Staunton, October 9 – A generation ago, Moscow estimated that 380 million people around the world spoke Russian. Today, it says only 260 million do, a decline of 120 million and one that will only continue if the Russian government fails to take “unprecedented measures,” according to a deputy minister of education and science.
Veniamin Kaganov said yesterday that the Council on the Russian Language under the chairmanship of Vice Prime Minister Olga Golodets and including representatives of the Dum, the foreign and cultural ministries, and other organizations was preparing “new and unusual methods” to counter this trend (monitor.msk.ru/2013/10/08/russkiy-yazyik-trebuet-bespretsedentnyih-mer/).
The Council, created within the education and science ministry earlier this year, is charged with coordinating the activity of all organizations involved with “popularizing the Russian language both in Russia and abroad,” a task of “not just academic interest,” Kaganov said.
Among its products is a draft law under consideration by the Duma which “will require labor migrants to demonstrate their level of mastery of Russian,” a measure that has passed on first reading and that is part of the government’s Strategy of State Nationality Policy for the Period to 2025.
That in turn reflects President Vladimir Putin’s concerns about the status of Russian. In February, he said that “attention to the Russian language it would seem is a natural thing, but the impression is being created that we are underestimating the significance of it for the country and for the state.”
“It is considered that this is a given, like air, and that it will develop on its own. But if we look into certain population points somewhere on the edge of the Russian Federation,” the Russian president said, “I am not certain that we will find there the same knowledge of the Russian language that exists in certain cities with a million residents.”
“And this, besides everything else, is destroying the country and creating problems for people,” Putin said.
The decline in Russian language knowledge reflects the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the USSR. Many in the former bloc countries and republics who were required to learn Russian have died off, and the younger generations in both have focused instead on their national languages and English.
That is a matter of concern to many in Moscow for both practical and symbolic reasons. Practically, it means that in contrast to what Russian officials have long insisted, many of the immigrant workers in the Russian Federation do not speak Russian, something that resembles that of immigrants in Europe and makes their acculturation more difficult.
And symbolically, it means that Russian is not nearly as important internationally as it was in Soviet times, something that threatens national pride, especially in a country that just as in Soviet times is obsessed with size and numbers.
But the situation may not be quite as bad as Kaganov suggests. Both sets of figures are estimate. The earlier one assumed far more people spoke Russian in the Soviet Union than in fact did, and the latter one may be a low-range one designed to justify spending in this area. If that is the case, then the decline, all too real in any case, may not be quite as large as Kaganov says.