MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has launched a campaign to promote the national language after almost two decades of retreat — to match the country’s increasing economic and political confidence.
The Kremlin believes it can start rebuilding the credibility of Russian as a means of communication outside its own borders, with business and not communist ideology driving the revival.
One recruitment expert has advised expats that if they want a top management job they should learn Russian.
In Moscow this week, ministers announced a series of plans, such as expansion of an international cultural foundation comparable with Germany’s Goethe Institute or the Alliance Francaise.
“Russian was the first language spoken in space,” said Education Minister Andrei Fursenko referring to the first cosmonauts and their Cold War-era space race against English-speaking U.S. astronauts.
Once the common language across most of the communist world, Russian has been sidelined, especially in Eastern Europe where English has replaced it as the favored second language.
Russian also suffers from an image problem there, with Czechs, Poles and other former Warsaw Pact member states resentful at being forced to study a language linked with an occupying foreign power.
Across former states of the Soviet Union, only Belarus still recognizes Russian as a state language. In many others, notably Turkmenistan, the post-Soviet leadership has sought to erase all traces of Russian.
The number of mother-tongue Russian speakers also continues to decline. Russia’s population is falling by 700,000 every year and now stands at 142 million.
Spearheading the campaign, President Vladimir Putin linked the country’s linguistic fate to its morals and values.
“Looking after the Russian language and expanding the influence of Russian culture are crucial social and political issues,” he told Russian parliamentarians in his annual address.
Putin said he backed proposals to develop “the Russian language at home, support Russian language study programs abroad and generally promote Russian language and literature around the world”.
The Russian government has launched a Web site in both Russian and English to promote Russian, http://www.russian2007.ru. It provides details on more than 100 international festivals and events, as well as publications and plans to build libraries.
Russian is one of six official languages at the United Nations and is still used widely in many former Soviet states.
“In the mid-90s we could put up with people not speaking Russian, because they had other experience and expertise. Now, Russians are catching up,” said Anton Derlyatka, a partner with executive search consultants Ward Howell International.
“The complexities of the Russian market have increased so much that you can’t work without understanding the mentality of the people and the Russian context. In order to do that, you have to speak Russian.”
The image of Russian can benefit from Russia’s current economic and political resurgence, said Culture Minister Alexei Sokolov.
“The evolution of the Chinese society was the reason behind the changes in attitudes to language,” he said.
“Russia is also currently on the brink of a significant breakthrough in the areas of nanotechnology, science and culture, and that is why it should be expected that the language will benefit.”
Foreign ballet dancers, U.S. astronauts and Moscow-based ambassadors who speak Russian were photographed for a new public exhibition in central Moscow to promote the campaign.
Japanese dancer Morihiro Iwata said he was proud to promote Russian but didn’t speak it when he first arrived in the country 17 years ago.
“I think more foreigners should learn Russian,” he said as he stood in front of a large photo of him performing in a ballet. At home, Iwata only speaks Russian with his wife and fellow Bolshoi Theatre dancer, Olga.
He had to learn the language quickly when he first arrived in the country, he recalls, because rehearsals for performances in the Bolshoi Theatre are conducted in Russian.
Convincing foreigners to learn Russian is not an easy task due to the complexity of Russian grammar and to the spread of English.
Russian’s main competitor abroad has also cast its corrosive spell inside Russia, with Russians using numerous English words, such as “biznesmen” and “kompyuter”, every day.
The Kremlin has banned the use of the word “dollar” in official communiques. Instead, it has instructed officials to break the habit of expressing figures in the U.S. currency and to speak only of Russian roubles.
But Sokolov downplays the historical and modern-day importance of English.
“In Russia there were periods when there were special attitudes towards Western languages, in the 19th century it was French, and you know that many people then hired German governesses. By the way, English was less widespread.”
“Now it is an international language — but it’s a more simple version of English that has become a means of communication, like a kind of esperanto.”
By Conor Sweeney July 1, 2007