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Russia: Is Russian Language Dying Out In Former Soviet Republics?

Yury Gagarin helped the Russian language achieve an otherworldly influence (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, August 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- At the official opening of the Year of the Russian Language in Paris earlier this year, a giant banner proclaimed: "Russian Language: The First Language Of Communication In Space."

Organizers boast that Russian is one of only six official languages at the United Nations, and say that events held through the year are aimed at encouraging foreigners to learn Russian, and promoting the Russian language and culture abroad.

Universal Language?

As Andrei Busygin, Russia's deputy culture minister and one of the event's creators, said: "Russian is Russia's state language, and Russia is a multinational country. The Russian language unites all these nationalities, these peoples who live in Russia. And in addition, we should remember that the language, as an indicator of popular culture, is not only concentrated within the country's borders, it's also important abroad."

But experts say in many former Soviet republics, where Russian used to be widespread, the language is starting to fall out of use.

"It's very possible that in a few decades, Russian will no longer be spoken there. Or, at least, it will exist, but only as a foreign language that is taught in schools like any other."

Leonid Krysin, the deputy director of the Russian Language Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that the use of Russian language is waning in former Soviet republics.

"Firstly, the number of people who know the Russian language is definitely falling. Secondly, the younger population doesn't know the language as well as the older one, who learned it under the Soviet rule. And thirdly, of course, the number of schools [teaching Russian] has been dramatically reduced," Krysin said. He also claimed that "in the sphere of education, schools which taught Russian during the Soviet period have lost their status."

Losing Status

Only five former Soviet republics now have Russian as an official language alongside their own: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Students in Grozny learning the Chechen language (EPA)

But even in these countries, the issue of language remains contentious. In Belarus, the political opposition accuses the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka of "Russifying" the country and have called for a return to Belarusian as the sole official language.

In Turkmenistan, the Russian language is actively discouraged. In some regions Russian schools have been closed, and the department of Russian philology at Turkmen State University was shut down in 2002. All teaching now takes place in Turkmen, which means Russian-speakers often lose out on getting a full education.

Even within Russia's borders, the issue of language remains divisive. Writing in "Prague Watchdog," an online service dedicated to the conflict in Chechnya, journalist Ruslan Isayev remembers his schoolmistress in Grozny smacking him with a ruler for speaking Chechen, which she called a "dog's language."

Today, he writes, the Chechen language is reappearing, but most Chechens still speak Russian or a complicated fusion of Russian and Chechen.

But according to Leonid Krysin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, there are objective reasons why former Soviet republics shouldn't turn their backs on the Russian language.

"In the sphere of education and the sciences, there is a whole vocabulary that simply doesn't exist in those [native] languages, " Krysin said. "Either it is international vocabulary, with its roots in Latin or Greek, or it is of Russian origin -- for example, financial vocabulary or computer terminology."

As Andrei Busygin said, "we have ties that go back many centuries. There is no point in destroying them." Busygin pointed out that "geographically, these countries are close to Russia. And many people understand that if their country has a border with Russia, or if it is close to it, economic ties [between their countries] are unavoidable."

A Foreign Language

In some respects, the economic opportunities mean Russian is still spoken. Millions of people from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States work in Russia -- some temporarily, others permanently -- and the vast majority use Russian on a daily basis.

Still, Krysin said that is not always the case. "I've heard about the situation in, let's say, Uzbekistan, where knowledge of the Russian language has sharply declined -- as has the need to use it," Krysin said.

He predicted that "It's very possible that in a few decades, Russian will no longer be spoken there. Or, at least, it will exist, but only as a foreign language that is taught in schools like any other."

Krysin said in former republics like Uzbekistan it is possible that within a generation, the Russian language could be just a memory.

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