Fewer Russians but more Russian speakers: The changing face of Russia

Russian state language policy: In Russia you may speak any language, as long as it is Russian (Image: Euromaidan Press)

Image: Euromaidan Press 

2016/06/14 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

The number and percentage of ethnic Russians in Astrakhan has been declining two to three percent every decade, according to Viktor Viktorin; but the number of the region’s residents who speak Russian has been growing, as fewer members of the younger generation of non-Russians choose or are able to choose to study and use their languages.

That pattern, which the Astrakhan historian and regional specialist calls attention to in the course of an interview taken by Yana Amelina of the Caucasus Geopolitical Club, is typical of many parts of Russia.

This pattern of fewer Russians but more Russian speakers helps to explain why Vladimir Putin often lays more stress on the latter rather than the former not only within Russia but in the former Soviet space, a stress that reflects his belief and that of many others that linguistic change is more important than or perhaps a herald of ethnic change.

It also explains why the Kremlin has been pushing hard to cut back the use of non-Russian languages in schools across the country while boosting the number of hours of Russian that non-Russian students are required to study and making it more difficult for those without Russian to pursue careers.

And this pattern provides support for those who seek to promote a civic Russian ethnic identity and even a civic ethnic Russian nation in order to unite the Russian Federation at a time when the share of ethnic Russians is declining and shows every sign of doing so for decades to come.

But the assumptions underlying this notion and the policies it has produced are problematic at best. While in some cases, linguistic change can be the first step to ethnic change, in others, exactly the reverse may be the case, with Russian-speaking non-Russians becoming more attached to their ethnicity as a result of their experiences after learning Russian.

Both in Soviet times and now, scholars have documented, non-Russians who serve in the military or who are imprisoned in the penal system often become far more committed to their own nation even as they become more fluent in Russian as a result of “dedovshchina” and mistreatment by Russian majorities.

And a non-Russian who learns Russian and then experiences discrimination in the workforce or the government is likely to be angrier about that than will be a non-Russian who hasn’t learned Russian and therefore is not in a position to compete for many kinds of positions and preferment.

In imperial systems, it has been invariably the case that those most ready and able to challenge the ruling nation are those who have learned the language of the dominant power and then deployed it on behalf of their people. To put it in lapidary terms, it was an English-speaking lawyer named Gandhi and not Hindi-speaking peasants who won India its independence; and it was only after the Irish stopped speaking Gaelic that they challenged their English overlords.

The same is likely to be true in Russia, whatever Putin and his supporters hope for and whatever defenders of traditional language communities fear. But there is an additional complication in the Russian case, one that is likely to complicate the life of society and government there.

That is the response of ethnic Russians and the Russian nationalists who seek to speak for them. Many will be upset by what they are certain to see as a dilution of the Russianness of their country and be ethnically mobilized as well, albeit in a very different direction. Consequently, the pattern seen in Astrakhan should be watched carefully and not misread as it is likely to be.


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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Alex George

    You would think Putin would have worked it out by now. The greatest opposition to his attempted proxy war in eastern Ukraine came from Russian-speaking Ukrainians.