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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chuvashia Fetes 450-Year Union With Russia

CHEBOKSARY, Chuvashia —Thousands of people took to streets lined with colorful yellow and red banners in the Chuvash capital Cheboksary on Sunday to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the republic's union with Russia.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov flew to this town along the banks of the winding Volga River to join in the festivities and cut the ribbon at the openings of a prenatal center and a brewery.

Chuvashia may well be the only Russian republic to celebrate such a holiday at a time when some republics — such as neighboring Tatarstan — are adamantly asserting their right to be autonomous.

Chuvash leaders appealed to Tsar Ivan IV in 1551 to admit the republic into the Russian Empire. Russian history books recount a peaceful union — although the move was likely pragmatic. Chuvashia was at the time caught between the Russian Empire and the Volga Bolgars to the south.

Chuvashia was initially split between the Kazan and Simbirsky provinces and only formed into a separate republic based on ethnic lines in 1920.

The union with Russia and its formation into a republic are now celebrated on the same day, June 24, with fireworks, music and — this year — an air show and a soccer match between representatives of the State Duma and Chuvashia's ministries.

The streets Sunday were glutted with performers and families reveling in the first warm days of summer. The sun glinted off the waters of the Volga and metal coins sewn to women's traditional costumes. The collars, sashes and fitted helmets — called khushpu in Chuvash — gave the women a warlike appearance.

The mood in the capital, however, was far from combative. In big red and yellow print — the colors of the Chuvash flag — banners and posters proclaimed slogans such as "450 Years Together With Russia!" and "One Family! 450 With Russia!"

"There's no difference between Russian and Chuvash people. We are one family," said Lena, 34, an accountant.

An ethnic Chuvash, she speaks both Chuvash and Russian. She and her family came to watch troupes from around the country performing national songs and dances.

But despite the music and merriment, some saw the holiday as a sad reminder that the Chuvash language and culture are vanishing.

"There is a saying that Victory Day is a celebration through tears. In talking about this celebration, that expression comes to mind for some reason," said Vyacheslav Platonov, a consultant for a student exchange program. Victory Day is the May 9 holiday commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany.

"I see my language and culture disappearing, " Platonov said. "I see how Chuvash writers live. It is difficult. … Their books stand on the shelves."

Platonov grew up speaking Chuvash, and his youngest daughter is now studying the language in school. But his wife is Russian, and his oldest daughter attended school when only Russian was taught.

"The influence of Russia is probably inevitable since Chuvashia rests in the center of Russia," he said.

The language remains widely spoken throughout most of the republic, however. One reason is no doubt because Chuvashia is one of the few Russian regions where the native ethnic group forms a majority of the population. Ethnic Chuvash make up 70 percent of the republic's population of 1.4 million. Another reason has been the support of the government. The Chuvash president, Nikolai Fyodorov, has long worked to preserve the language and culture.

The language has been taught in most schools since the early 1990s. One of the largest daily newspapers in the capital, Chypar, is in Chuvash, as are many small regional weeklies.

The local government recently helped publish the first Chuvash-language Bible, and last week the republic got its first encyclopedia in Chuvash.

Knowledge of Russian is a must in the cities.

"If you don't speak Russian, you are a second-class citizen," said Alexander, 56, a taxi driver. Although he and his wife are both fluent in Chuvash, his two children do not speak the language.

But concern about the plight of their language and culture was the last thing on many Cheboksary residents' minds over the weekend.

Kasyanov, who congratulated Chuvashia on the anniversary, stopped by the opening of Republic Clinical Hospital No. 1, a prenatal care center designed to lower child-care costs and help boost the republic's low birth rate.

Kasyanov and Fyodorov also attended the grand opening at Bulgar Khmel, a new brewery and hops processing plant.

In a room muggy from the heat of the plant's first brew rising up from shiny metal vats, three women in white and green uniforms tied bright yellow aprons on Kasyanov and Fyodorov. They offered the men pails of beer to pour into a large wooden keg, which they then sealed and signed.