Former USSR: STATUS AND PROSPECTS OF THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE IN THE NEW INDEPENDENT STATES
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Wed Nov 12 21:10:25 UTC 2008
*STATUS AND PROSPECTS OF THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE IN THE NEW INDEPENDENT STATES*
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*KIRILL GAVRILOV, ELENA KOZIEVSKAYA, ELENA YATSENKO,
The Eurasia Heritage Foundation, Moscow*
One of the major resources that the New Independent States (NIS) inherited
from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union is the Russian language. During
several generations the Russian people have put all the huge human and
financial resources in its development. What is the current position and
what are the prospects of the Russian language in the NIS? Do people living
in the former Soviet republics understand and appreciate a generous gift of
their fathers and grandfathers who have provided them with such a
competitive advantage in the globalized world?
It is obvious that for the formulation of an adequate language policy both
in Russia and the NIS it is not enough to be guided by the general data that
the Russian-speaking area is reducing quickly and by the approximate and
frequently outdated estimations of number of people who know Russian. We
should pay our attention to the fact that the only profound monitoring of
the status of the Russian language is the Report of the Russian Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, which was prepared on the basis of 2000-2001 period data
and published in 2003.
The research carried out by the Eurasia Heritage
Foundation<http://www.fundeh.org/eng/>in 2005-2007 allows us to fill
in partly the shortage of an actual and
trustworthy information about the position of the Russian language in the
*The estimation of the spread of the Russian language* in the post-Soviet
space has been carried out on the basis of comparison of two interconnected
parameters: the part of population who has a good command of Russian and the
frequency of use of Russian in various spheres of life.
The first parameter was supposed to be revealed as a result of the analysis
of self-estimation of proficiency in Russian (Picture 1).
Picture 1. Self-estimations of proficiency in Russian
In Belarus three quarters of interviewed people have estimated their
proficiency in Russian most highly (I speak, write and read fluently in
Russian). From 50 up to 70% of respondents in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia,
and Moldova gave the same estimation. In these countries the percent of
those who assure that do not know Russian (from 1 up to 4%) is minimal, the
share of those who understand but don't speak Russian is also insignificant.
In other countries (Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Tajikistan,
Estonia) the level of expansion of Russian has some similarity: about a half
of the respondents consider that they have more (write without mistakes) or
less (write with mistakes) fluent Russian. About every tenth person (from 7
up to 13 %) approves, that does not know Russian absolutely, besides that,
from 10 up to 20% cannot speak and though understand Russian. That is to
say, as a whole the share of those who cannot speak Russian at all does not
The lowest level of proficiency in Russian was revealed in Azerbaijan. There
was the least percent of the respondents approving that they know Russian
well (speak, write and read in Russian without mistakes or with mistakes) –
42%. Thus almost equal quantity of respondents (38%), by their own
estimations, cannot speak Russian, and almost a quarter of them (23%) do not
know Russian at all.
The second parameter is the use of Russian in various spheres of life. This
parameter is important for an estimation of the general prevalence of
Russian, as the knowledge of Russian is just a necessary condition of its
application. During the research the questions concerning a language used by
respondents for communication with family members at home, informally with
friends and at work/study were asked.
Practice of use of Russian in family allows us to divide the countries into
three groups (Picture 2):
1. The countries where Russian is used in family communication much more
often or approximately at the same level as the national language – Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
2. The countries where the portion of the Russian-speaking families is
wide enough, but nevertheless it is appreciable less than a share of
families which use the national language - Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova,
3. The countries with primary use of the national language in family
communication - Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania and Tajikistan.
Picture 2. Language of communication in family, at home
The similar picture can be seen during the analysis of the use of Russian in
the informal communication (with friends) and also in professional sphere
The generalization of data of application of Russian allows us to draw a
conclusion that in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine the Russian language is
used in all three spheres more often. In Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova and
Estonia Russian is used often enough, however the national language
prevails. In other countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania
and Tajikistan Russian is used seldom in all of three spheres.
Below is an estimation of a share of the population who has a good command
of Russian, and also the generalized parameter of the use of Russian in
three spheres (Tab.1).
Table 1. The generalized parameters of prevalence of the Russian language
among adult population
Thus, the obtained data allows us to *differentiate the countries on
prevalence of Russian*. The maximal prevalence is observed in Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In these countries about 70% of adult population
speak Russian fluently.
The minimal prevalence of Russian is observed in Armenia, Azerbaijan,
Georgia, Lithuania and Tajikistan. Here no more than a third of total
population has a good command of Russian and also Russian is used seldom
enough in three spheres of communication.
In other countries such as Latvia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Estonia Russian
is well known by many people; however, the corresponding share does not
exceed 60%. The sphere of communication in Russian is also limited in great
Let's pay attention to the fact that the high level of proficiency in
Russian is observed in those countries where a real communication in the
Russian language takes place most intensively. Thus observed disproportions
can testify that Russian is demanded in insufficient degree, so it can lose
its positions in future. Thus in Ukraine with a high level of expansion of
Russian the frequency of its use in three spheres of the life is lower than
in Kazakhstan that probably testifies indirectly that position of Russian in
Ukraine will worsen much more quickly.
Within the frameworks of the research the other way which allows estimating
*the**prospects of Russian in the NIS* was also used. It is the comparison
of a level of proficiency in Russian of the adult population (they were
participants of mass interviews) and their children/grandchildren (the level
of their proficiency in the Russian language was estimated by adult members
of family). The more the gap, the higher the probability of the fact that
Russian can lose its positions in prospect (Tab. 2).
Table 2. Level of proficiency in Russian by adult population and their
The research has shown that in each of these groups of the countries there
are states where the difference between generations in the level of
proficiency in Russian is great enough. Among the countries with the maximal
prevalence of Russian it is Ukraine, among the countries with an average
level - Estonia and Latvia, and among the countries with a low level -
It means that in prospect with an absence of changes in internal policy of
the country and also without the influence of external factors Ukraine with
greater probability can join the group of the countries with average
prevalence of Russian, Estonia and Latvia would join the group of countries
with low prevalence of Russian, and Lithuania substantially can "drop out"
of Russian-speaking space.
Prospects of the Russian language in the post-Soviet space cannot be
estimated only by studying its prevalence. Extremely important parameter is
the policy concerning Russian in the NIS which can both: aggravate available
negative tendencies and, on the contrary, smooth them out. During the
research an attempt to systematize *data about the status of the Russian
language* in the NIS and to compare this information with the data about
quantity of the Russian-speaking population has been undertaken (Tab. 3).
The attention to legislatively fixed status of the language is not casual.
In every country a level of the state financing of everything connected with
the support and the development of the language depends on that. The share
of pupils studying in Russian in the corresponding countries is showed as an
original "indicator" of a state policy concerning Russian.
Table 3. Features of the position of Russian in the NIS
*According to the Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic Kazakhstan,
Russian «is used in the state organizations and institutions of local
government equally with the Kazakh language».
** Data of official statistics (2005-2006).
During the research, a number of the general tendencies in development of
legal base regulating the status of the Russian language in the countries
have been revealed.
First of all, in the legislation of the overwhelming majority of the NIS the
official language status is not appropriated to the Russian language and the
system of legal guarantees for its application and development is not
established. Most precisely and consistently in a question of legislative
definition of the status of language acts Belarus, which has recognized
Russian to be the official language. The legislation of the Republic of
Kyrgyzstan which has recognized Russian as an official language contains a
number of legal guarantees on protection of languages of peoples living in
Secondly, even those countries that in the 90th of the last century endowed
Russian with the status of 'language of interethnic dialogue' by the
legislative inertia of the Soviet period either have already excluded
corresponding positions of legal certificates by present moment, or they are
in a stage of realization of the state programs directed on protection of a
state language and frequently against Russian.
Thirdly, the attitude towards the Russian language reflected in the
legislation of the New Independent States somewhat is consequence of the
general attitude to the Russian policy and Russia as a whole. In particular,
the most adverse law-making policy concerning Russian can be observed in the
Baltic States and the South Caucasus.
Fourthly, as a result of that policy a significant reduction of the number
of Russian schools, the centers of the Russian language and culture,
Russian-speaking mass media (including printed) is observed in the majority
of the New Independent States.
Fifthly, frequently there is no system of norms of a legal status of
the official language and other languages in the legislation of the New
Independent States, unlike the legislation of Russia. In those countries
which legislation contains regulations about the status of Russian,
interpretation of these norms has an inconsistent and ambiguous character.
Besides, the official status not always reflects the real position of
Russian in those countries. Moreover, an obvious correlation between the
status and prevalence and frequently the state policy concerning Russian is
not observed nowadays. We shall give two examples. In Belarus, Russian is
an official language. This country is characterized by the maximal
prevalence of Russian. In this case a full conformity of real position of
the Russian language and the state policy concerning it is observed in
Belarus. On the contrary, in Azerbaijan Russian has no official status, only
a small share of the population has a good command of Russian, whereas a
great number of pupils are studying in Russian (in comparison with
other states of the South Caucasus). It is represented, that similar
discrepancies require additional studying.
We believe that opportunities for development of Russian will be wider in
those of the NIS where it will have a high legal status. However, the great
importance for prospects of Russian would firstly have the real measures of
a state policy concerning Russian, secondly, the great demand
for studying Russian. For this reason an attempt to analyze* the **need of
the population for studying Russian* has been undertaken during the
Data of the official statistics and the results of the polls testify that:
- The most acute problem with studying in Russian remains in Armenia,
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and over these countries the need for
strengthening of the positions of Russian in the sphere of education
- The populations of Azerbaijan and Lithuania as a whole do not consider
necessary the widening of the opportunities for studying Russian and in
it; they consider a current situation to be comprehensible.
- In Belarus, Russian dominates in sphere of education and practically
there is no social base among the population which would support attempts to
weaken positions of Russian.
- In other countries problems of education in Russian are in the stage of
Certainly, the state policy in the sphere of education in Russian can be
differently appreciated by the population of the country. In the research it
was supposed to reveal this estimation as a result of the analysis of
answers to a question "How do you think, studying of Russian at
schools should be expanded, reduced or it is necessary to leave all without
changes?". A group of those who consider that current position should be
left without changes with some clauses is an indicator of approval of
Belarus, where Russian has a recognized high status and where the majority
of children study Russian, belongs to the first group. The same group
includes Azerbaijan and Lithuania which population does not consider it
important to expand studying Russian at schools. They are satisfied with the
established format of studying Russian in an education system of the country
as a whole. Kazakhstan belongs to the first group also where more than half
of interviewed people consider that it is not necessary to change the
situation with studying Russian at schools in the country. Thus, practically
third of the whole population believes, that it is necessary to expand
studying of Russian.
Similar polarity of opinions on state policy concerning Russian is typical
for the second group of the countries. As a whole in Estonia, Moldova,
Latvia, Georgia and Ukraine there is a reduction of studying in Russian at
schools. Thus, from 35 up to 43 % of the population in these countries agree
with that the developed distribution should be saved. However, approximately
the same share of the population supports the expansion of studying of
Russian at schools.
The countries, which population can not agree with present situation and
considers that the expansion of studying of Russian at schools is necessary
belong to the third group. Such picture is observed in Tajikistan and
Armenia. In these countries the minimal number of pupils who study in
Russian whereas an unequivocal position of the population has been fixed by
the poll: which is the necessity of expanding of studying in Russian.
Kyrgyzstan where, however, the situation is not so critical belongs to the
same group also. On the one hand, in this country the part of pupils who
study in Russian is higher than in Armenia and Tajikistan (more than 23% in
comparison with 2%). On the other hand, in Kyrgyzstan the opinion, that it
is necessary to expand studying of Russian is expressed much more seldom
(61% in comparison with 84% in Armenia and 89% in Tajikistan).
The analysis of distribution of answers on another question «What is your
attitude towards the support of the Russian language, which is given by the
Russian government?» actually gives an identical picture. More often
possible support of Russian positively accepted by people interviewed in
Armenia (89% accept positively), in Tajikistan (84%) and in Kyrgyzstan
(69%). At the same time, «interference of Russia» is regarded more
negatively in Georgia (30% - for, 45% - against), and rather indifferent in
Azerbaijan. As a whole, in this question positive attitude to the help of
the Russian government is expressed in the Baltic States, nevertheless the
share of those who consider it as an intervention in the internal affairs is
also high enough here: Estonia (35%), Latvia (29%), Lithuania (26%).
It is important to mention a share of interviewed who wish to begin studying
or to raise a level of Russian and also a share of the population which are
mastering Russian language.
Picture 3. The need for studying Russian in comparison with the level of
proficiency in the Russian language in the countries of research
At a level of the states the need for studying Russian is not connected with
a level of possession of Russian directly. For example, in Belarus and
Estonia the demand for studying Russian is identical, whereas the level
of proficiency in a language in these countries differs: in Belarus it is
high, and in Estonia it is two times lower.
In the Central Asian countries the inverse relationship between a level of
knowledge of Russian and the desire to study is observed. In Kazakhstan
Russian is well known, the situation is a little bit worse in Kyrgyzstan,
and worst of all - in Tajikistan. On the contrary, the maximal need for
studying Russian is in Tajikistan (67%), average is in Kyrgyzstan (37%) and
minimal in Kazakhstan (19%). The population of Tajikistan displays the need
for studying Russian, realizing, that a current level of possession is low
enough. The data across Tajikistan among the interviewed countries show the
highest share of the population which considers that it is necessary to
expand studying Russian at schools. It shows a dissatisfaction of the people
with the conditions and practical absence of an opportunity of studying
Russian in the country.
In Armenia, as well as in Tajikistan, the demand for studying Russian is
high, unlike other countries of the South Caucasus - Georgia and Azerbaijan,
where the adult population practically does not wish to study Russian but is
characterized by a low level of possession. In other words, the low level of
possession is considered as satisfactory and not demanding any updating as a
In the Baltic States the great demand for studying Russian is not at all
observed. Lithuania is characterized with the lowest parameters of the
number of people who wish to study Russian and with the lowest level of its
In Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine the need for increase of a level
of proficiency in Russian is poorly expressed. Thus in Moldova where people
know Russian worse in comparison with Belarus and Ukraine the share wishing
to study it is a little bit higher.
Thus, it is possible to note, that in two countries - Tajikistan and Armenia
- the highest demand for studying Russian is generated and it is not yet
The research of *motivation of studying Russian* shows that «it is important
to study Russian, because it is useful in life». Besides, the analysis has
shown that for adult population of the NIS Russian is significant by virtue
of performance of following functions:
1. Means of dialogue with Russian-speaking fellow citizens (at work, in
everyday life, etc.). In other words, the most significant function of
Russian is communicative - within the limits of the countries of
2. Means of communication with friends/relatives in Russia and other CIS
countries. Russian here acts as the means of the international dialogue.
3. The tool of transfer of a professional knowledge (it is necessary for
reading the literature in Russian because of one's activity and employment).
4. Means of familiarizing with the Russian culture.
Communicative function of Russian (mainly for the communication with
Russian-speaking fellow citizens) was pointed out by not less than a half of
the respondents in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine and Estonia. In
other countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania
and Tajikistan this function also dominates, however because of significant
narrowing of the Russian-speaking environment it is marked much more seldom
in the above mentioned countries.
Thus, the *results of an empirical part of the research* allow us to draw a
conclusion that there is a significant country specificity of position of
Russian in the post-Soviet space. In this connection, there can not be any
«universal solution» to support of Russian; on the contrary, the complex of
measures with individual approach to each country should be developed. By
the data of the research, there are certain problems connected with
the Russian language in each country (except for Belarus, probably). Working
on the support of Russian will be effective only in case of use of the
differentiated approach. So, the complex of measures should be developed
concerning the countries with high prevalence of Russian and with special
accent on «problem points» (Ukraine). Absolutely different approaches should
be applied to the countries with the minimal prevalence of Russian where it
is necessary to accept all efforts for prevention of "loss" of the country
out of Russian-speaking areas (Lithuania). It is also obvious that it is
necessary to concentrate efforts in those countries where a great demand for
studying Russian was observed (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).
As a whole, *predicting the prospects of Russian in the NIS **and developing
a complex of measures on its support* it is necessary to consider that
Russian is an extremely complicated institute which is being in the field of
a political and ideological pressure. The attitude towards Russian is the
reflection of social, economic and political processes and the
contradictions which take place in the post-Soviet space.
On the one hand, Russian is frequently considered in the NIS as "brought" by
Russia and Soviet Union, which means that it is an "alien" to national
culture. On the other hand, Russian enables the communications between
representatives of various ethnic groups both inside of the country, and at
an international level.
It seems that the measures aimed at actualizing the communicative function
of Russian and also at accentuation of the fact that Russian is the language
of integration and globalization will meet the positive response both from
the population and from the authorities. Russian is not only the property of
the Russian ethnos but also of all inhabitants of the post-Soviet space. And
prospects of Russian substantially depend on comprehension of this fact in
the New Independent States.
 The complex research was conducted in the frameworks of other
international projects of the Eurasia Heritage Foundation during three
years. At the finishing stage of the project the public opinion polls were
carried out in the New Independent States in October-November 2007 in the
frameworks of 8-th wave of the international project «Eurasia
(except for Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). The results of the
research have laid down to the basis of «The Russian language in the New
Independent States» publication of the Eurasia Heritage Foundation *
http://www.fundeh.org/publications/books/2/* or *
 The corresponding parameter is equal to 100% if all interviewed people
use Russian as means of a dialogue in family, with friends, and also at
work/study. Accordingly, the smaller share means that in this or that sphere
the percent of the respondents using Russian is lower. This parameter does
not give a priority to any of the spheres of use of Russian, considering
 In Table 2 the generalized parameter of a level of proficiency
in Russian by children and grandchildren is shown (whereas separate
questions were asked about both).
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