Category Archives: language

Under Putin, the Russian Language Disappears

Only a tiny handful of foreign nations say "da" to Russian

Only a tiny handful of foreign nations say "da" to Russian

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.)

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Русский пофигизм: Ah, the Glories of the Russian Language!

Michael Bohm, the opinion page editor of the Moscow Times, writing in his own paper (we’ve added rough phonetic transcriptions of the Russian words so that, if so inclined, non-Russian speakers can say them — staff addition, corrections welcome):

I have often heard Russians say, Русский пофигизм неизлечим {ROO-skee pa-FEEK-izm} (The Russian attitude of “I couldn’t care less” is incurable). But from drivers to professors to prime ministers, no one really seems to care much about this.

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The Sunday Culture: A Crash Course in Lofty Russian Civilization

Russian “president” Vladimir Putin insists foreigners are crazy if they think Russians are even a little bit “savage.” The Moscow Times proves how very right he is:

Напиться до поросячьего визга (sl.): to drink so much that you squeal like a pig

‘Tis the season to be jolly! In Russia, it is difficult to talk about the holiday season without talking about гулянка (gathering to drink alcohol) or its more acute version — пьянка (drinking bout). But in Russia, drinking with your buddies or relatives is much more than a holiday thing; it is a national tradition and institution that has much deeper meaning than in other countries.

Russians have always treated the русская пьянка with humor, and it is the source of hundreds of jokes. Another way that drinking is popularized and культивируется (is cultivated) is through films — remember, for example, the popular comedy Особенности национальной охоты (“Peculiarities of the National Hunt”) or the colorful запой (binge-drinking) scene with General Radlov in Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia.”

Although it may be more legend than history, alcohol seemed to have played its own significant role in the formation of Russia’s statehood. According to the Chronicles, one of the reasons that St. Vladimir, who baptized Kievan Rus in the late 980s, accepted Christianity was that it did not prohibit the use of alcohol — in contrast to Islam, which was also being considered for the official state religion. The Chronicles quote Vladimir as having said, Веселие на Руси есть пити (Happiness in Rus means drinking), which remains as a popular saying to this day. (Even under the teetotal Putin, the link between national leaders and alcohol continues: The vodka loosely named after him, Putinka, has become the top-selling brand.)

More important, the large role that drinking plays in the Russian сознание (perception, consciousness) is directly reflected in the language. There are more Russian slang expressions regarding пьянка than perhaps any other subject. Every Russian muzhik seems to have his own set of favorite expressions for drinking and, what’s more, drinking slang in the regions is often different from that spoken in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

There are many imperfective slang verbs for drinking regularly: бухать (to drink in large quantities); квасить (to describe an experienced drinker, a real “pro”); and кирять (to drink with your closest friends). There is also the popular поддавать (drink regularly to raise ones spirits but without getting overly drunk); from this word, the doggerel verse Что-то стало холодать — не пора ли нам поддать (It has gotten cold outside — it is about time to have a few drinks) is derived. When it is minus 10 degrees Celsius, you can also say to your friends: Ну что, согреемся? (Shall we get a little warm?), and everyone will understand that you don’t mean turning up the thermostat, but rather opening up a bottle of vodka “для сугрева” (for a warmer-upper).

Among perfective slang verbs to reflect a one-off drinking action, опрокинуть is to knock back a shot glass of vodka залпом (in one swift, bottoms-up movement). In addition, вздрогнуть is to flinch or wince when you drink a shot of strong, burning vodka; based on this verb, a group of guys might say, Ну что, вздрогнем, мужики?! (So, what do you say, guys — shall we “wince” one more time?!)

Other slangy perfective verbs to describe heavy drinking include: набраться, надраться, нажраться, окосеть, наклюкаться, назюзюкаться, нализаться and нарезаться, but three of the most colorful, in my opinion, are: напиться вусмерть (drinking to near-death); напиться вдрабадан (from the outdated word дроба, which, according to the Dal dictionary, at one time meant the waste from beer distillation that desperate alcoholics drank); and напиться до поросячьего визга (to drink to the point where you squeal like a pig).

When Russians buy a new car or apartment, it is common to обмывать (literally, wash off) the new purchase with a few drinks. Or you can say to your friends, Я купил новую иномарку — давайте это отметим (I just bought a new foreign car — let’s mark the occasion), and everyone will understand that this necessarily involves alcohol.

In addition, if you are having trouble understanding your company’s complicated offshore ownership structure, you can say, Без пол-литра не разберёшься (Without a half-liter [of vodka], you’ll never make heads or tails of it.)

One way of saying someone is flat drunk is: Он пьян как зюзя or Он напился в зюзю. According to the Dal dictionary, the original meaning of зюзя meant someone who was drenched in water. At some point, this word took the meaning of someone drenched (internally) in alcohol. When someone is вдрызг пьян (completely smashed), you can say: он лыка не вяжет (he is too drunk to make sense; literally, he can’t even tie a thin strip of wicker); он залил глаза (his eyes were flooded [with alcohol]); or он схватил белочку (he drank to the level of белая горячка, or the shakes.).

When you have had way too much to drink, there is a special word to help очухаться (come to one’s senses) the morning after — опохмелиться (to treat a hangover with more alcohol or by eating a lot of квашеная капуста, or sauerkraut, and by drinking огуречный рассол, the salty traditional concoction made from pickle brine that you see in glass jars stored in so many apartments and dachas).

There is another popular expression for drinking with your buddies: Давайте сообразим на троих (Let’s have a few drinks; literally, let us three guys figure out the problem), but the origins of this expression date back to the peculiarities of Soviet reality. If a Soviet muzhik wanted to drink some vodka to relax after a long day at work but didn’t have enough money to buy a whole bottle (under communism, prices were very low, of course, but so were the salaries), he would stand by the entrance to a liquor shop and hold three fingers to his lapel as a sign that he wants to split the bottle three ways. Within minutes, a тройка (threesome) was formed to скинуться (pitch in) to buy the vodka. They then went to the nearest двор (common area between apartment buildings), sat on a лавочка (bench) and began to распивать бутылку (share the vodka). This quickly led to a душевная беседа (warm-hearted chat), several toasts and to the traditional drinking question, Ты меня уважаешь? (Do you respect me?) The only way to show “respect” in this setting, of course, is to dutifully drink another round. In no time at all, the newly acquainted drinking buddies experienced genuine мужское братство (male bonding).

At some point in this process, an enterprising бабуля (granny) might approach the threesome to to offer them закуски (something to nibble on while drinking) — usually in the form of dark bread or, even better, spring onions (good for hiding vodka breath from the wife). She also offered the guys an empty glass (after all, it was not considered very культурно, or civilized, to drink vodka right from the bottle!) As part of the deal, the babushka would get the empty vodka bottle, which she then brought to the nearest пункт приёма стеклотары (recycling center) to receive her honestly earned 12 kopeks.

The large role that alcohol plays in the Russian мировоззрение (world outlook, mindset) is also reflected in the dozens of sayings on the topic. One example: Красное вино полезно для здоровья, а здоровье нужно, чтобы пить водку (Red wine is good for your health, and good health is needed to drink vodka.) But my all-time favorite is the Soviet частушка (couplet): О деньгах мечтают янки, Ну а русские — о пьянке (The Yankees dream of money, but Russians dream of a drinking bout.)

In the holiday spirit of New Year’s, I hope that all of your dreams — whatever they may be — come true in 2008!

Annals of Putin’s Failure: Russian is Overwhelmed

The Telegraph reports that English is slowing taking over the Russian language. Will Putin be willing to use Stalin tactics to stop it? Perhaps he intends to step aside for a few years and let Mr. Ivanov handle the bloody work, then return when it is over.

First came Franglais. Then there was Spanglish. Now start getting used to Runglish, the English-laced argot of “kool” young Russians that has traditionalists weeping into their borscht. To the horror of their parents, Russia’s ‘Koka-Kola’ generation has developed a vocabulary that has more to do with MTV than Pushkin. By mobile phone text message or on the internet, young Russian men invite their “friendessi” (female friends) for a “drrink” at the “Pab”. And if you don’t understand what they are talking about, you are clearly a “loozer”.

First coined by cosmonauts in 2000 to describe the language spoken with their American counterparts on the International Space Station, “Runglish” is increasingly viewed by nationalists as a Western assault on the purity of one of the world’s great languages. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Anglicism spread rapidly – in part because there was a dearth of vocabulary to describe the technicalities of market capitalism but also because of an exposure to international travel and foreign television. “The internet brought a lot of words from foreign languages,” said Vladimir Dolgov, the head of Google Russia. “But the jargon is now moving into the press and advertising. This is the way language develops and it is a process that can’t be stopped.”

Concerned by the growing influence of English, the Kremlin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language. The linguists, however, say the fear of English is misplaced. “Young people always develop fashionable ways of communicating,” said Yuri Prokhorov, head of the Pushkin State Institute of Foreign Luanguage. “It is Russian words used incorrectly that damages the purity of the language not the introduction of foreign words,” he added.

Annals of Putin’s Failure: Russian is Overwhelmed

The Telegraph reports that English is slowing taking over the Russian language. Will Putin be willing to use Stalin tactics to stop it? Perhaps he intends to step aside for a few years and let Mr. Ivanov handle the bloody work, then return when it is over.

First came Franglais. Then there was Spanglish. Now start getting used to Runglish, the English-laced argot of “kool” young Russians that has traditionalists weeping into their borscht. To the horror of their parents, Russia’s ‘Koka-Kola’ generation has developed a vocabulary that has more to do with MTV than Pushkin. By mobile phone text message or on the internet, young Russian men invite their “friendessi” (female friends) for a “drrink” at the “Pab”. And if you don’t understand what they are talking about, you are clearly a “loozer”.

First coined by cosmonauts in 2000 to describe the language spoken with their American counterparts on the International Space Station, “Runglish” is increasingly viewed by nationalists as a Western assault on the purity of one of the world’s great languages. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Anglicism spread rapidly – in part because there was a dearth of vocabulary to describe the technicalities of market capitalism but also because of an exposure to international travel and foreign television. “The internet brought a lot of words from foreign languages,” said Vladimir Dolgov, the head of Google Russia. “But the jargon is now moving into the press and advertising. This is the way language develops and it is a process that can’t be stopped.”

Concerned by the growing influence of English, the Kremlin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language. The linguists, however, say the fear of English is misplaced. “Young people always develop fashionable ways of communicating,” said Yuri Prokhorov, head of the Pushkin State Institute of Foreign Luanguage. “It is Russian words used incorrectly that damages the purity of the language not the introduction of foreign words,” he added.

Annals of Putin’s Failure: Russian is Overwhelmed

The Telegraph reports that English is slowing taking over the Russian language. Will Putin be willing to use Stalin tactics to stop it? Perhaps he intends to step aside for a few years and let Mr. Ivanov handle the bloody work, then return when it is over.

First came Franglais. Then there was Spanglish. Now start getting used to Runglish, the English-laced argot of “kool” young Russians that has traditionalists weeping into their borscht. To the horror of their parents, Russia’s ‘Koka-Kola’ generation has developed a vocabulary that has more to do with MTV than Pushkin. By mobile phone text message or on the internet, young Russian men invite their “friendessi” (female friends) for a “drrink” at the “Pab”. And if you don’t understand what they are talking about, you are clearly a “loozer”.

First coined by cosmonauts in 2000 to describe the language spoken with their American counterparts on the International Space Station, “Runglish” is increasingly viewed by nationalists as a Western assault on the purity of one of the world’s great languages. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Anglicism spread rapidly – in part because there was a dearth of vocabulary to describe the technicalities of market capitalism but also because of an exposure to international travel and foreign television. “The internet brought a lot of words from foreign languages,” said Vladimir Dolgov, the head of Google Russia. “But the jargon is now moving into the press and advertising. This is the way language develops and it is a process that can’t be stopped.”

Concerned by the growing influence of English, the Kremlin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language. The linguists, however, say the fear of English is misplaced. “Young people always develop fashionable ways of communicating,” said Yuri Prokhorov, head of the Pushkin State Institute of Foreign Luanguage. “It is Russian words used incorrectly that damages the purity of the language not the introduction of foreign words,” he added.

Annals of Putin’s Failure: Russian is Overwhelmed

The Telegraph reports that English is slowing taking over the Russian language. Will Putin be willing to use Stalin tactics to stop it? Perhaps he intends to step aside for a few years and let Mr. Ivanov handle the bloody work, then return when it is over.

First came Franglais. Then there was Spanglish. Now start getting used to Runglish, the English-laced argot of “kool” young Russians that has traditionalists weeping into their borscht. To the horror of their parents, Russia’s ‘Koka-Kola’ generation has developed a vocabulary that has more to do with MTV than Pushkin. By mobile phone text message or on the internet, young Russian men invite their “friendessi” (female friends) for a “drrink” at the “Pab”. And if you don’t understand what they are talking about, you are clearly a “loozer”.

First coined by cosmonauts in 2000 to describe the language spoken with their American counterparts on the International Space Station, “Runglish” is increasingly viewed by nationalists as a Western assault on the purity of one of the world’s great languages. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Anglicism spread rapidly – in part because there was a dearth of vocabulary to describe the technicalities of market capitalism but also because of an exposure to international travel and foreign television. “The internet brought a lot of words from foreign languages,” said Vladimir Dolgov, the head of Google Russia. “But the jargon is now moving into the press and advertising. This is the way language develops and it is a process that can’t be stopped.”

Concerned by the growing influence of English, the Kremlin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language. The linguists, however, say the fear of English is misplaced. “Young people always develop fashionable ways of communicating,” said Yuri Prokhorov, head of the Pushkin State Institute of Foreign Luanguage. “It is Russian words used incorrectly that damages the purity of the language not the introduction of foreign words,” he added.

Russian, the Language of Slavery

Radio Free Europe reports that, free not to learn Russian, most members of the old USSR choose not to:

Experts say in many former Soviet republics, where Russian used to be widespread, the language is starting to fall out of use.

Leonid Krysin is the deputy director of the Russian Language Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences and he warned use of Russian language is waning in former Soviet republics. “Firstly, the number of people who know the Russian language is definitely falling. Secondly, the younger population doesn’t know the language as well as the older one, who learned it under the Soviet rule. And thirdly, of course, the number of schools [teaching Russian] has been dramatically reduced,” Krysin said. He also claimed that “in the sphere of education, schools which taught Russian during the Soviet period have lost their status.”

Only five former Soviet republics now have Russian as an official language alongside their own: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But even in these countries, the issue of language remains contentious. In Belarus, the political opposition accuses the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka of “Russifying” the country and have called for a return to Belarusian as the sole official language. In Turkmenistan, the Russian language is actively discouraged. In some regions Russian schools have been closed, and the department of Russian philology at Turkmen State University was shut down in 2002. All teaching now takes place in Turkmen, which means Russian-speakers often lose out on getting a full education.

Even within Russia’s borders, the issue of language remains divisive. Writing in “Prague Watchdog,” an online service dedicated to the conflict in Chechnya, journalist Ruslan Isayev remembers his schoolmistress in Grozny smacking him with a ruler for speaking Chechen, which she called a “dog’s language.” Today, he writes, the Chechen language is reappearing, but most Chechens still speak Russian or a complicated fusion of Russian and Chechen. But according to Leonid Krysin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, there are objective reasons why former Soviet republics shouldn’t turn their backs on the Russian language. “In the sphere of education and the sciences, there is a whole vocabulary that simply doesn’t exist in those [native] languages, ” Krysin said. He added, “Either it is international vocabulary, with its roots in Latin or Greek, or it is of Russian origin — for example, financial vocabulary or computer terminology.”

Ans Andrei Busygin said, “we have ties that go back many centuries. There is no point in destroying them.” Busygin pointed out “geographically, these countries are close to Russia. And many people understand that if their country has a border with Russia, or if it is close to it, economic ties [between their countries] are unavoidable.”

In some respects, the economic opportunities mean Russian is still spoken. Millions of people from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States work in Russia — some temporarily, others permanently — and the vast majority use Russian on a daily basis. Still, Krysin said that is not often the case. “I’ve heard about the situation in, let’s say, Uzbekistan, where knowledge of the Russian language has sharply declined – as has the need to use it,” Krysin said. He predicted that “It’s very possible that in a few decades, Russian will no longer be spoken there. Or, at least, it will exist, but only as a foreign language that is taught in schools like any other.” Krysin said in former republics like Uzbekistan it is possible that within a generation, the Russian language could be just a memory.

Pocketbooks are not the only Impoverished Thing in Russia

The Moscow Times reports that not only Russian pocketbooks but also Russian vocabularies are impoverished by the failure of the USSR (which Russians are now feverishly trying to repeat):

Russians, it seems, have a big problem. It’s not the U.S. missile defense shield or Iran or plunging energy markets. They don’t know to talk to one another.

In pre-revolutionary times, men were gospodin, sudar or barin (sir); and women were gospozha, sudarynya or barynya (madam). The communists simplified things, addressing everyone as tovarishch (comrade) or grazhdanin (citizen) or, for women, grazhdanka.

Alas, what are people living in post-tsarist, post-Soviet Russia supposed to call one another?

Fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev, who lectures frequently on etiquette at Moscow-area institutes and has designed costumes for the stage in the United States, Chile and elsewhere, said Russian manners had been decimated by decades of communism.

“We don’t have polite address now because in 1917 there was the revolution, and the Bolsheviks, who were uneducated people with peasant roots, came to power,” Vasilyev said.

No matter who’s to blame — communists, oligarchs, the FSB — the reality is that many in Russia today, and especially foreigners seeking to fit in, have problems addressing one another — at supermarkets, on street corners, and in the metro.

Elise Woirhaye, 25, from Reims, France, was shocked, she said, by the rudeness of Russians calling each other “man” and “woman.” “I also don’t like it when people call me ‘girl,’” said Woirhaye, a lawyer at the human rights group Memorial. “It would be better not to say anything at all.”

Fellow expat Alan Broach, 54, of London, was similarly astonished by the crassness of local conversation. “People often say ‘Where’s this?’ or ‘Where’s that?’” said Broach, a partner at Deloitte’s Moscow office. “I think it’s very rude. In Britain, we’d never speak like that.”

Psychologists and linguists agree that forms of address in post-Soviet Russia lack a certain polish and that this alters how people encounter and think about one another. Marina Konovalenko, a Moscow psychologist, said the Russian vernacular “shows that in this society, there is no respect for the person as an individual.”

Leonid Krysin, head of the modern Russian department at the Vinogradov Institute of Russian Language, appeared to agree with Konovalenko. The current reliance on terms such as “man” and “woman,” Krysin said, irons out social differences among people. Russian, he added, is one of the only modern languages without a polite form of address.

Still, Russian retains an emotional depth that is perhaps missing from other languages, said Maxim Kronhaus, director of the Institute of Linguistics at Russian State Humanitarian University.

Russians, Kronhaus said, often use terms like “mother,” “father,” “daughter” and “son” when speaking with complete strangers. Older Russians also tend to favor tender diminutives such as synok (sonny) and dochka (little girl, lamb or sweetie pie).

“This indicates that Russian culture is emotionally warm, compared, for example, with the emotionally colder British culture,” Kronhaus said.

There have been attempts in recent years to reintroduce gospodin and gospozha, among other forms of address, but the country has yet to settle on a new etiquette.

ROMIR Monitoring, a Moscow-based polling firm, found in a 2003 survey that there was wide disagreement among Russians about how best to speak to one another.

According to the poll, which included 1,570 respondents, 29 percent of Russians still use the word tovarishchi, despite the word having fallen out of fashion during the perestroika era. Another 15 percent prefer grazhdane (citizens); 9 percent like damy i gospoda (ladies and gentlemen); and 1 percent prefer sudari i sudaryni (ladies and gentlemen), especially in the Urals.

What’s more, older people, not surprisingly, prefer Soviet throwbacks like “comrades” while younger business people take to “ladies and gentlemen.”

Nadezhda Taratsevskaya, 56, an engineer from the Moscow region town of Noginsk, tries to avoid using “woman” when addressing elderly women and prefers “girl” when speaking with a young woman. As for men, everyone is a “young man” to Taratsevskaya. “Some think it’s a joke,” she said. “But I can’t say ‘man.’ I don’t know why.”

A message from LR’s Translator

In response to a reader who commented on our response to the eXile by making disparaging comments about other people’s command of Russian, LR’s translator posted a couple of observations about mistakes the commenter had made in his own Russian. Now he offers readers a few general observations about this kind of discourse:

My last two notes bring me to a larger point, something I’ve noticed over the years, and this seems like as good a place as any to mention it. The people who are most prone to basing ad hominem arguments on other people’s proficiency in Russian almost always fall into one (or more) of three categories:

1) Those who don’t speak it very well themselves, but have always dreamed of being able to scold their fellow countrymen for being narrow-minded and provincial, especially about foreign languages (these are mostly Russophile expats);

2) Those for whom it is their sole qualification for speaking on Russian affairs (these are often Russian-Americans, who forget that foreign affairs, human rights, jurisprudence, etc. are all legitimate fields of inquiry in themselves);

3) Russians who are trying to get critics to shut up so they can hear the gentle music of their own propaganda machines. (Problem is, more and more of their critics are Russians themselves… that’s where I come in.)

All (ALL) of the really competent Russian specialists I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), regardless of whether they tended toward the Russophile orRussophobe side of the house, have religiously avoided making any mention of their or anyone else’s proficiency in the language. I’ve been delighted sometimes to discover some of them had extremely high levels of fluency in the language, because they never mentioned it to me themselves, and their friends don’t usually make a big deal out of it either. By contrast, almost every rabid Russophile I have ever met (with the exception of ethnic Russians, and I’m not sure they can be called “Russophiles” anyway) who claimed to speak Russian has disappointed me, usually very badly, when I’ve had the chance to hear them trying to do it. There’s probably a deep psychological explanation for this phenomenon — something that speaks to the origins of self-loathing and other inferiority complexes — but I’ll leave that to the specialists and those who like to speculate on such things.

LR would like to add: The very last (LAST) thing in the whole wide world that anybody who hopes for a better future for Russia should be doing is dissuading people from using the Russian language by attacking them for it when they do or by lording over them the fact that they don’t. LR reported not long ago on the possible demise of the Russian language as it goes the way of the population, which is going the way of the dodo. Once again, we see a so-called Russophile doing far more harm to Russia than the country’s worst enemies.

A message from LR’s Translator

In response to a reader who commented on our response to the eXile by making disparaging comments about other people’s command of Russian, LR’s translator posted a couple of observations about mistakes the commenter had made in his own Russian. Now he offers readers a few general observations about this kind of discourse:

My last two notes bring me to a larger point, something I’ve noticed over the years, and this seems like as good a place as any to mention it. The people who are most prone to basing ad hominem arguments on other people’s proficiency in Russian almost always fall into one (or more) of three categories:

1) Those who don’t speak it very well themselves, but have always dreamed of being able to scold their fellow countrymen for being narrow-minded and provincial, especially about foreign languages (these are mostly Russophile expats);

2) Those for whom it is their sole qualification for speaking on Russian affairs (these are often Russian-Americans, who forget that foreign affairs, human rights, jurisprudence, etc. are all legitimate fields of inquiry in themselves);

3) Russians who are trying to get critics to shut up so they can hear the gentle music of their own propaganda machines. (Problem is, more and more of their critics are Russians themselves… that’s where I come in.)

All (ALL) of the really competent Russian specialists I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), regardless of whether they tended toward the Russophile orRussophobe side of the house, have religiously avoided making any mention of their or anyone else’s proficiency in the language. I’ve been delighted sometimes to discover some of them had extremely high levels of fluency in the language, because they never mentioned it to me themselves, and their friends don’t usually make a big deal out of it either. By contrast, almost every rabid Russophile I have ever met (with the exception of ethnic Russians, and I’m not sure they can be called “Russophiles” anyway) who claimed to speak Russian has disappointed me, usually very badly, when I’ve had the chance to hear them trying to do it. There’s probably a deep psychological explanation for this phenomenon — something that speaks to the origins of self-loathing and other inferiority complexes — but I’ll leave that to the specialists and those who like to speculate on such things.

LR would like to add: The very last (LAST) thing in the whole wide world that anybody who hopes for a better future for Russia should be doing is dissuading people from using the Russian language by attacking them for it when they do or by lording over them the fact that they don’t. LR reported not long ago on the possible demise of the Russian language as it goes the way of the population, which is going the way of the dodo. Once again, we see a so-called Russophile doing far more harm to Russia than the country’s worst enemies.

A message from LR’s Translator

In response to a reader who commented on our response to the eXile by making disparaging comments about other people’s command of Russian, LR’s translator posted a couple of observations about mistakes the commenter had made in his own Russian. Now he offers readers a few general observations about this kind of discourse:

My last two notes bring me to a larger point, something I’ve noticed over the years, and this seems like as good a place as any to mention it. The people who are most prone to basing ad hominem arguments on other people’s proficiency in Russian almost always fall into one (or more) of three categories:

1) Those who don’t speak it very well themselves, but have always dreamed of being able to scold their fellow countrymen for being narrow-minded and provincial, especially about foreign languages (these are mostly Russophile expats);

2) Those for whom it is their sole qualification for speaking on Russian affairs (these are often Russian-Americans, who forget that foreign affairs, human rights, jurisprudence, etc. are all legitimate fields of inquiry in themselves);

3) Russians who are trying to get critics to shut up so they can hear the gentle music of their own propaganda machines. (Problem is, more and more of their critics are Russians themselves… that’s where I come in.)

All (ALL) of the really competent Russian specialists I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), regardless of whether they tended toward the Russophile orRussophobe side of the house, have religiously avoided making any mention of their or anyone else’s proficiency in the language. I’ve been delighted sometimes to discover some of them had extremely high levels of fluency in the language, because they never mentioned it to me themselves, and their friends don’t usually make a big deal out of it either. By contrast, almost every rabid Russophile I have ever met (with the exception of ethnic Russians, and I’m not sure they can be called “Russophiles” anyway) who claimed to speak Russian has disappointed me, usually very badly, when I’ve had the chance to hear them trying to do it. There’s probably a deep psychological explanation for this phenomenon — something that speaks to the origins of self-loathing and other inferiority complexes — but I’ll leave that to the specialists and those who like to speculate on such things.

LR would like to add: The very last (LAST) thing in the whole wide world that anybody who hopes for a better future for Russia should be doing is dissuading people from using the Russian language by attacking them for it when they do or by lording over them the fact that they don’t. LR reported not long ago on the possible demise of the Russian language as it goes the way of the population, which is going the way of the dodo. Once again, we see a so-called Russophile doing far more harm to Russia than the country’s worst enemies.

A message from LR’s Translator

In response to a reader who commented on our response to the eXile by making disparaging comments about other people’s command of Russian, LR’s translator posted a couple of observations about mistakes the commenter had made in his own Russian. Now he offers readers a few general observations about this kind of discourse:

My last two notes bring me to a larger point, something I’ve noticed over the years, and this seems like as good a place as any to mention it. The people who are most prone to basing ad hominem arguments on other people’s proficiency in Russian almost always fall into one (or more) of three categories:

1) Those who don’t speak it very well themselves, but have always dreamed of being able to scold their fellow countrymen for being narrow-minded and provincial, especially about foreign languages (these are mostly Russophile expats);

2) Those for whom it is their sole qualification for speaking on Russian affairs (these are often Russian-Americans, who forget that foreign affairs, human rights, jurisprudence, etc. are all legitimate fields of inquiry in themselves);

3) Russians who are trying to get critics to shut up so they can hear the gentle music of their own propaganda machines. (Problem is, more and more of their critics are Russians themselves… that’s where I come in.)

All (ALL) of the really competent Russian specialists I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), regardless of whether they tended toward the Russophile orRussophobe side of the house, have religiously avoided making any mention of their or anyone else’s proficiency in the language. I’ve been delighted sometimes to discover some of them had extremely high levels of fluency in the language, because they never mentioned it to me themselves, and their friends don’t usually make a big deal out of it either. By contrast, almost every rabid Russophile I have ever met (with the exception of ethnic Russians, and I’m not sure they can be called “Russophiles” anyway) who claimed to speak Russian has disappointed me, usually very badly, when I’ve had the chance to hear them trying to do it. There’s probably a deep psychological explanation for this phenomenon — something that speaks to the origins of self-loathing and other inferiority complexes — but I’ll leave that to the specialists and those who like to speculate on such things.

LR would like to add: The very last (LAST) thing in the whole wide world that anybody who hopes for a better future for Russia should be doing is dissuading people from using the Russian language by attacking them for it when they do or by lording over them the fact that they don’t. LR reported not long ago on the possible demise of the Russian language as it goes the way of the population, which is going the way of the dodo. Once again, we see a so-called Russophile doing far more harm to Russia than the country’s worst enemies.

A message from LR’s Translator

In response to a reader who commented on our response to the eXile by making disparaging comments about other people’s command of Russian, LR’s translator posted a couple of observations about mistakes the commenter had made in his own Russian. Now he offers readers a few general observations about this kind of discourse:

My last two notes bring me to a larger point, something I’ve noticed over the years, and this seems like as good a place as any to mention it. The people who are most prone to basing ad hominem arguments on other people’s proficiency in Russian almost always fall into one (or more) of three categories:

1) Those who don’t speak it very well themselves, but have always dreamed of being able to scold their fellow countrymen for being narrow-minded and provincial, especially about foreign languages (these are mostly Russophile expats);

2) Those for whom it is their sole qualification for speaking on Russian affairs (these are often Russian-Americans, who forget that foreign affairs, human rights, jurisprudence, etc. are all legitimate fields of inquiry in themselves);

3) Russians who are trying to get critics to shut up so they can hear the gentle music of their own propaganda machines. (Problem is, more and more of their critics are Russians themselves… that’s where I come in.)

All (ALL) of the really competent Russian specialists I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), regardless of whether they tended toward the Russophile orRussophobe side of the house, have religiously avoided making any mention of their or anyone else’s proficiency in the language. I’ve been delighted sometimes to discover some of them had extremely high levels of fluency in the language, because they never mentioned it to me themselves, and their friends don’t usually make a big deal out of it either. By contrast, almost every rabid Russophile I have ever met (with the exception of ethnic Russians, and I’m not sure they can be called “Russophiles” anyway) who claimed to speak Russian has disappointed me, usually very badly, when I’ve had the chance to hear them trying to do it. There’s probably a deep psychological explanation for this phenomenon — something that speaks to the origins of self-loathing and other inferiority complexes — but I’ll leave that to the specialists and those who like to speculate on such things.

LR would like to add: The very last (LAST) thing in the whole wide world that anybody who hopes for a better future for Russia should be doing is dissuading people from using the Russian language by attacking them for it when they do or by lording over them the fact that they don’t. LR reported not long ago on the possible demise of the Russian language as it goes the way of the population, which is going the way of the dodo. Once again, we see a so-called Russophile doing far more harm to Russia than the country’s worst enemies.

The Demise of the Russian Language

First Post reports on the demise of the Russian language (hat tip: Ruminations on Russia and Global Voices).

If Vladimir Putin gets his way, the next 12 months are going to be very special indeed. For he has decreed that 2007 is The Year of the Russian Language.

A rather late New Year’s gift, you might think. But nyet: Russia’s traditional ‘Old New Year’ – according to the Gregorian calendar – fell on January 13, so there is still plenty of time to celebrate this momentous declaration. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be informing UNESCO and “all interested international parties” imminently.

This may seem a laughable and bizarre move, were it not a remedy for a serious problem. Numbers of Russian speakers have been declining annually since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian is the fourth most spoken language on earth behind English, Chinese and Spanish, but by 2025 it will be pushed into 10th place, eclipsed by French, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Bengali.

One of the main reasons for this is Russia’s low birth rate: 700,000 speakers die out every year. And in the former Soviet republics, Russian is no longer the elite choice of second language – they would rather learn English now.

Similarly, in many Central and Eastern European countries, Russian has a major image problem: the older generation wince at the memory of their compulsory lessons under Communism. Even in the UK, British universities report decreasing numbers of applicants to Russian courses: as a subject it has long since lost its Cold War cachet. Arabic is the new must-speak.

But maybe Putin’s New Year wish is not a pipe dream. One report claims that in Poland last year there was a twofold rise in Russian language university applicants and concludes that Russian is increasingly considered a requirement for a career in business.

If the Poles are up for it, then the rest of us have no excuse. Chego ty razdumyvayesh? (What are you waiting for?)

Russian Language on the Verge of Oblivion

In yet another example of Neo-Soviet failure, the Moscow Times documents the recession of the Russian language around the world and particularly in the former Soviet slave states. Russians have got so used to ruling over other countries as bullies and crude thugs that they are simply unequipped to deal with them as equals. We see the blunt manifestation of this fact in Russia’s current imbroglio with Georgia, and it is present in Kyrgyzstan as well:

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Zulya Kalimbetova, a 22-year-old waitress at an outdoor cafe, boasts that she is the only one of 10 siblings in her family who speaks Russian. “I learned it here by myself, in town, because I am smart,” Kalimbetova said, speaking slowly with a heavy accent, confusing her verb endings and pronouns. But she concedes she’s at a disadvantage compared to earlier generations. “My mother speaks Russian better because she studied in school,” she said.

Kalimbetova never had a chance to study Russian in school because, coming from Osh, the country’s most depressed region, she never went to school. She is not alone. Like Kalimbetova, millions of young men and women in the former Soviet Union and its former satellite states are either unable or opting not to study the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin. While the numbers have been slipping since the Soviet collapse, the decline of Russian speakers is now beginning to be felt more acutely around the world.

Indeed, by 2025, according to a recent study by the Center for Demography and Human Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the number of people speaking Russian will be roughly equal to that at the beginning of the last century. For now, Russian is the fourth-most-spoken language on earth, behind English, Chinese and Spanish, according to the center’s figures. In Russia, 130 million people speak the language, not counting newborns. Another 26.4 million citizens of former Soviet republics are native Russian speakers, and there are an additional 7.5 million Russian speakers sprinkled around the globe. About 114 million people speak Russian as a foreign language.

But the center projects that in a decade, Russian will be eclipsed by French, Hindu and Arab and, within the next 15 years, it will be pushed to 10th place by Portuguese and Bengali. One obvious reason for the decline is that Russia itself is shrinking, as the population sheds 700,000 people every year.

Another factor is that, beyond Russia’s borders, the prestige associated with the language has been ebbing since the country lost its status as a global communist empire. “As the geopolitical importance of Russia degenerated to being little more than a big supplier of raw materials for other countries’ growing high-tech economies, so did the demand for knowing Russian,” said Kirill Razlogov, an analyst at the Institute for Cultural Research.

In many former Soviet republics, particularly in Central Asia, Russian was once the language of the elite. “Now, with advancing globalization,” Razlogov said, “more people opt for English rather than Russian, deciding they’d rather read Shakespeare in his native tongue rather than the Russian translation.”

Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov has made the anti-Russian movement state policy, banning in 1995 the teaching of Russian at almost all universities and schools as well as books, street signs, posters and advertisements that are printed in Russian. Elsewhere in the former communist world, the anti-Russian trend is not quite so draconian, but widespread. From the Romanian capital of Bucharest to Budapest to Warsaw to Prague, English, not Russian, is the language of commerce and, in many cases, mass communication.

The Center for Demography and Human Ecology estimates that the number of students studying Russian in Eastern and Central Europe plunged to 935,000 in 2004 from 10 million in 1990. In the Baltics, where opposition to the communist regime was strongest and the first Soviet republics declared independence, there has been an unmistakable move away from Russian. In Estonia, a 1995 law relegated Russian to the status of a foreign language. And in Latvia, a 1999 law mandated that officials communicate with citizens only in Latvian, even in those areas with a majority of Russian speakers. “We want to make Latvians out of Russians,” Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reported as saying in 2004.

While there are no restrictions on learning or speaking Russian in Lithuania, the language suffers from a serious image problem, as is the case elsewhere. “Young people here don’t associate their career aspirations with Russia,” said Aurelijus Gutauskas, a professor at the Law Institute of Lithuania. “They all look to the West and choose instead to learn English, French and German.”

Likewise, Western students have lost interest in studying Russian. While a generation of young Americans were urged to study all things Russian in the wake of the 1957 Sputnik launch, in 2004 a paltry 27,000 chose to learn it, according to the center’s figures. With Latin America to the south and the war on terrorism raging in the Middle East, central Asia and elsewhere, Spanish and Arabic are widely considered more useful.

Back in Bishkek, they seem to feel the same way. Within the walls of the private American University in Central Asia, ethnic Kyrgyz students from middle-class families are more likely to converse in English than Russian. But for those who hail from the country’s rural precincts, where abject poverty, backwardness and a feudal Oriental civilization predominates, Russian may remain for some time a symbol of progress and culture. Shirin Narynbayeva, an American University student with a round face, explained: “I chose to learn Russian so that no one would ever think that I came from a village.”

How will Russians react to this news? With predictable hostility and contempt for those who choose not to get involved with Russian. They will never ask themselves what they might have done to cause the world to reject Russian language, much less what they might do to reform and improve. Haughtily and imperiously, they will march into oblivion.