Why Russian is still spoken in the former Soviet republics

May 16, 2017 Ksenia Zubacheva, RBTH
Historic connections and economic ties play a key role ensuring that the language remains in use across the post-Soviet space. However, many governments are increasingly downgrading the status of Russian.
Vladimir Lenin
A statue of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the Brest Region of Belarus. A poster on the building says "Clothes for five rubles" in Russian. Source: Viktor Drachev/TASS

More than two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union but the Russian language is still spoken in many former Soviet republics. Even in the Baltic countries and Ukraine, where the authorities took steps to regulate the use of Russian, there are still many Russian-speakers and cases of government officials using Russian informally and formally.

For instance, back in April the mayor of Riga was fined by the Latvian State Language Center for speaking Russian during his meeting with school students. Most recently, in May, the Ukrainian public strongly debated the issue of printing Eurovision tickets in Russian.

Why does Russian remain in use even in those countries that strive to become more European? How come laws and regulations restricting the use of Russian are not always working?

Historic heritage

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the number of Russian-speaking people remained significant through the 1990s and 2000s in many former republics. Even though the governments of many countries thought about lowering the status of Russian, they were wary of doing it because of the risk of potential public discontent.

In countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan where Russian is officially recognized it is used almost everywhere: in business, the state sector, media, education and culture. It is used by the political elite and among younger people who aim to enroll in Russian universities.

There have always been schools and universities that taught in Russian and for many who are not ethnically Russian, the Russian language remains a native language, a language that their families communicate in. “Russian is a state of mind and a language of interethnic communication,” Galiya Ibragimova, an ethnic Kazan Tatar born in Uzbekistan, told RBTH.

Ainur from Kazakhstan agrees: “We need it for communication. There will always be someone who will understand you in Georgia or another former Soviet republic.”

Economic ties

The Russian language is still very much in a position of power in Central Asian countries and, in fact, the number of people that speak and understand basic Russian has grown even when compared to the Soviet days.

Rafael Sattarov, who considers Russian his native language but has Azeri, Jewish and Uzbek ethnic roots, believes that this is partly due to high migration of laborers from countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Russia.  

Seeking to find work in Russia becomes an incentive for young adults from Central Asia to learn Russian. According to the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States (Rossotrudnichestvo), the number of students attending Russian courses has been growing in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In Latvia Russian does not enjoy an official status, but it can informally be called a “language of business,” Boris Egorov, a Latvia-born Russian told RBTH. There are more than 6,000 companies with Russian capital in the country and its tourism industry is still predominantly dependent on visitors from Russia.

The situation is similar in Estonia, which also has a large population of Russian-speakers (around 30 percent of the total population as of 2011). In 2016 Russians ranked second after the Finns when it came to the number of foreign tourists visiting Estonia.

Russian is also spoken in Moldova, especially in the regions of Transnistria and Gagaúzia, which have maintained a strong relationship with Russia since 1991. According to the 2014 census, more than 263,000 (9.4 percent of the population) native Russian speakers live in Moldova.

Russian has traditionally been taught in Moldovan schools as a second language and is likely to remain in use, especially since Moldova decided to restore economic relations with Russia following the visit of Moldovan President Igor Dodon to Moscow in January this year.

What about Ukraine and Georgia?

Despite political tensions with Russia and steps to undermine the positions of the Russian language that followed in those countries, Ukraine and Georgia still have a significant amount of Russian-speakers. According to the census of 2001, there were around 8.3 million people in Ukraine who considered Russian as their native language. In Georgia, this number was not that high – just 45,920 people in 2014.

Ukraine, being a historical “sibling” of Russia, has traditionally been one of the key Russian-speaking countries. In 2008, according to Gallup, 83 percent of Ukrainians chose Russian as a primary language of communication. Now, unoffically, at least 70 percent of the population knows Russian and the language remains popular online.

In 2014, for instance, around 90 percent of search requests on Google were made in Russian. The Russian language is also quite popular among Ukrainian media outlets, both TV and print. Only around 35 percent of newspapers and 25 percent of magazines were published in the Ukrainian language in 2016, according to the BBC.

Recently Ukraine has taken steps towards lower public use of Russian, and now there are fewer schools and kindergartens for native speakers of the language. European languages are becoming more popular in the country.

According to Zlata Simonenko, a lawyer from Ukraine, the next generation of Ukrainians is less likely to speak Russian.  “Children are learning Ukrainian starting from kindergartens and then go to Ukrainian-medium schools. There are very few Russian-medium schools,” she notes.

As for Georgia, after a large-scale promotion of English, the new administration seems to have opted for a revival of Russian in the country. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has recently stated that forgetting Russian would be “fundamentally wrong” as it is an effective tool of communicating Georgia’s position to its neighbors.

Russian is still widely in use given close the tourist links between Russia and Georgia and close people-to-people contacts between the countries. “Many in Georgia have close friends and relatives in Russia and make their children learn Russian too,” Tamta Utiashvili from Tbilisi told RBTH. “Plus Russian is required for job applicants as well, especially for those involved in tourism.”

Earlier the Financial Times reported that Russian had lost more ground that any other language over last two decades. But the reality is much more complex than that. Russian largely remains in use because of the common history that has not yet died out, and it is likely to continue to be a language of interethnic communication between the many nations of the post-Soviet world for the foreseeable future, at least as long as close economic ties are intact.

 
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