Saying Nyet to Russian

By Conant, Eve | Newsweek International, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Saying Nyet to Russian


Conant, Eve, Newsweek International


Hardly anyone these days has a good word for the language of the former Soviet Union. Teenagers in Central Asia say they hate it; thousands have taken to the streets of Moldova and Belarus to protest it; former Soviet governments have deleted it from their mandatory-education programs, and some countries, like Latvia, have passed discriminatory laws against those who speak it. A Russian visitor to rural Moldova or Uzbekistan might have a fine conversation with a person over 35--but a 20-year-old will greet him with blank stares. "If before more than 90 percent of the people in the Soviet territories spoke Russian, now less than half do," says Vladimir Neroznyak, a Moscow linguist who helps advise the Russian government on language policy. Within the decade, he predicts, that figure will have fallen to one in 10.

What a change. Not long ago the language rivaled English as a lingua franca of empire. Then came the revolutions of the early 1990s, when the former republics began promoting local languages as a symbol of independence. Anti-Russian "affirmative action" programs sprang up, rewarding those who spoke the local tongue with coveted university jobs and government positions. Meanwhile, Russian-language schools lost funding or were shut down. Small-scale linguistic scuffles in Ukraine led to such extremes as a proposed ban on Russian pop music and the formation of ultranationalist "Ukrainization teams" to harass sellers of Russian music and literature. Last April a Russian-language radio station in Latvia lost its license for violating laws limiting the Russian "content" of its broadcasts to 25 percent or less.

The results are evident everywhere. The number of schools that conduct classes solely in Russian has dropped by 71 percent in Turkmenistan, 65 percent in Moldova, 59 per-cent in Kazakhstan and 47 percent in Uzbekistan. Leaders of many newly independent states are pleased. "For decades we couldn't even think in our own language," says Moldovan parliamentarian Stefan Cekareanu, whose party earlier this year helped organize demonstrations against a communist-backed initiative to reintroduce compulsory Russian in Moldovan schools. "If Russian were to somehow become official again, other Soviet habits would start to creep back."

Russian is under assault even within Russia itself. As many as 10,000 foreign words, such as bucksi, voucher, biznesmen and bizneslunch, have entered the language within the past decade--the opposite of what takes place in "A Clockwork Orange," where Russianisms like moloko and droog invade English. "Whether we like it or not, half of Russian business is conducted in English," says Neroznyak, who is lobbying to introduce language-purity laws as strict as those of the French.

The Kremlin is on his side. Over the past two years President Vladimir Putin has more than doubled the amount of money appropriated for the protection of the language. Russian "must be preserved as a language of international discourse," he said soon after being elected, if only so that the former Soviet states will be "able to compete" in the world at large. Putin's wife, Ludmilla--a linguist by education--has become the Kremlin's spokeswoman for the campaign. Across the former Soviet territory, she can be found opening Russian-language centers and attending Russian-language "Olympiads" where students compete in grammar drills.

Clearly, there are benefits to being able to speak the tongue of Mother Russia.

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