A war of words over Russian

Former Soviet republics limit use of language

May 12, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

NARVA, Estonia -- In this quiet Estonian city on a wide river separating the small Baltic nation from its mammoth Russian neighbor, the official state language, in practical terms, is also a foreign one.

One hardly seems to need Estonian in Narva, where the majority of residents are ethnic Russians and where ordering a taxi, getting medicine at the pharmacy, even instruction in school, are done in Russian.

The use of Estonian is so limited here that many have a similarly limited ability to speak it.

That, the Estonian government says, is the problem.

Estonia is a staging ground in a conflict over the Russian language, a conflict steeped in cultural identity, politics and national pride.

The fight is being waged not just in this nation of 1.3 million people - where Russian is the native language of nearly one-third of the population - but elsewhere on former Soviet soil, where far fewer people speak Russian since the Soviet Union's fall.

In Estonia, the state has adopted an education reform requiring Russian-language schools to switch to Estonian instruction in some grades and subjects. A more extreme version of that policy in neighboring Latvia prompted protests. Members of a radical Russian party set fire to Latvia's Education Ministry in 2004, calling the policy "genocide" against Russians.

Similarly, in Ukraine, the country's Ukrainian and Russian speakers are sparring over what status to afford the once-dominant Russian language, even as Russia's political influence there has waned.

Even in Kazakhstan, a strong ally of Russia where the lingua franca is Russian, officials are trying to do more to support the development of the Kazakh language.

With an estimated 285 million Russian speakers worldwide, including 160 million to 170 million native speakers, Russian is the fourth-most commonly spoken language, behind Chinese, English and Spanish.

Russian is hardly in danger of extinction, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of the former republics did what Boris N. Yeltsin, then the Russian president, urged Russia's republics to do in 1991: They took as much sovereignty as they could. In many cases, that meant rejecting all things Russian, including the language. An estimated 70 million fewer people speak Russian now than did in 1991.

"Russian turned from a great and powerful language into a foreign one," said Yadviga Yuferova, deputy editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta and chair of an international contest to promote Russian abroad.

Language is hardly just vocabulary and grammar; it is also one of a nation's most cherished signs of identity, even more than an anthem or flag.

"Language is the basis of national life," said Eleonora Mitrofanova, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Russian Foreign Center, which operates language centers in 43 countries.

In Russia's case, language is also a sign of international influence. That is why Moscow has pushed for Russian to be made a state or official language throughout most of the former Soviet Union. It has succeeded only in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

But just as Russia has promoted its language in the post-Soviet era - President Vladimir V. Putin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language - so has Estonia, where Russian has been relegated to a foreign tongue like English or German.

Despite being neighbors, the two nations are worlds apart: They are at odds over whether the Soviet army freed or occupied Estonia during and after World War II, a question at the center of a dispute over a Soviet-era monument in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Russia has sullenly watched Estonia and other former satellites edge closer to the West. Many ethnic Russians have been left stateless, ineligible for citizenship because they don't know the Estonian language.

Such differences and long-held prejudices continue to manifest themselves in a clash of mother tongues.

"They fought for their independence, and they want to show to the world, to their own people, that they are self-sufficient," Mitrofanova said of the majority of former Soviet republics. "And this self-sufficiency is, of course, connected with one's own language."

The painted sign inside the front door reads "Paju Kool," welcoming visitors in a colorful swirl of letters, one of the few indications that this is an Estonian school.

The children scuttling through the halls of the three-story brick building in Narva are speaking Russian. Save for Estonian language class - and, as of fairly recently, art - instruction is in Russian. The principal, Lyudmila Smirnova, and most of the teachers are native Russian speakers.

But starting this fall, Paju Kool and other schools like it will have to add a subject a year in Estonian; the goal is 60 percent Estonian instruction.

The argument in favor of the reform is that students in Estonia, regardless of their parents' ethnic background, should know the state language, which would make them more competitive in Estonian universities and careers.

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