Forgetting How to Speak Russian - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Forgetting How to Speak Russian

Forgetting How to Speak Russian

By Lorena O'Neil



What’s in a word? A lot, if it’s not in Russian. 

By Lorena O'Neil

How do you say “help” in Russian? Hint: Don’t ask a young Turkmenistani.

In the 23 years since the fall of the USSR, Russia has lost its magnetic pull on Central Asia countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and nowhere is this shift more dramatic than in what language people speak. 

Knowing Russian used to be a key to success in Central Asia, but now it’s taking a back burner to English and other languages. Why? The answer involves a sharp decline in ethnic Russians in the region, a pivot on education, energy independence and a war of words. Does it really matter? Actually, yes. The de-Russification of Central Asia could allow the region to dust off quite a bit of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence and thus impact his global pull.

The decline of Russian is an obvious change in Central Asia — one that has Putin worried.

In Central Asia, the younger generation sees Russian as one of many languages to learn as opposed to the language to learn. A recent study showed 82 percent of Turkmenistanis lack any Russian language knowledge, as do 87 percent of Tajikistanis, 59 percent of Uzbekistanis, 50 percent of Kyrgyzstanis and 16 percent of the residents of Kazakhstan. While many Kazakhstanis still know Russian, they have followed the trend of most Central Asian countries in reducing the number of Russian-language school pupils. Between 1990-1991 and 2010-2011 Kazakhstan reduced the number of pupils by 69 percent. Kyrgyzstan was the only country with a rise.

…the total of Russian language speakers will fall from 300 million in 1990 to 150 million by 2025.

The decline of the use of Russian language is a significant and obvious change in Central Asia, one that has Putin worried. In fact, he said that the decline of Russian being spoken as a native language around the world is “ruining the country” and “creating problems,” and even called for a Council of the Russian language, created by the Ministry of Education. Rough estimates claim the total of Russian language speakers will fall from 300 million in 1990 to 150 million by 2025.


“In Soviet Times, people were encouraged to speak Russian, you couldn’t go very far in life if you didn’t. Now that support has gone away mostly,” says Paul Goble, blogger of Window on Eurasia. “What happens when you wake up and you have fourteen countries around you who do not have Russia as their second language?”

Putin with both arms up and 2 flags behind him as he speaks standing

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers on December 12, 2012 an annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow

Source Getty

The decline in the number of ethnic Russians in Central Asia is a significant contributing factor, but it is far from being the only one. The hours of Russian instruction in schools in Central Asia are being reduced, and many students are choosing to learn other languages like English, German, French or Chinese Mandarin in place of Russian. Native languages are linked with each country’s sense of identity and are gaining importance with requests to use state language versus Russian in official documents.

For the elite generation in Central Asia, Russia has become “almost an irrelevancy.”

“The younger generation now sees Russia in a totally different way, they see it as just one country,” says Martha Olcott, a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. She explains that while working class people in Central Asia might be attempting to learn Russian in search of potential jobs, for the elite generation Russia has become “almost an irrelevancy.”

She says those who can afford Western education now set their sights on that, and the white-collar world might choose to go Turkey or Iran over Russia. China is also coming in as a major power player, offering thousands of dollars in scholarships to study in China.

Goble concurs. “Why study in Moscow when the energy and resources and intellectual excitement is somewhere else?”

The energy independence of countries like Kazakhstan are also giving many in the Central Asia region a chance to distance themselves from Russia, and China has been quick to jump in. “In terms of commercial and business ties, China has far eclipsed Russia already,” says Fred Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He says Putin is fighting back very hard by building free trade zones but that most of the countries in this region feel it is more a political project than an economic one.

Aerial view during the day of oilfield in blue green water

An aerial view shows artificial islands on Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian sea.

Source Corbis

What does this mean for Russia’s future in the world in Central Asia? As countries in the region shift slowly away from Russia, they are by no means turning their back on the country entirely. But countries that were traditionally bound to Russia by language, culture, energy and ethnicity are starting to gain independence, and relationships with other countries like China are increasing. Meanwhile, Putin wants to remain an influence. 

Goble suggests that Putin will continue to engage in bombast with his neighbors because he’s playing an extremely weak hand that is getting weaker. “In a sense, the thuggishness that Putin is using (on) his neighbors is a product of the weakening of Russia’s cultural influence. You have to give $15 billion to the Ukraine. You have to play games with military forces. You have to play games with supplying oil and gas. Why? Because you’ve lost the resource of unquestioned influence.”

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