A book of poems by Gennady Kostochakov, one of a handful of Shor academic specialists, is entitled “I am the last Shor poet”. Even that is enviable by some standards. The Votian language, a close relative of Estonian, is spoken by just 20 people in a couple of villages in north-western Russia.
Sitting in a Hungarian restaurant in bustling Tallinn, Andres Heinapuu, a top Estonian Finno-Ugrist (who learnt Votian in five days), gives a depressing description of apathetic, hostile or ignorant officialdom in the Russian provinces.
Mr Heinapuu says. “The Finno-Ugric character is different—we are used to running away”.
It is possible to reverse language decline. Norway, for example, has poured money into supporting the culture and language of its northern Sami peoples. There is no sign of that in Russia, where the authorities approach minority languages with neglect and suspicion. When Tatarstan, the core of the old Idel-Ural, tried to reintroduce the Latin alphabet in which the local Turkic language is most logically written, this was banned by the Kremlin.
To Mr Heinapuu and his pals, the Russian ire they arouse is a backhanded compliment. But it is yet more bad news for the people they are trying to help.
Elav kala ujub vee all (Estonian). Elävä kala ui veden alla (Finnish). Eleven hal úszkál a víz alatt (Hungarian).