Central Asia: Russian Language Experiencing Rapid Decline

What's my language? (Photo: David Trilling)

Most young, educated people in Bishkek, such as these teenagers at a club in November, still speak Russian as their first language. But with more people from the countryside migrating into Bishkek, and education standards around the region falling, that's changing. (Photo: David Trilling)

Twenty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia retains significant political and economic clout in Central Asia. Culturally speaking, however, Russian influence is slipping at an alarming rate. 

The cultural erosion is most noticeable in the language sphere. Each year, more and more citizens in the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are losing touch with Russian. Demographic data indicates that younger generations, especially those living outside the five capitals, can barely speak the language at all. 

The reason for the decline is due in large part to a lack of government funding for Russian-language education. Local leaderships, striving to bolster their own authority, have diverted educational resources to the teaching of indigenous languages and the reinforcement of local cultural traditions. But other factors are at work too. For one, it is possible in the post-Soviet era to build a career without knowledge of Russian. “In Soviet times, to be part of the Communist Party, you had to know Russian. Even in the rural areas, at least the elites knew it, but today that's not the case,” said Laura Adams, director of the Central Asian and Caucasus Program at Harvard University and an Uzbek specialist. 

Census data from Kyrgyzstan provides startling context on the decline of Russian in Central Asia. In the most recent census, undertaken in 2009, 9 percent of the population 18 and over spoke Russian as a native language, while 50 percent of Kyrgyz in the same age bracket said they spoke Russian as a second language. In the 1999 census, 14.9 percent of respondents characterized Russian as their native tongue, while 75 percent considered Russian as their second language. 

When it comes to Kyrgyz youths, the numbers look especially grim for the Russian language. Among children between the ages of seven and 15, only 5 percent are listed as native Russian speakers, and just 26 percent have mastered it enough to consider it a second language. The language’s decline is all the more jarring in Kyrgyzstan when the fact that Russian enjoys state-language status is taken into account. 

Elsewhere in Central Asia, Russian finds itself on an even more slippery slope. In Uzbekistan, for example, few younger residents of the Ferghana Valley seem to speak Russian anymore. The country does not maintain official statistics on language usage, but data compiled in 2004 by Demoscope, a journal published by the Institute of Demography at the National University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, showed that while 60 percent of Uzbeks knew at least some Russian, only 20 percent had significant command of the language. 

“Russian was a means to connect outside of their own country,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a specialist in Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As Russian declines and it is not replaced with English, or any other global language, Central Asians will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

The consequences of the decline are already being felt by Central Asia’s poorest citizens, the very people who fill the ranks of Russia-bound legions of labor migrants. Recently compiled data indicates that many Central Asian guest workers don’t have a strong command of Russian, and are thus increasingly vulnerable to harassment and mistreatment. Russia’s Federal Migration Service found that roughly one in five Central Asian guest workers can’t speak Russian, while another 50 percent cannot independently fill out a simple form in the language. Russia has provided funds for potential labor migrants to obtain Russian-language instruction, but, so far, such classes have been unpopular. 

Beyond labor migration, the eclipse of Russian is making it more difficult for Westerners to engage with and understand the people of Central Asia. Western scholars conducting research in Central Asia have found that fluency in Russian is no longer enough to communicate effectively. In major cities, Westerners face little difficulty. Outside large metropolitan areas, however, Russian is practically useless. 

“My research in some of the novostroiki [suburban developments] like Ak Zhar and Ak Ordo, for example, is more often than not in Kyrgyz. This means that my research is heavily dependent on an interpreter,” explained Craig Hatcher, a PhD student at the University of Zurich who is studying human geography in Kyrgyzstan. “For me, this can be personally difficult for research. Lack of Kyrgyz language ability can make it difficult to build a rapport with the people you are interviewing, and [it] is something I constantly grapple with.” 

While Hatcher and other scholars acknowledge a need to study Central Asian languages, they also cite practical and financial obstacles. “Simply, it is easier to learn Russian from my home country. .. If you are working in [several] Central Asian countries, or working in the wider Post-Soviet context, Russian is transferable across your entire research terrain,” Hatcher noted. 

Adams, who conducts research on Uzbek national identity, realized that to collect interviews in Uzbekistan, she needed to learn the local language. “In the 1990s in Tashkent, pretty much everyone spoke Russian,” she said. “But when Uzbek was used, it was to emphasize the Uzbek-ness of what they were talking about. This code-switching that was going on excluded the Russian speakers, and as researcher, I needed to follow along.” 

Before beginning research for her dissertation, Adams dedicated two-plus years to intensive Uzbek language training. “When your research depends on finding out how people in these countries view the world, you need to be able to understand them when they fully express themselves. I knew that to be welcomed, I had to know the language.” she said. 

Like Hatcher, she recognized that learning Central Asian languages in the West is much more difficult than learning Russian. She explained that due to budget cuts at Harvard, Uzbek was now the only Central Asian language available. For those needing to study Kyrgyz, like Hatcher, opportunities are difficult to find. 

Meanwhile, English is not about to fill the void created by Russian. Knowledge of English seems to be an attractive alternative to Russian only for a select few in the region. “English is recognized as an important language for those individuals wishing to pursue an international career. Local staff working for international NGOs in Bishkek often has excellent English language skills,” Hatcher said. 

Adams said Russian will probably remain the “default” language to learn for ambitious locals. “Most people who have a choice still consider Russian necessary,” she said. “For upward mobility you have to learn Russian.”   

Editor's note: 
Rachel van Horn is an editorial assistant at EurasiaNet.