The retreat of the tongue of the Czars

The retreat of the tongue of the Czars

In a corner of Bukvatoriya in Ukraine, a bookstore in the capital of the Crimean Peninsula, are some stacks of literature that may be as provocative to the Kremlin as any battalion of NATO soldiers or wily oligarch. The books are classics — by Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare — that have been translated into Ukrainian, in editions aimed at teenagers. A Harry Potter who casts spells in Ukrainian also inhabits the shelves.

Two decades ago, there would have been little if any demand for such works, given that most people in this region are ethnic Russians. But the Ukrainian government is increasingly requiring that the Ukrainian language be used in all facets of society, especially schools, as it seeks to ensure that the next generation is oriented toward Kiev, not Moscow.

Children can even read Pushkin, Russia’s most revered author, in translation.
The Ukrainian policy has become a flashpoint in relations between the two countries and reflects the diminishing status of the Russian language in not just the former Soviet Union, but the old Communist bloc as a whole.

The Kremlin has tried to halt the decline by setting up foundations to promote the study of Russian abroad and by castigating neighbours who shove the language from public life. In some nations, a backlash against Russian has stirred its own backlash in the language’s defence. Still, the challenge is considerable. At stake is more than just words on a page.

Language imparts power and influence, binding the colonised to the colonisers and, for better or worse, altering how native populations interact with the world. Long after they gave up their territories, Britain and France and Spain have retained a certain authority in far-flung outposts because of the languages that they seeded.

Czars and Soviet leaders spread Russian in the lands that they conquered, using it as a kind of glue to unite disparate nationalities, a so-called second mother tongue, and connect them to their rulers. That legacy endures today, as exemplified by the close relationship between Russia and Germany, which stems in part from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ability to speak Russian. She learned it growing up in Communist East Germany.
But with the language in retreat, there are unlikely to be many future Angela Merkels. For the Kremlin, could there be a more bitter reminder of how history has turned than the sight of young Estonians or Georgians or Uzbeks flocking to classes in English instead of Russian?

“The drop in Russian language usage is a great blow to Moscow, in the economic and social spheres, and many other respects,” said Aleksei V Vorontsov, Herzen State Pedagogical University, St Petersburg. “It has severed links, and made Russia more isolated.”

Russian seems to be faring more poorly than other colonial languages because the countries that had to absorb it have a more cohesive sense of national identity and are now rallying around their native languages to assert their sovereignty.

Russian is one of the few major languages to be losing speakers, and by rough estimates, that total will fall to 150 million by 2025, from 300 million in 1990, a year before the Soviet collapse. It will probably remain one of the 10 most popular languages, but barely. Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi head the list.
The situation has not been helped by the demographic crisis in Russia itself, which is expected to shed as much as 20 per cent of its population by 2050.
The fall in Russian speakers has not been uniform across the former Soviet Union, and Russian officials praise former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan where Russian is embraced.

But countries that felt subjugated by Soviet power, like the Baltic States, have taken vengeance by mandating knowledge of the native language to obtain citizenship or other benefits.

The resentment can bubble up in unexpected locales. When Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, said this summer that it would demote the status of Russian, requiring government documents to be only in the Tajik language, an outcry arose from those who saw Russian as a bridge to Russia and the outside world. And in former Soviet satellites in Europe, where Russian was essentially purged after Communism, there has been a small but noticeable revival.

The language is obviously helpful in doing business in Russia’s sizable market, so interest in Russian-language classes is rising. The lingua franca of Communism, it seems, is now an asset in the pursuit of capitalism.

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