Delivering the Russian Language to the World

Interview with the Russia World Foundation’s executive director

In the past few years there has been much hand-wringing about the pervasiveness of Western culture in Russia: Western TV shows and films, the propaganda of the Western lifestyle, values and its worldview. Thus far, there has been much talk but little action on the issue. Things started moving on June 21 when President Vladimir Putin gave a nod to the Russian World foundation. Its functions include the promotion and dissemination of Russian at home and abroad, and the development and advancement of Russian culture. In an interview with The Moscow News, Vyacheslav Nikonov, its executive director, discusses the foundation’s  goals.

MN: Vyacheslav Alekseyevich, in the month that has passed since the presidential decree was promulgated, how much has been done in setting up and organizing the foundation’s work on the practical level – the charter, the premises, the principal areas of activity?

Nikonov: Work is underway on the charter – in effect, it has already been completed. It must be said that this is no small task. This is the first time in the history of the Russian Federation that a non-commercial organization has been set up by a presidential decree and co-founded by two ministries at once – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education. In this respect, we have had to break new ground, from the legal perspective, so the work on the charter has been rather difficult. Now it is to be coordinated with the co-founders, the administration, and then approved by the Ministry of Justice. I believe that it will be registered before the end of the summer.  As for the premises, such matters are not settled that quickly. Another organizational matter that I would like to mention in this context is the drafting of an amendment to the 2007 and 2008-10 budget law. This work is also in progress, since the foundation is to be financed from the federal budget. At the same time there has been a series of consultations and meetings with experts. These include negotiations on various levels to determine the foundation’s main areas of activity… I believe there is already a clear understanding about what exactly we will be doing.

MN: What is the Russian World foundation? Is it a network of organizations dispersed throughout the world, or is it some kind of a think tank based in Moscow?

Nikonov: It is more of the latter. The idea is to create a powerful structure with a highly professional, efficient staff. It will be the center of a network type of organization focused primarily on the issue of grants. If we were to begin creating branches in various parts of the country, as well as abroad, we would be unable to start working for the first few years. Our goal is to support the Russian language, Russian culture, and organizations representing the Russian world. This must be done now, and not by establishing branches or subsidiaries abroad. We will work directly with Russian organizations based outside Russia, those affiliated with the MAPRYAL (International Organization of Teachers of Russian and Russian Literature), other non-governmental organizations operating through a variety of diaspora groups, education centers, universities, and a network of schools where Russian is taught. In other words, we will support projects that aim to strengthen the positions of the Russian language, Russian culture, and the development of the Russian World foundation. This requires efficient regional and country managers capable of effectively coordinating projects spanning continents. There is a need for powerful structures to create extensive networks, including Internet, publishing, financial and other networks.

MN: Foundations are, as a general rule, established to accumulate non-state funds and funnel them into certain programs. But you have just mentioned amendments to budget laws – therefore, for the time being at least, your foundation will be supported with funds from the federal budget. Why was this form of organization – i.e., foundation – chosen for Russian World?

Nikonov: It’s a delusion that foundations are financed mainly from private sources. As far as I know, such foundations exist in other countries – for example, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and the Cervantes Institute – all these foundations, institutions, and organizations rely primarily on state financing. Furthermore, many of them operate as state agencies or organizations that are directly connected with the state. Generally, an estimated 65 percent of all money circulating in the non-commercial sector in one way or another derives from the state. In the United States, over $10 billion a year is spent to support a variety of United States Information Agency (USIA) initiatives: this money comes directly from the federal government. In addition to this, funds are provided via the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon. As far as our foundation is concerned, it is being created in alliance with the principles of state-private partnership. Some of the funds will come from the state, but I hope not the bulk of it. It should not be forgotten that it is always more difficult to spend state funds on the majority of projects.

MN: Why?

Nikonov: There are far more limitations on the use of state funding [than with respect to private funding]; there are strict guidelines on where it may or may not go. In this specific area, which involves broad international network activities, it would of course be much easier to operate with private funding.

MN: Would it be correct to say that the establishment of the Russian World foundation is a response to the rather substantial presence of NGOs in Russia that are sponsored by the State Department, among others?

Nikonov: Absolutely not. It is simply filling the vacuum that exists in the system of our public institutions. To reiterate, all serious countries have such structures. It is not a response: it is an important step that shows… the importance of promoting Russian.

MN: There is a structure within the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs known as the Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation [CISCC]. How will the activity of these two organizations be coordinated? After all, their stated goals and functions practically coincide.

Nikonov: I would also mention in this context the International Association of Teachers of Russian and the Institute of Russian. Needless to say, we will closely cooperate with CISCC. This organization has a huge material and financial base, but it implements only a handful of projects.

MN: Why is that?

Nikonov: It’s the way CISCC is financed. It is a state structure operating within the guidelines established for state agencies. I am a little surprised by the question concerning the ways we will separate ourselves from certain agencies. Meanwhile, in the United States, for example, about 15,000 NGOs engage in foreign political activity. They do not ask themselves how to separate or integrate with specific structures: they just go about their business. Naturally, we will coordinate our activity and cooperate with all organizations working in this field. This is especially true, since CISCC does not deal with domestic matters, whereas for us it is a key area of activity. There are problems connected with the development of Russian in this country, the development of regional centers for Russian studies, and the publication of Russian textbooks. Here is an example of just one problem: there are more than 70 Russian grammar textbook titles in the country, but sometimes it is possible to get the impression that these are textbooks of different languages. Another problem involves the development of the Russian media space. Along these lines, MAPRYAL is currently carrying out a study, “A Day of Russian in the Life of Russian Media.”

MN: In other words, the principal goal of the Russian World foundation is to ensure the purity of Russian?

Nikonov: Exactly. A Russian world is inconceivable without Russia. Furthermore, CISCC and other agencies are not in the business of issuing grants – they do not support organizations operating outside Russia.

MN: You have just raised the subject of media space. Could the purity of Russian be ensured by setting up your own media outlets?

Nikonov: We will have our own media, but their impact on the media space should not be exaggerated. We will be creating, above all, network resources. There are plans to launch a global Russian World Web portal representing all organizations, all activists – in other words, the entire Russian world on the planet. This portal will provide a link to Russian language channels, radio networks, digital Russian language libraries, archives, Russian music, computer games, interactive Russian language study programs, distance learning, and so on. Publishing also needs support – primarily publication of textbooks. Here are just a few examples. Russian textbooks that are used at Russian study centers abroad were written in the 1970s at the very best. Even Slavic universities, where instruction is provided in Russian, post-Soviet countries, lack Russian language textbooks on many subjects. Over the past 15 years, the best universities have received almost no new textbooks in Russian although this is a Russian language space.

MN: Do you intend to confine yourselves to an Internet project or do you plan to create your own TV channel and print media?

Nikonov: I hope that all Russian language TV channels, all journals and magazines, the entire Russian language print media will be represented on our portal. It makes no sense to establish our own TV channels: we already have a great number of TV products that are being offered throughout the world: Channel 1, Rossia Television, and others. It is essential to interact with them so that they offer not only entertainment shows but also culture programs.

MN: Would it be correct to say that it is an attempt to formulate a national ideology and broadcast it outside Russia?

Nikonov: I, for one, do not intend to engage in the elaboration of a national ideology, since one of our goals is to identify, unite and consolidate the Russian world. After all, it is so heterogeneous. It is impossible to force it into some ideological framework. As Vladimir Mayakovsky said, “I would learn Russian if only because Lenin spoke it.” And this is exactly why many people throughout the world have studied Russian. Others learned it because Sakharov or Brodsky spoke in it. The Russian world is polyphonic: it comprises people of diverse views, and this is why I am not setting any ideological bounds in my work. All Russians are equally important to our foundation, wherever they live and whatever their ideology may be.

MN: But perhaps the Russian world could indeed be united on the basis of a common ideology – a kind of liberalism that is having a field day across countries and continents?

Nikonov: This is definitely not the function of Russian World. It is a function of the state. There is a common belief that the West is united by the idea of liberalism. Meanwhile, if you look at Europe, you will see that only two types of parties are in power there – conservative- and Christian-democratic and socialist. But not a single liberal party. Therefore, I would not exaggerate the idea of liberalism. Broadly speaking, liberalism is popular as an idea of freedom. But liberalism as a political trend, at any rate in the European context (I am not even talking about Asia or Africa), only exists on the political fringes.

MN: But according to this definition, everyone who speaks Russian belongs to the Russian world.

Nikonov: It is a matter of identity. Russia is certainly very important here. But the Russian world is perhaps even broader than the realm of language application. There are people who love Russia. Perhaps they have a Russian spouse or they have studied in Russia. Recently, I was in Germany to attend the first congress of ethnic Russians living in Germany. There was a diversity of people – ethnic Germans from Kazakhstan, Jews from Belarus, Ukrainians. Nevertheless, it was a congress of Russian Germans, which was conducted in Russian. In Germany, they have started feeling a part of the Russian world to a far greater degree than when they lived in the Soviet Union. They tell everyone that they are Russian.

MN: When will the foundation be officially launched?

Nikonov: In early November. But  work is already underway, so it will be up and running before its official presentation date.

The Moscow News
August 16, 2007
By Dmitry Bulin.

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One Comment
  1. The establishment of the Russian World Foundation is a logical step on the road of building up a new Russian identity and a common idea of the state.

    The basis of this foundation might very well be compared to British Council, the Goethe Institute or United States Information Agency (USIA). This initiative has probably more far going incitements than just supporting Russian language and culture, there is a big risk that the organization will adopt the working methodology of former Soviet institutions, which primarily were used to market the politics of an authoritarian regime to citizens in foreign countries.

    The situation of the Russian language has declined rapidly since the collapse of the USSR. During Soviet time, the Russian language was lingua franca among hundreds of millions of people in Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. The Russian language had a prominent position also in the academic world – in many fields world class scientists could build their work entirely upon Russian language references. This situation has changed dramatically.

    Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of people speaking Russian actively or passively has declined by almost 20 percent, the largest fall of any major linguistic group during that period and one projected to continue in the future, according to demographers at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    In 1990, they report in the current issue of “Demoscope Weekly,” 350 million people spoke Russian as a first or second language. Now, only 278 million do, and the demographers project that this number will decline to 212 million in 2025 and 152 million in 2025.

    If the Moscow demographers are correct, Russian would be the only one of the ten most widely-spoken languages in the world to suffer such a
    decline, a development that almost certainly would result in its fall from that group of language leaders into the second tier of ten or even further. Read more about this o in an article by Paul Goble in Window on Eurasia.

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