Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 22 15:33:48 UTC 2008

 Uzbekistan: *Do You Speak Russian?*
by Marina Kozlova<>
21 May 2008

*Younger Uzbeks are losing touch with the former official language.*

TASHKENT | I had a misunderstanding over an Internet card I was trying to
buy from a young merchant in one of Tashkent's stores not far from the
Russian Embassy. He tried to convince me that the card was valid until 2010
while I distinctly saw that it expired in 2009. Suddenly it dawned upon me
that we were speaking about the same thing, but the vendor mixed up
*devyat*(nine) and
*desyat* (10) in Russian. When I spoke Uzbek, we were in agreement on the
expiration date.  Since gaining independence, Uzbekistan and many other
former Soviet republics have replaced Russian as the official language and
it has fallen out of favor with younger generations. English is increasingly
the preferred second language.

Liliya Chekhomova, an elementary school teacher and chairwoman of the
Russian Culture Center in Tashkent's Yunus Abad district, believes that
Uzbekistan has taken a giant step back by distancing itself from the Russian
language. "As a result of a rather crude language policy, the whole decade
[of the 1990s] was lost for the indigenous population in terms of Russian
language skills," Chekhomova said. Rakhmatjon Kuldashev, a prominent Uzbek
poet and journalist, agrees that Uzbeks are slowly losing their former
official language. "My nephews, who came from the provinces to Tashkent,
don't know Russian," Kuldashev said. "They're studying at universities and
trying to learn Russian. My fourth-grade daughter can translate Russian
texts but can't speak Russian. My son, a second-grader, knows only one word,
*zdravstvuyte,* [hello] in Russian."

One reason for this decline, according to Kuldashev, is the decrease of the
ethnic Russian population. "A lot of ethnic Russians used to live here, and
we socialized with them very often. As a result, Uzbeks knew the Russian
language very well," he said.


For much of Uzbekistan's post-Soviet existence, President Islam Karimov has
pursued de-Russification policies that have steadily decreased the number of
ethnic Russians in the country, from roughly 1.65 million in 1989 to about
620,000 in 2005, or about 2.3 percent of the population at that time.
Government policies have also de-emphasized the teaching of Russian language
and cultural traditions in schools.

Russian was the mandatory language of government and instruction during
Soviet times. Uzbek was made the official language in 1995. In the ensuring
years, legislative acts and government documents were published in Uzbek.
Uzbek has replaced Russian in commerce as well as government.

The 14 former Soviet republics, other than Russia, have pursued similar
policies, some more vigorously than others.

"The deteriorating status of the Russian language in Uzbekistan has been
furthered by a deliberate state policy that aims to gradually expel remnants
of Russian culture from Uzbek society," Alisher Ilkhamov, a research fellow
at the University of London's Center of Contemporary Central Asia and the
Caucasus, wrote in a 2006 paper for the U.S.-based National Bureau of Asian

Before moving to London, Ilkhamov was founder and president of a private
research company and executive director of the Open Society Institute's
Assistance Foundation in Tashkent.

"Although the Russian language remains a second obligatory language in the
national school system, the number of schools where Russian is the primary
language of instruction declined from 1,230 during the Soviet period to 813
in 2000," Ilkhamov wrote.

While some schools teach in a mix of Russian and Uzbek, in most Uzbek
schools Russian is taught as any foreign language, for just two hours a

As a result, growing numbers of young people in Tashkent cannot count in
Russian and students in universities do not understand questions in Russian.
But the situation is more pronounced outside Tashkent, where declining
numbers of people, mostly local authorities, understand Russian.


"It's a problem not to know Russian because this is a major language, a
world language," Kuldashev said. Poor Russian language skills also limit job
opportunities because Russia remains a leading market for Uzbek migrant

There were 102,658 officially registered labor migrants and about 1.5
million illegal Uzbek immigrants in Russia in 2006, according to a report in
the Russian newspaper *Novye Izvestiya*. Poor language skills and a lack of
cultural knowledge of Russia, particularly among younger migrants, can lead
to alienation and few career advancement opportunities.

But Russian is not totally lost. Ilkhamov's paper estimates that 70 percent
of Uzbeks speak Russian fluently and Russian-language magazines and
television dominate the foreign media.

When the country's relations with the United States and other Western states
soured after the brutal suppression of the Andijan uprising in May 2005,
language trends tilted back toward Russia, as did the country's political
relations. Many ethnic Uzbeks moved their children to Russian-language
schools and classes.

"A tendency to decrease the number of Russian-language schools and
Russian-language classes stopped two years ago," said Farit Mukhametshin,
the Russian ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Mukhametshin said his embassy donates Russian-language books to the
libraries of Uzbek schools and universities, and organizes summer and winter
camps throughout Uzbekistan so that schoolchildren can learn Russian. Branches
of three Russian universities have opened in Tashkent and are popular
despite their high cost.
However, Chekhomova, the culture center director, says a major shift back to
Russian is unlikely because many qualified teachers have left the country
since independence. Instruction in other languages is more common. Besides
English, German is increasingly popular among younger people because of the
sizeable German business and investment community in Uzbekistan.

And in a sign that de-Russification continues, Tashkent authorities in May
renamed Alexander Pushkin street. The street from the capital's center to
the monument honoring the great Russian poet is now called Mustaqillik

*Marina Kozlova is a journalist based in Tashkent.*


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