Russian language on the verge of oblivion?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Oct 27 12:51:01 UTC 2006

Thursday, October 26, 2006
Russian Language on the Verge of Oblivion


BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Zulya Kalimbetova, a 22-year-old waitress at an
outdoor cafe, boasts that she is the only one of 10 siblings in her family
who speaks Russian. "I learned it here by myself, in town, because I am
smart," Kalimbetova said, speaking slowly with a heavy accent, confusing
her verb endings and pronouns. But she concedes she's at a disadvantage
compared to earlier generations. "My mother speaks Russian better because
she studied in school," she said.

Kalimbetova never had a chance to study Russian in school because, coming
from Osh, the country's most depressed region, she never went to school.
She is not alone. Like Kalimbetova, millions of young men and women in the
former Soviet Union and its former satellite states are either unable or
opting not to study the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin. While the
numbers have been slipping since the Soviet collapse, the decline of
Russian speakers is now beginning to be felt more acutely around the

Indeed, by 2025, according to a recent study by the Center for Demography
and Human Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the number of people
speaking Russian will be roughly equal to that at the beginning of the
last century. For now, Russian is the fourth-most-spoken language on
earth, behind English, Chinese and Spanish, according to the center's
figures. In Russia, 130 million people speak the language, not counting
newborns. Another 26.4 million citizens of former Soviet republics are
native Russian speakers, and there are an additional 7.5 million Russian
speakers sprinkled around the globe. About 114 million people speak
Russian as a foreign language.

But the center projects that in a decade, Russian will be eclipsed by
French, Hindu and Arab and, within the next 15 years, it will be pushed to
10th place by Portuguese and Bengali. One obvious reason for the decline
is that Russia itself is shrinking, as the population sheds 700,000 people
every year.

Another factor is that, beyond Russia's borders, the prestige associated
with the language has been ebbing since the country lost its status as a
global communist empire. "As the geopolitical importance of Russia
degenerated to being little more than a big supplier of raw materials for
other countries' growing high-tech economies, so did the demand for
knowing Russian," said Kirill Razlogov, an analyst at the Institute for
Cultural Research.

In many former Soviet republics, particularly in Central Asia, Russian was
once the language of the elite. "Now, with advancing globalization,"
Razlogov said, "more people opt for English rather than Russian, deciding
they'd rather read Shakespeare in his native tongue rather than the
Russian translation."

Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov has made the anti-Russian movement state
policy, banning in 1995 the teaching of Russian at almost all universities
and schools as well as books, street signs, posters and advertisements
that are printed in Russian. Elsewhere in the former communist world, the
anti-Russian trend is not quite so draconian, but widespread. From the
Romanian capital of Bucharest to Budapest to Warsaw to Prague, English,
not Russian, is the language of commerce and, in many cases, mass

The Center for Demography and Human Ecology estimates that the number of
students studying Russian in Eastern and Central Europe plunged to 935,000
in 2004 from 10 million in 1990. In the Baltics, where opposition to the
communist regime was strongest and the first Soviet republics declared
independence, there has been an unmistakable move away from Russian. In
Estonia, a 1995 law relegated Russian to the status of a foreign language.
And in Latvia, a 1999 law mandated that officials communicate with
citizens only in Latvian, even in those areas with a majority of Russian
speakers. "We want to make Latvians out of Russians," Latvian President
Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reported as saying in 2004.

While there are no restrictions on learning or speaking Russian in
Lithuania, the language suffers from a serious image problem, as is the
case elsewhere. "Young people here don't associate their career
aspirations with Russia," said Aurelijus Gutauskas, a professor at the Law
Institute of Lithuania. "They all look to the West and choose instead to
learn English, French and German."

Likewise, Western students have lost interest in studying Russian. While a
generation of young Americans were urged to study all things Russian in
the wake of the 1957 Sputnik launch, in 2004 a paltry 27,000 chose to
learn it, according to the center's figures. With Latin America to the
south and the war on terrorism raging in the Middle East, central Asia and
elsewhere, Spanish and Arabic are widely considered more useful.

Back in Bishkek, they seem to feel the same way. Within the walls of the
private American University in Central Asia, ethnic Kyrgyz students from
middle-class families are more likely to converse in English than Russian.
But for those who hail from the country's rural precincts, where abject
poverty, backwardness and a feudal Oriental civilization predominates,
Russian may remain for some time a symbol of progress and culture. Shirin
Narynbayeva, an American University student with a round face, explained:
"I chose to learn Russian so that no one would ever think that I came from
a village."



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