Saying Nyet To Russian: Beyond The Motherland, The Language Is On The Wane

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 2 17:41:33 UTC 2008

 Saying Nyet To Russian Beyond The Motherland, The Language Is On The Wane

Eve Conant

Updated: 4:15 PM ET Jan 23, 2008

Hardly anyone these days has a good word for the language of the
former Soviet Union. Teenagers in Central Asia say they hate it;
thousands have taken to the streets of Moldova and Belarus to protest
it; former Soviet governments have deleted it from their
mandatory-education programs, and some countries, like Latvia, have
passed discriminatory laws against those who speak it. A Russian
visitor to rural Moldova or Uzbekistan might have a fine conversation
with a person over 35--but a 20-year-old will greet him with blank
stares. "If before more than 90 percent of the people in the Soviet
territories spoke Russian, now less than half do," says Vladimir
Neroznyak, a Moscow linguist who helps advise the Russian government
on language policy. Within the decade, he predicts, that figure will
have fallen to one in 10.

What a change. Not long ago the language rivaled English as a lingua
franca of empire. Then came the revolutions of the early 1990s, when
the former republics began promoting local languages as a symbol of
independence. Anti-Russian "affirmative action" programs sprang up,
rewarding those who spoke the local tongue with coveted university
jobs and government positions. Meanwhile, Russian-language schools
lost funding or were shut down. Small-scale linguistic scuffles in
Ukraine led to such extremes as a proposed ban on Russian pop music
and the formation of ultranationalist "Ukrainization teams" to harass
sellers of Russian music and literature. Last April a Russian-language
radio station in Latvia lost its license for violating laws limiting
the Russian "content" of its broadcasts to 25 percent or less.

The results are evident everywhere. The number of schools that conduct
classes solely in Russian has dropped by 71 percent in Turkmenistan,
65 percent in Moldova, 59 per-cent in Kazakhstan and 47 percent in
Uzbekistan. Leaders of many newly independent states are pleased. "For
decades we couldn't even think in our own language," says Moldovan
parliamentarian Stefan Cekareanu, whose party earlier this year helped
organize demonstrations against a communist-backed initiative to
reintroduce compulsory Russian in Moldovan schools. "If Russian were
to somehow become official again, other Soviet habits would start to
creep back."

Russian is under assault even within Russia itself. As many as 10,000
foreign words, such as bucksi, voucher, biznesmen and bizneslunch,
have entered the language within the past decade--the opposite of what
takes place in "A Clockwork Orange," where Russianisms like moloko and
droog invade English. "Whether we like it or not, half of Russian
business is conducted in English," says Neroznyak, who is lobbying to
introduce language-purity laws as strict as those of the French.

The Kremlin is on his side. Over the past two years President Vladimir
Putin has more than doubled the amount of money appropriated for the
protection of the language. Russian "must be preserved as a language
of international discourse," he said soon after being elected, if only
so that the former Soviet states will be "able to compete" in the
world at large. Putin's wife, Ludmilla--a linguist by education--has
become the Kremlin's spokeswoman for the campaign. Across the former
Soviet territory, she can be found opening Russian-language centers
and attending Russian-language "Olympiads" where students compete in
grammar drills.

Clearly, there are benefits to being able to speak the tongue of
Mother Russia. For one thing, much of the literature available across
the former Soviet Union is still mostly in Russian--few former
republics have had the finances to publish new translations. Others
say Russian should be kept alive so the countries of the former Soviet
bloc, like those of the European Union, will be able to communicate
with each other, as Putin points out. Last year Kyrgyzstan broke the
mold and granted Russian official status alongside Kyrgyz. Tajikistan
is considering following suit. Vyacheslav Belayusov, a professor at
Moscow's Linguistic University, explains that the past decade's
"euphoria of independence" is at last beginning to fade: "People are
starting to realize that hiding in their nationalist corners won't get
them anywhere."

Perhaps so, but there's an undeniable generational divide when it
comes to speaking Russian. Visit Karakalpakstan, the poorest region of
Uzbekistan, and you can see. At a small museum and cultural center at
the heart of town, a group of grandmothers, all products of the Soviet
regime and fluent Russian speakers, pay at least a third of their
monthly pensions to bring their grandchildren to Russian classes. "I
think in Russian. It's in my blood," says one, Clara Hojametova. But
two teenage girls sauntering into the city's newly modeled Progress
language center, not far away, see the world differently. A little
more than a decade ago they, too, would have been polishing their
Russian and preparing for work somewhere in the far reaches of the
Soviet empire. Now they carry English grammar and computer manuals.
"English is easy, it's interesting and it's new," says 14-year-old
Adele Setjanova. "Russian has been around for ages." Even those who
are less ambitious feel similarly. As 12-year-old Shalgasbai
Shuotkanov puts it, contemplating a life living where he is now,
"We're not going anywhere, so why bother learning Russian?"

Russia has won some improbable allies in the fight to save its
language. Both NATO and the European Union have pushed Baltic
countries to drop what critics say are discriminatory laws. Among
those countries is Latvia. To run for political office there,
candidates have been required to speak fluent Latvian--despite the
fact that Russian speakers make up 30 percent of the population. Last
April one Russian-speaking woman from Latvia who was barred from a
parliamentary race won her case before the European Court for Human
Rights. In February, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told the
Latvian Parliament that its language laws might affect NATO's decision
to invite Latvia into its ranks. Reason: the issue is a contentious
point with Moscow. "It's not in our interest to admit countries that
don't have good relations within their borders or with their
neighbors," one NATO official explains.

Will the combined forces of Putin, NATO and the EU be enough to rescue
Russian from the mausoleum? Optimists say the language has withstood
assaults before. At the beginning of the 19th century, upper-class
Russians spoke only French at home, and the Westernizing reforms of
Peter the Great brought an invasion of various European words. But
this time around, Russia has faced a challenge not only to its
language but to its power. In 1904 Joseph Chamberlain proclaimed: "The
day of small nations has long passed away. The day of empires has
come." Unfortunately for the Russian language, today's motto is: all
empires must crumble.

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