of three, has to be asking themselves, ‘Is there anything good, anything useful that I can do?’ Even just getting up in the morning and saying, ‘That’s it, honey, we’re talking to the kids in Udmurt from now on.’”

As an example of the Udmurt people’s purported reluctance to use their native language, Larisa Buranova pointed to a first-day-of school celebration in what she called a “good old-fashioned Udmurt village.” Everyone who had gathered for the September 1 parade — children, parents, and teachers alike — understood Udmurt, but the celebration itself took place in Russian. “When the principal and I stayed back afterward, I said, ‘I don’t understand — what on earth is happening here? Where’s the language?’ And he just blinked at me and said, ‘I didn’t even think about that.’”

Udmurtia’s Ethnic Policy Minister, Larisa Buranova. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

Instead of mandatory Udmurt language study, Buranova recommended “embedding our ethnic culture within contemporary urban conditions.” She counted off a number of existing programs: In Izhevsk, there are trivia competitions in Udmurt, Udmurt-language rock bands, and free language classes. As a result, she argued, loyalty to the language among Udmurtia’s residents (regardless of ethnicity) is on the rise. The minister cited the results of a survey recently conducted by her office: The proportion of Udmurtia’s population that would agree to mandatory Udmurt language study in schools has risen from 5 percent to 45 within the last 15 years.

Udmurt activists from outside the government, however, have a different set of numbers. In Russia’s 2002 national census, more than 29 percent of Udmurtia’s residents identified themselves as Udmurts. In 2010, that number was around 28 percent. In 2015, during a partial “micro-census,” even fewer respondents identified with the region’s indigenous ethnic group — just 24 percent.

Olga Nikiforova, a professor in Glasov State University’s Department of Russian and Udmurt Languages and Literatures, teaches her region’s indigenous language in the city with the highest concentration of Udmurts (35 percent). Nikiforova does not support the ideas Razin and his supporters have put forward about introducing the Udmurt language into schools, daycares, and government agencies. She believes that the language should be preserved in places where it is still a major presence. For example, it could be used universally in small-town educational institutions where almost all the students and instructors are Udmurts. In cities, on the other hand, the professor believes such a policy would be useless: There, children have already been Russified to the point that they no longer understand Udmurt, and there aren’t even textbooks available for students with no knowledge of the language. In Nikiforova’s view, one compromise would entail introducing beginning Udmurt language classes in the republic’s schools through existing courses on the history of Udmurtia. Those classes would encompass all of Udmurtia’s students, ethnic Russians included.

Part 3

A husband and father

In the 1960s, when Albert Razin was in his early 20s, he entered a contest for aspiring TV anchors in Izhevsk and stood out from the crowd. He began working as a radio anchor even before graduating from college, his widow, Yulia Razina, told Meduza. However, when it came time for new graduates at the pedagogical institute Razin attended to be allocated their first jobs, administrators accused Razin of trying to secure a “cozy spot” working in the capital rather than continuing in his field of study as a chemistry and biology teacher. That work would almost certainly entail living in a less desirable location. The young man responded by saying he wouldn’t try to pull any self-centered tricks no matter where he was sent. Before long, he moved to the town of Uduguchin about 60 miles from Izhevsk to be a teacher and counselor in the local orphanage. Seven years ago, Yulia Razina recalled, she and her husband were invited back to Uduguchin by one of Razin’s former students. There, Razina discovered that the town’s children had very much liked their caretaker: “He had them enraptured; he was like a god to them over there.”

In 1965, Razin was drafted into the army, where he ultimately became an officer. Then, he began teaching university courses in Izhevsk. A conflict with the director of one of his college’s institutes led him to apply for a Ph.D. program at Moscow State University even though he was already 35 years old. Yulia Razina said that nobody believed he would find a dissertation advisor in Moscow, “But he went, and he found one. If you can’t get in through the door, you get in through the window — that saying describes him perfectly. He would always find a way to get what he was working for.”

Albert Razin during his time in the army.
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza / Razin family photo album

In Moscow, the young scholar wrote his dissertation in the philosophy department on the problem of identity formation among small-town workers. He worked as a porter on the side. As he later told his wife, his coworkers would joke that they didn’t see the need for him to become a professor since he was such a good porter already.

In the 1980s, after finishing his degree, Razin returned to Izhevsk and taught courses for culture industry workers on how to conduct public surveys. Yulia was one of his students. Razin invited her to his home several times to go over her work, and she eagerly looked over the rows of bookshelves that stood along his walls. Aside from her homework, Razin also expressed interest in where his student was from and whether she had a boyfriend. “My father would ask me those kinds of questions, too,” Razina now remembers. “I answered him like I would a father. There was a sense of trust.” Razin was 26 years older than his student. She said she had previously “recoiled” when men looked at her “because I hadn’t yet seen a trustworthy look [in that situation].” With Razin, things were different: Eight years after they met, the two moved in together, and two years after that, in 1996, they married. It was Albert Razin’s second marriage.

The one-room apartment where Yulia Razina used to visit her professor is the same one where her family lives today. By now, the old bookshelves have been replaced with a smaller number of new ones. There’s also a top-bunk bed against one of the walls with a desk underneath. The desk serves as a workspace for Razin’s daughter, Sophie, who dyes custom-order silk scarves by hand.

Once, when Yulia Razina was cleaning up the apartment, she found an old notebook that turned out to be her husband’s diary. She sat down on the couch next to Albert and began reading a few entries in silence. In them, Razin addressed his son from his first marriage, who had been diagnosed with cancer. “Why have you been given this punishment, this sickness?” Yulia recounted one entry from memory. “I should have been the one to receive this sickness, not you. I’ve been smoking up this sky for 29 years, I’ve got no direction in life, and you have your whole life ahead of you.” Razin had never told his wife about the suffering he endured during that time period. When he saw her reading his diary, he said with a smile, “Did you get to the end? Close it and put it back, then, okay?” Razina has never opened the diary since, but now, she wants to read it again. “If he didn’t destroy [the notebook], I’ll find it. Now, I have the right to open it and actually read the whole thing,” she said.

In the 1980s, Albert Razin also met Leonid Gonin, who now works as an aide for Alexey Zagrebin, one of Udmurtia’s representatives in the federal State Duma. At the time, Razin and his brother Revo had begun holding meetings for an “Udmurt club” in cafés, apartments, and occasionally the Izhmash House of Culture. Several individuals who spoke with Meduza agreed that those meetings marked the beginning of the Udmurt cultural revival that has continued in the republic to this day.

Gonin’s interview with Meduza took place at the Udmurt Institute of History, Language, and Literature, which is housed in the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Deputy Zagrebin is the institute’s director.

“They were young, they had beards, they would give speeches,” Gonin remembered. “And there I was, just a modest country boy, still shy about everything.” It was during the course of those discussions that Gonin learned about the existence of the Gulag system; he also learned that Udmurt dissenters were among those imprisoned within it. Later on, Gonin and Razin organized Izhevsk’s first celebration of the traditional holiday Gerber, which marks the transition between the summer and fall agricultural cycles. Locals now celebrate Gerber every year in the city’s Birch Grove Park. In the Soviet era, there was no public party to accompany the holiday, but in the 1990s, the celebration was resurrected with Albert Razin’s direct involvement. Just before every year’s festivities, the scholar would say a prayer in his capacity as a traditional priest.

Leonid Gonin sits in the courtyard of the Udmurt Institute of History, Language, and Literature. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

Now, many in Udmurtia call Razin a pagan, though he preferred to call his own views pantheistic. The scholar and priest regularly organized talks in the House of Scholars to inform listeners about traditional Udmurt practices.

Vladimir Savelyev, the head of the House’s Council of Elders, recalled that Razin’s one-man lectures seemed to go over even more easily than open discussions. During the council’s meetings, Savelyev, said, Razin would “get going, and he would be impossible to stop. I’d say to him, ‘Dr. Razin, please let somebody else have the floor. Could you please sit down?’ and he’d say, ‘What, you don’t want to listen? Then that’s it, I’m leaving!’ He was choleric, he was, and sometimes, he couldn’t hold back his emotions,” Savelyev explained.

Other sources mentioned Razin’s impulsiveness as well. Many also spoke of him as a father figure, with all the attendant baggage that status entails. Andrey Perevozchikov, whom Razin was training as a traditional priest, noted that he spoke with his mentor more often than he spoke with his biological father. Larisa Buranova said, “My parents are about the same age [as Razin]. Sometimes, you can’t exactly communicate the realities of life to them anymore. I couldn’t talk to [Razin] in the same way I would talk to somebody my age.”

Though the minister frequently disagreed with her activist colleague, she recognized his authority, saying he had “an incredible level of experience in the ethnic movement.” She recalled, “If you were sitting at an event and Dr. Razin took the floor, everyone in the room understood that it would be a two-hour lecture. But would anybody say, ‘Dr. Razin, could you please sit down already?’ Never.”

Razin’s self-immolation was something of a final argument in a long debate, one he simultaneously could not win and refused to leave behind. It was the scholar himself who best explained how that situation came to be, albeit indirectly, in the flyers he asked Perevozchikov to hand out to Udmurtia’s legislators on September 10. The flyers described a feeling that Udmurts had become “second-class citizens.”

That feeling, Razin reasoned by extension, causes suicides. Official statistics show that in 2017, Udmurtia was the Russian region with the ninth-highest suicide rate. No other region in the Volga Federal District ranked higher. “The mechanism for driving an Udmurt to suicide is very simple to explain,” Razin wrote. “You have an individual with an inferiority complex who is reminded around the clock that they are “damaged.” There is a segment of their brain that is constantly active, and it disrupts the development of their personality: It stops them from holding their head higher, from breathing freely, from thinking freely, from believing themselves to be worthwhile. That exhausts their nervous system, causing a dysfunctional view of the world and dysfunctional behavior. Then, even a relatively small collision in their family or their workplace can cause that psychological stress to overwhelm them, and they may choose to leave this life behind.”

No one can know for sure whether Razin himself experienced a collision of that sort, but it appears that he did not. He did, however, know that in traditional Udmurt culture, there is a ritual called tipshar — suicide by hanging or burning with the intent of exacting revenge on an enemy.

Yury Perevozchikov (no relation to Andrey) leads Udmurtia’s Cultural Heritage Site Protection Agency and has a doctorate-level degree in history. In his interview with Meduza, he explicitly mentioned the ritual of tipshar but argued that the practice was largely unstudied and “can hardly be studied objectively at this point given that it is not practiced.” Perevozchikov went on to argue that Albert Razin’s death “almost certainly should not be linked to that tradition.” “Here,” he explained, “there is no personal, personified wrongdoer. In my view, this act of protest was driven primarily by contemporary protest motifs rather than traditional conceptions of revenge.”

Albert Razin (center) during one of Udmurtia’s first modern Gerber celebrations.
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza / Razin family photo album
Part 4

“Outsiders”

One of Albert Razin’s final campaigns was the fight for Birch Grove Park, the same green space in Izhevsk where he had led Gerber rituals as a priest. Three years ago, the city’s government decided to undertake a massive reconstruction project in the park by hiring a private company to build running paths, playgrounds, and an outdoor gym as well as cafes and shops that would recoup the city’s losses.

Council of Elders leader Vladimir Savelyev explained that Razin and his allies in the Udmurt activist community didn’t like the plan because the location of Birch Grove Park used to house an Udmurt settlement. Razin wanted it to be designated as a sacred space. “He saw it as a natural park where nature was maximally preserved,” said the scholar’s protégé Andrey Perevozchikov. Perevozchikov remembered that Razin and those who stood with him also wanted to build a kuala, or traditional prayer area, in the park.

The idea of turning the park into a recreation area was clearly mutually exclusive with those proposals. Minister Larisa Buranova told Meduza that she held a roundtable to discuss what should be done in the park with Udmurt cultural activists, local government officials, and the commercial project’s potential investors. The participants’ perspectives turned out to be so divergent that the group was unable to come to a compromise. “The investor left the project. He looked around at all of that — why would he want to get involved?” Buranova said. “City Hall doesn’t know what to do now.”

Buranova asserted that the investor’s plan for Birch Grove Park simply facilitated “safety, better lighting, and good order.” She argued, “With all due respect, people who are almost 80 and who don’t have a single business partner — I know how that can end up.”

Birch Grove Park in Izhevsk. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

The minister added one more argument in favor of the investor’s unrealized reconstruction project: “Kualas are rather controversial things. You can’t mess around with pagan religious practices — it’s not mysticism, it’s something that actually works.” She said that within rural communities in the southern part of the republic where kualas were preserved, passersby avoid approaching them. In a city like Izhevsk, she argued, that kind of respectful behavior would be impossible to expect.

Other Izhevsk residents who spoke with Meduza saw the discussion surrounding the park as an example that showed Udmurt activists how difficult it would be to receive support for their ideas from the government.

Ethnic Policy Minister Larisa Buranova, however, has a response at the ready for those who criticize the development of Udmurt cultural initiatives in the region. Just before her interview with Meduza, she led our reporter on a tour of the House of the Friendship of Peoples in Izhevsk. It’s a three-story terraced neoclassical building that used to serve as the House of Culture in Soviet times. It was last renovated about 10 years ago. Larisa Buranova said “it was given to us as a gift,” meaning that the regional government budget financed the creation and renovation of the House of the Friendship of People’s after the USSR’s collapse. While Buranova told the story of the structure’s creation, wedding ceremonies went on one after another inside. Newlyweds accompanied by friends and family cycled constantly in and out of the front doors.

The house includes an auditorium, a dance space, a printing press, and a musical salon. All this, the minister explained, demonstrates that the necessary conditions for all ethnic traditions to grow are abundant in Udmurtia. The Udmurts, Buranova insists, simply have to shed their “constant self-injury, self-deprecation, and tears.”

The specialists’ office in Izhevsk’s House of the Friendship of Peoples.
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

Yevgeny Kuznetsov, a doctor in Izhevsk’s Second City Hospital and a well-known local activist, disagreed completely. On Facebook, Kuznetsov wrote that what drove Albert Razin to self-immolation was “the logic of [the current] chain of events,” which “left a person like Razin, with his range of scholarly and ethical interests, with a worldview like Udmurt paganism, in a republic like contemporary Udmurtia with ‘an outsider militia’ at its helm, in a year like 2019, at an age like 79, with no other choice.” The doctor continued, “This entire issue of ethnic identity, while surprisingly easy to understand in hindsight, has developed like an undiagnosed cancerous tumor.”

Other natives of Izhevsk who spoke with Meduza mentioned the “outsiders” in local government as well, though the topic is a difficult one to discuss with a journalist from outside the area. Following the news of Albert Razin’s self-immolation, one public figure who touched on that taboo was Andrey Konoval, the co-chair of an inter-regional trade union for doctors and an emigrant from Izhevsk who no longer lives in Udmurtia. Konoval wrote on Facebook that “Today, not one of the top posts in Udmurtia has been given to an Udmurt — not the State Council chairmanship, not the governorship, and not the chief of staff position. The latter two are actually occupied by ‘outsiders’ [‘varyagi’]— ‘effective managers’ from Moscow.”

In an interview with Meduza, Konoval argued that Alexander Brechalov, the current regional governor, and his team “see their work in Udmurtia as a temporary stage.” The doctor explained that the problem of language death “isn’t pressing enough even among Udmurts” to be the root cause of dissatisfaction among activists. Instead, the Udmurt language’s decline is a manifestation of a broader issue, Konoval claimed: “It reflects the plight of the Udmurt people.” His concerns, he emphasized, extended to everybody born in Udmurtia, not only ethnic Udmurts.

Apart from the underrepresentation of those who grow up in Udmurtia among the region’s highest-ranking officials, the trade-union leader named one other cause for dissatisfaction among Udmurtia’s locals. That cause is the planned construction of a toxic waste disposal facility in the city of Kambarka. According to a federal government order, the facility is supposed to open in a former disposal plant for chemical weapons in 2023. Kambarka residents have already staged multiple protests against the project.

Protesters and their supporters have submitted three petitions to Udmurtia’s regional-level election commission requesting a referendum on the plan to repurpose the plant for toxic waste handling. At the end of August, for the third time, the commission cited a technicality to turn the petition down.

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Outside the State Council building, at the spot where Albert Razin held his final picket, passersby continue to lay down flowers, and the scholar’s allies periodically add a portrait of the late activist — every once in a while, the impromptu memorial disappears without a trace.

Meduza was unable to speak with Udmurt Kenesh leader Tatiana Ishmatova: She did not answer our telephone calls, and our correspondent was told outside Ishmatova’s office in the State Council building that the politician was too busy to speak with him. Ilya Viktorov, the chair of Udmurt Kenesh’s branch in the Leninsky district, told Meduza that he had spoken with Ishmatova after Razin’s death and asked her why the flowers displayed in the scholar’s honor were disappearing. According to Viktorov, Ishmatova said she didn’t know but added, “This isn’t a cemetery, after all.”

On September 10, the same day that Albert Razin burned himself, Udmurtia’s Governor Alexander Brechalov called on journalists “not to speculate on the ethnicity issue.” He reminded the press that anyone who wishes to can still study the Udmurt language in the republic’s schools and daycares and that Udmurt media projects and nonprofits continue to receive government support. The governor said that, in his view, tying Razin’s suicide to the regional government’s policies on Udmurt language and cultural preservation would be misguided.

Andrey Perevozchikov holds an individual picket at the site of Albert Razin’s death. September 2019
Yaroslav Chernov for Meduza

Unlike Udmurtia’s executive officials, the regional parliamentarians Razin targeted in his final plea for urgent legislation on the Udmurt language have not commented on his death. Fyodor Minnigarayev, the State Council’s director of public relations, told Meduza that “our [deputies] are withholding comment until the investigation [into the causes of Razin’s suicide] concludes.” Nonetheless, many of those legislators have seen the letter Albert Razin addressed to them shortly before his self-immolation. That message has also been registered as an official complaint in the State Council. “We’ve registered the message. Our response has not yet been brought to completion,” Minnigarayev said.

In her conversation with Meduza, Ethnic Policy Minister Larisa Buranova called Razin’s suicide “a shocking situation for the [Udmurt] ethnos.” She said that in its aftermath, “the local divisions of Udmurt Kenesh will have to meet and have a long, serious conversation” with constituents about the state of Udmurt society.

According to district-level chair Ilya Viktorov, Udmurt Kenesh held an emergency hearing on September 17. During that meeting, some attendees said that “somebody pushed” Albert Razin to commit suicide. There were also calls for a “consensus position” regarding his death that would avoid “hurting Ishmatova’s feelings.” Viktorov said that he disagreed with those propositions, but most other Udmurt Kenesh members did not support his views. He ultimately got up and left the meeting early.

Story by Mikhail Danilovich, Fourth Sector media project, reporting from Izhevsk

Editing by Vladislav Gorin

Translation by Hilah Kohen