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  • Writer's picture Nate Ostiller

The Death of the Russian Language?

A year on from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many former Russian Empire and USSR nations are reevaluating the place of the Russian language in their futures. The Red Line's Nate Ostiller takes us on a tour across the vast territories and the complexities of Russian's role in each culture.


The Russian language, which was for centuries the lingua franca across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is facing an uncertain future. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many nations that were previously in the Russian Empire or USSR are increasingly rethinking their relationship with the former imperial centre. While the Russian language can be regarded as simply a means of communication, others see it as a historical vestige that they would like to be rid of once and for all. A rejection of the Russian language for future generations can mean many things. It could be taken as a sign that a nation wants to promote their own national language, but for some countries in the region, it is a clear demonstration of the desire to break away from the Russian sphere of influence.


The Common Language In the Russian Empire and then later the Soviet Union, Russian was the dominant language of official purposes and inter-ethnic communication; despite the Soviet government’s often convoluted policies towards promoting the national languages of the constituent republics, Russian was elevated above all others. Russian language education was compulsory and knowledge was essentially required if one wanted to be an ‘elite’ or excel in a career in the Communist Party or governance. Across the USSR, inter-ethnic communication was most often done in Russian and was the gold standard for education. Although national languages were used for internal communication, Russian was the de facto state language.

Protesters in Ukraine fighting to preserve the Russian language. One placard reads “Authorities – bring back the Russian [language] schools!” Credit; Gennadiy Makarov/Wikimedia Commons

In historiography, the dissolution of the USSR is typically shown as a process, but in reality there was a great deal of suddenness about the implosion. The collapse in 1991, partially fuelled by the constituent republics’ increasing demands for autonomy, marked an end to the peak of Russian linguistic dominance, but it did not mean that the language disappeared from the post-Soviet world overnight either. Rather, it left an inconsistent patchwork of ethno-linguistic issues that differ dramatically across the 15 newly independent countries, including Russia itself. Over the past 30 years since the dissolution, the process has not been static. The situation today, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is messy, and the future is unclear.


In some ways, the post-1991 language issues can be broken into two rough categories. The first, and most immediately pressing, is how the former (non-Russian) constituent republics of the USSR attempted to balance promoting their own national language with maintaining Russian as a means for inter-ethnic communication. The second is that the breakup of the USSR also left around 25 million ethnic Russians outside of the new Russian borders, in newly independent countries that had their own national languages. In Soviet times, the linguistic integration was not a two-way street; ethnic Russians in Estonia or Kazakhstan rarely learned Estonian or Kazakh, while ethnic Estonians or Kazakhs had mandatory Russian language education. As a result, many of these Russians in these new countries had no knowledge of their new national language, and often, resistance towards learning it. This situation still exists today, causing the creation of parallel linguistic communities, most notably in the Baltics, but also in Central Asia. Russian was, and in many ways continues to be, the language of business.


Beyond the community division, there is also related political tensions as Russians often chafe under their respective governments’ attempts to promote their own national languages and reduce the dominance of Russian. The Russian government, unsurprisingly, presents itself as the protector of these Russian speakers outside of Russia, which has played out in Moldova, Kazakhstan, the Baltics, and particularly in the country with the most tense and pressing debate about language, Ukraine.


A War Over Language?

One of the most often stated reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, first in the Donbass and Crimea in 2014, and then the entire country in 2022, was to protect the rights of Russian speakers. The Ukrainian government has also had inconsistent policies towards the promotion of Ukrainian, and for much of Ukraine’s independence, Russian has been the dominant language of daily life in a large part of the country, particularly the east, south, and centre. In the two years I spent in Kyiv, from 2020-2022, Russian was the primary language I heard in the street, even if all the signs and menus were in Ukrainian. Zelensky himself is a native Russian speaker, and had to work to improve his Ukrainian skills as he sought to be a politician. The TV show, Servant of the People, that propelled him into politics, is filmed largely in Russian.


However, at the same time, using Ukrainian is often seen as a demonstration of one’s Ukrainian-ness, and an expression of one’s resistance to Russia. After the 2022 invasion, I saw personally that many of my Ukrainian friends who used to only share things on social media in Russian began to switch to Ukrainian. At the same time, many of the numerous videos of the Ukrainian Army in action show soldiers speaking to each other in Russian, or Surzhyk, a mix of Russian and Ukrainian together. When I visited Kyiv in summer 2022, the woman at the train station who sold me a t-shirt with the famous phrase, ‘Russian Warship Go Fuck Yourself’, spoke to me in Russian. Many Ukrainians whom I speak to will say that is embarrassing to hear Ukrainians still speak Russian, but then will acknowledge that it will likely take at least a generation or two for Ukrainian to fully displace Russian.

Moving eastwards, it is clear there are also somewhat similar (and potentially inflammatory) dynamics in Kazakhstan, which itself has a significant Russian minority, and Russian continues to be dominant in the major cities, especially Almaty. There is a push however, to reduce the level of Russian and promote Kazakh, which includes an expensive and complicated process of switching Kazakh from Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet. As Kazakhstan has undertaken small but noticeable steps to distance itself from Russia following the 2022 invasion, this has taken on newfound importance.

A person holds a photo of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who was shot dead, during his funeral at his family home in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, July 23, 2021.
A map of ethnic groups in the Former USSR. Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Public Domain.

As happened in Ukraine, there are persistent fears that Russia will use this as an opportunity to declare that it needs to protect Russian speakers, especially in the ethnic Russian north of the country. In March 2022, Russian Duma Deputy Sergei Savostanyanov exclaimed that the type of ‘denazification’ Russia undertaking in Ukraine should be repeated in Kazakhstan (and other countries, including even Poland). Although many Russian politicians and TV commentators have been prone to make such hyperbolic and incendiary remarks, there is a historical precedent for Russian separatism in Kazakhstan.


Given the current state of the war in Ukraine, a full on Russian-led military solution to the ethnolinguistic situation in Kazakhstan is unlikely. At the same time, almost half of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, is ethnically Russian, and the city is predominantly Russian speaking. When I visited Kazakhstan in August 2022, Russian was everywhere, and although I heard some Kazakh here and there, most restaurants didn’t even have menus in Kazakh.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, Russian continues to play an important role, in large part because Russia is the major economic hub of the region. Millions of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz, and to a lesser extent Turkmen, go to work in Russia as laborers, often in unsavory conditions, so knowledge of Russian is seen as a gateway to better opportunities. Russian is still considered to be more prestigious, and I found that the vast majority of people I met in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could freely communicate in Russian. A large percentage of the economies of Central Asian countries rely on remittances from migrant workers in Russia, a system which has also been upended by the invasion. On the other side, Central Asia is also a vital zone of competition between Russia and China, and China has been making inroads and significant investments into the region, part of which are attempts to increase the influence and spread of Chinese culture and language. To be sure, there is stiff competition, in large part because Russia has long been the culturally dominant figure, and the roots of Russian language and culture are much deeper.

"Many Ukrainians whom I speak to will say that is embarrassing to hear Ukrainians still speak Russian, but then will acknowledge that it will likely take at least a generation or two for Ukrainian to fully displace Russian."

Further south, in the extremely ethnolinguistically diverse South Caucasus, the situation is completely different, and there are significant divides among the three countries. Georgia, with its western leaning population (but Russian leaning government), has a huge generational divide in the knowledge of Russian. Older people who grew up in the Soviet Union know Russian quite well, while the post-Soviet generation would much prefer to speak English. Georgia took decisive steps after the 2004 Rose Revolution to move away from Russia’s sphere of influence, and a large part of this was to improve the quality of English education and shift away from Russian. As a result, young Georgians often speak English quite well, but only passively know Russian. In Tbilisi in 2022, English is spoken quite freely, and due to Georgia’s own experience with Russian aggression in 2008, many people are hesitant to speak Russian. At the popular bar and hostel Fabrika, restaurants have signs that state “we don’t speak the language of our occupiers- speak English or Georgian”.

To add one more factor into the mix, a huge number of Russians have arrived in Georgia after the outbreak of war (some say more 200,000), and because they typically don’t speak Georgian and in some cases limited English as well, many choose to speak Russian to locals. All young Georgians from Tbilisi whom I spoke to about the issue stated that they if they were to meet someone else from the Caucasus whom didn’t speak Georgian, their first instinct would be to speak English with them, namely because most simply don’t know Russian very well nor are comfortable speaking it. Echoing the above-mentioned ideological aspect of the situation, one Georgian friend, who is fluent in both Russian and English, said he would prefer to speak English even with Russians, and only revert to Russian if they truly didn’t know English. On the other hand for example, Mamuka Makulashvili, the head of the Georgian Foreign Legion that has been fighting Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014, has been seen speaking in English to Western media, but in Russian to Ukrainian based news organizations.


To the south, In Armenia, with its much closer relationship to Moscow, Russian is less political and easily spoken (at least in Yerevan). Azerbaijan has a more tense relationship with its northern neighbor, but Russian is still often considered to be more prestigious, and many Azeris attend Russian language schools. Moreover, because there hasn’t been a direct conflict between Russia and Armenia or Azerbaijan, in general the language issue is less politicized.


A Slow Death or a Temporary Shift?

In short, there is no simple answer to the question about the future of the Russian language in the post-Soviet world. There are complex regional and individual dynamics, and each country has its own unique path and way of dealing with the question. Despite this, it does feel like now, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is perhaps the right time to be asking this question. The invasion and Russia’s related imperialist rhetoric has reignited long simmering conversations about Russia’s role as a colonial power and how post-Soviet countries (including Russia itself) should be decolonized, an assertion which is controversial in of itself. Of course, the spread of the Russian language is one of the most lasting effects from the Russian Empire and subsequently the USSR, and language reforms have been at the forefront of these conversations.


In many parts of the former USSR, English has come to replace Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication. The small but linguistically diverse Baltic region, who have a lot in common culturally, as well as having a shared deeply negative perspective of the Soviet occupation, have largely shunned Russian for younger and future generations, and despite often not knowing each other’s languages, have regional solidarity based in English.

World Bank senior mission chief Peter Breuer, right, speaks with Masahiro Nozaki, mission chief for Sri Lanka, by his side during a media conference in Colombo.
Demonstrators hold placards during a rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 6 March 2022. Credit: Malika Autalipova/AFP

At the same time, however, it is hard to imagine a country such as Belarus, in which more than 70% of the population claim to speak Russian as their mother tongue, simply relegating the Russian language to the dustbin of history. In many cases, despite the clear political pitfalls, Russian is still and likely will continue to be the language of inter-ethnic communication throughout parts of the post-Soviet region. In part, this is simply because of convenience. Even as countries such as Georgia have sought to elevate English teaching over Russian, until recently there simply were not enough qualified English teachers. Often, school teachers who had previously taught Russian at school were then switching to teach English, despite barely knowing the language themselves. In Central Asia, the switch to English is further behind, and due to the relatively low level of English knowledge, Russian is still a more regionally useful language.

There is a final point here that some Ukrainians themselves have expressed; that Russia and the Russian language are not synonymous. Millions of non-ethnic Russians speak Russian as their native language, and tens of millions more speak it as a second or third, so some ask, why should Russia get to claim this language as their own? Despite the complicated legacy, English, French, and Spanish continue to be spoken widely across the world, even in countries that bitterly struggled to liberate themselves from colonialist powers. At this moment, amidst Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, there is a widespread movement to get rid of all things Russian, but as the seventh largest language in the world, and one with likely more than a hundred million speakers outside of Russia, it will not simply just go away.

 

Written by Nate Ostiller.

Edited by Wade McCagh.

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