Why De-Russification Isn’t On The Cards

My post last week on the increasing visibility of the Russian language on the Internet provoked a heated counter-attack from commentator Ildar Adi, who asserted (without much in the way of proof) that it is actually in significant retreat in Europe, the Near Abroad, and even Russia itself.

He believes that whereas there were almost 500 million Russian speakers in 1990, there will be just 150 million of them in 2030. If that were to be true, it would imply that practically nobody outside Russia would still speak Russian in 20 years time. Does this sound like a very likely prospect?


Not if the above map, linked to by commentator Glossy, is anything to go by. In this case, one image really is worth a thousand words. Quoting Glossy:

It seems that the only languages of the former Soviet Union that are used enough on Twitter to have merited their own colors on that map are Russian, Latvian and Lithuanian. It looks like Estonia isn’t tweeting much in Russian either though. The rest of the post-Soviet space is. On the map Catalans are tweeting in Catalan, but Ukrainians are tweeting in Russian. And that’s the young generation, the future. Who else is going to use Twitter? Kiev looks like the third-brightest Russian-tweeting city in the world, right after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slovenian, Slovak and Albanian have their own colors, but Ukrainian doesn’t.

The original w3techs report confirms that the ex-USSR Internet is, for all intents and purposes, the Runet:

Russian is also the most used language in several countries that belonged to the Soviet Union: 79.0% in Ukraine, 86.9% in Belarus, 84.0% in Kazakhstan, 79.6% in Uzbekistan, 75.9% in Kyrgyzstan and 81.8% in Tajikistan.

A 2012 study showed that:

  • On the radio, 3.4% of songs are in Ukrainian while 60% are in Russian.
  • Over 60% of newspapers, 83% of journals and 87% of books are in Russian.
  • 28% of TV programs are in Ukrainian, even on state-owned channels.

The Russian Wikipedia consistently gets about 70% of all hits from IP’s located within Ukraine. This figure hasn’t budged since 2009 when they started gathering data on this. The Ukrainian language Wikipedia, getting 15%, is only about twice as popular as the English language Wikipedia.

In Belarus, this figure is close to 90%. In Kazakhstan, it’s 80%, and is likewise dominant in the rest of Central Asia. Even in Azerbaijan (!), its 40%: That’s about as much as English and Azeri combined. The only countries in the ex-USSR where the Russian Wikipedia isn’t dominant are Georgia and the three Baltic states.

Despite the official efforts to De-Russify, the Russian language has if anything grown in prevalence in Ukraine since the end of the USSR. The percentage of those who consider it their “native language” went from 35% in 1995 to 40% in 2013, despite the substantial outflows of Russians in that period. In any case, many Ukrainians who answer “Ukrainian” do so for sentimental reasons, not practical ones. Here are the results of a 2004 survey of high school students in Kiev to questions about their usage of the Ukrainian and Russian languages:

  Ukrainian Russian Both
Speak at home 13 61 25
Speak at school with friends 4 65 29
Watch TV 16 26 57
Read literature 12 30 57

This is the youngest generation, which lived at a time of state-backed efforts to De-Russify the schools and everyday life (whereas 54% of Ukrainian students studied primarily in Ukrainian in 1991, by 2002 this had increased to 74%). But these same efforts, however – contrary to Ildar Adi’s assertions – more an expression of the perceived weakness of the weakness of the indigenous languages than anything else.

So what explains this? Ironically, the likely answer is IT and modern technology, and increasing, globalization. While the USSR promoted Russian as a language of inter-ethnic communication, in practice for most of that period many ethnic minorities were taught in their own language. For instance, a little known fact is that there were riots in Tbilisi in the 1970’s when it was proposed to make Russian a language equal to Georgian in education. In the Warsaw Pact countries, Russian was taught as a foreign language, i.e. most people didn’t really end up mastering it. So outside of the top bureaucratic echelons, where Russian was the lingua franca, it was not nearly as prevalent as it is sometimes made out to be.

Conversely, its “retreat” hasn’t been as universal. The ex-socialist bloc countries stopped teaching it as a foreign language, replacing it with English and German, and aside from the unemployed Russian language teachers it didn’t have a big effect. However, in the ex-USSR countries, barring Georgia and the Baltics, Russian remains pretty much universally known. And even if there are efforts to support indigenous languages at the level of government documents and schools, it is hard to make it supplant Russian because of (1) the self-reinforcing fact that everyone already knows Russian and (2) the much vaster “gravitational weight” of Russian on the Internet. The “weight” of English is far vaster than Russian, of course, but the Ukrainians and Kyrgyz aren’t drawn to it because so few of them know English in the first place.

Consider your typical Kievan Ukrainian patriot. He votes for Vitaly Klychko, against making Russian the second official language, and wants to join the EU if not NATO. On the other hand, the people he communicates with in everyday life usually speak Russian, the new movies he devours are in Russian or English with Russian subtitles, the literature he reads (be it Dostoevsky or Boris Akunin) is typically Russian, etc. When he wants to buy a new car and Googles (or more likely, Yandexs) “авто”, about 90% of the results will be in Russian. There is now too big a critical mass of people who know Russian and use it to communicate across the CIS for it to ever “vanish”, if anything it is likely to further grow in prominence as education levels, economic inter-connectedness, and Internet penetration increase. All this doesn’t make him a hypocrite or not a “true” patriot – consider the relationship of Ireland or India to the English language. That, approximately and with a caveats, is the true relation of most of the ex-USSR countries to the Russian language.

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