The New York Times reports:
IN a corner of Bukvatoriya, a bookstore here 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. (This tends to bother Russians in the way that “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung in Spanish can touch off cross-cultural crankiness in the United States.)
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 neighbors who shove the language from public life. In some nations, a backlash against Russian has stirred its own backlash in the language’s defense.
Still, the challenge is considerable. At stake is more than just words on a page.
Language imparts power and influence, binding the colonized to the colonizers 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 (not to mention Czechs or Hungarians) 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, chairman of the sociology department at the Herzen State Pedagogical University in 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 percent 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. (As a correspondent in the former Soviet Union, I find that in some countries, I can often speak Russian with people older than 40 and English with those younger.)
The dispute is vitriolic in Ukraine, especially here on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea, a former Russian territory where about 60 percent of the population of two million is ethnic Russian and others also speak Russian as a first language. Many residents here would prefer that Russia reclaim Crimea.
Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, indicated this month that a deepening understanding of the Ukrainian language is one key to keeping Moscow at bay. “With our native language, we preserve our culture,” Mr. Yushchenko told the German magazine Spiegel. “That greatly contributes to preserving our independence. If a nation loses its language, it loses its memory, its history and its identity.”
The policies in Ukraine, the Baltics and other countries have often drawn the ire of not only the Kremlin, but also local Russian speakers.
At the Bukvatoriya bookstore in Simferopol, the manager, Irina P. Germanenko, said locals were upset by “Ukrainization” — laws compelling the Ukrainian language in government, on television and in other areas.
Many schools in Crimea use Russian as their primary language, but they often must teach courses in subjects like geography and math in Ukrainian. And important national examinations are given only in Ukrainian.
Most of Bukvatoriya’s stock is in Russian, but Ms. Germanenko said sales of books for teenagers in Ukrainian showed the policy’s impact. “It’s an unfortunate process that is occurring,” she said. “People should be able to have freedom of choice in their language.”
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.