Russian: to speak or not to speak?

Last month, Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, dropped Russian as an official language, according to this news report. There are about 50,000 native Russian speakers remaining in Tajikistan, and is often used as the lingua franca between different ethnic groups in the country.

This is nothing new in post-Soviet states, as there has been a trend since 1991 to promote their native language and shed Soviet influences. Currently, only three countries still list Russian as an official language: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.

Here’s a cool New York Times graphic describing the situation of the Russian language in post-Soviet countries.

It’s more complicated in places like Ukraine and Latvia, which still have a sizable number of Russians living there. According to this blog post by Jeffrey White, Latvia will not grant citizenship to anybody who cannot show mastery of Latvian language and history. The government has also closed Russian schools and required classes to be taught in Latvian for more than half the time.

When White proceeded to ask a Latvian woman something in Russian, he received a cold reception.

I awakened her ire with my Russian greeting. She returned it with something I didn’t understand, and proceeded to answer all my questions decidedly not in Russian.

Most ethnic Russians escaped Tajikistan during the civil war following independence, but there are still many factors and consequences to making such a move. It’s not as simple as it seems.

Tajikistan president Emomali Rakhmon aims to return prominence to the Tajik language, which was relegated to home use during Soviet times. He believes that the greatness of a nation depends on the respect is given to its national language.

Tajik blogger Botur agrees that making Tajik the only official language is crucial to national unity. In this Tajik language post (which fortunately has been translated and re-posted on NewEurasia) he writes,

Until we learn and master our language we will not be able ever to stand up, ask, and demand for our rights and choices in a civilized, organized, and effective manner.

Russian politicians are furious over the new law, and according to this article, have suggested that any attempt to reduce the importance of Russian will result in punitive economic measures, such as ceasing to allow Tajik migrants to work in Russia.

This is a big deal because a big part of Tajikistan’s economy is supported by money immigrant workers in Russia send home.

There’s also a debate about the option of schools teaching in Russian. While some people point out that Russian education is essential to communication with former Soviet states, Botur argues that people who are educated in a non-majority language will have trouble being integrated into society.

Not everyone in Tajikistan is happy about this, though. 20% of the population are ethnic minorities, who do not necessarily understand Tajik well. Nigina Rusianova, a schoolteacher said,

My mother is a Pamiri Tajik, and my father is Russian. My husband is from Belarus, but he is not sure about his ethnic roots. And who are my children? They are not Tajiks, but they are Tajikistani! We have always been proud of our multiethnic past.

Botur’s post has sparked a number of comments, most of which disagreed with him.

Max Kalininski, who is Russian, says,

If anything, I think Russian should be promoted more than it is now – it will speed up the modernisation of the country, integrate it more tightly into the CIS social sphere and institutions, help education, and will enable more business, etc… to flourish. Such a process, if applied carefully and with due respect to the native Tajik language, will lead to as a good knowledge of both Russian and Tajik.

According to this blog post, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is alarmed that Russian is losing ground to local languages and English, and launched a campaign in 2008 to promote Russian as a global language.

To me, it almost seems natural for a country to want to rid itself of traces of its foreign conquerors, and the first thing people would do is revert to their original language. However, it is a delicate situation, especially when many young people in these post-Soviet republics look towards the United States and Western culture.

When I was in Mongolia this summer, I noticed that most people over 40 loved Russia. They loved to speak Russian when they had a chance and lament the “good old socialist days when everyone had jobs.” Though not part of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was practically under Soviet control for 70 years. However, most young people don’t care as much. They like hip-hop, burgers and study English instead. They want to be part of a greater global community, not just one bloc under Russian influence.

I spent much of my childhood in Taiwan, which was ruled by Japan for 50 years. To some degree, I think the “official language” thing is more or less a symbol of ethnic pride. Even though Japanese is no longer an official language, many old people still speak it. Due to close business ties and popularity of Japanese culture amongst youth, most students in Taiwan learn Japanese in high school and can use it at least on a basic level. It is still important, but it does not have to be official.

The problem is that many people on the island did not speak Mandarin Chinese when it was made the official language. There were many clashes, and the government openly employed blatant discriminatory practices. 54 years later, it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore, as almost everyone can understand Mandarin now. However, this has caused irreparable loss to many language communities, especially the Taiwanese aboriginals, who have been gradually assimilated or marginalized since settlers from China began arriving on the island in the 1600s. On the other hand, learning the official language gives a kind of sense of unity to the whole island, and empowers the minorities to be able to fight for their own cultural rights nowadays instead of remaining separate and being discriminated against.

Where is the middle ground?

This entry was posted in Russia.

2 thoughts on “Russian: to speak or not to speak?

  1. Thanks Peter for appreciating the post!

    I could tell you more if you could be more specific about your area of interest in this matter… are you interested in the decline of Russian in Tajikistan or in all Soviet blocs? Are you also interested in the Mongolian/Taiwan situation as well?

  2. Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel powerfully about it and love learning more on this matter. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more selective information? It is exceedingly helpful for me.

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