What Geopolitical Future for Russian?

QUERY | June 27, 2011     

article9Will the Russian language be in decline or on the rise by the year 2050?


Historically, the international significance of a language has depended on four key factors: demography (that is, the number of native speakers of the language in question); the military might of the native speakers; the economic power of the native speakers; and, finally, the cultural or political significance of what was written in the language.

Nicholas Ostler suggests that, in the 21st century, the military factor will be replaced by new technological and political factors: translation technology is going to help people communicating in different languages, while nationalistic claims in favour of certain languages will limit the spread of English and other contenders for the role of lingua franca. David Graddol, in his comprehensive report for the British Council, gives priority to the demographic factors and stresses the growth of global, post-modern multilingualism.

The foothold of the English language in North America after the multinational colonization that started in the early 17th century was attributed by 19th century commentators in part to the technical and aesthetic virtues of English – its clarity and grammatical simplicity – just as the past pre-eminence of French in Europe was due to its diplomatic polyvalence.

As for Russian, the life expectancy of Russians has been declining since the 1970s, and it is well established that Russia’s fertility rate is among the lowest in the world. The population of Russia is expected to fall by 30 to 50 million by the year 2050, resulting in a national headcount of around 100 million people, as against today’s 141 million. Although the anomalous mortality rate of the Russian male population may be reversed in the next few decades if social conditions improve, the overall demographic trend is unlikely to change – notwithstanding recent pro-fertility measures introduced by Prime Minister Putin. By contrast, the world’s population is expected to grow by almost one and half times by 2050.

For its part, the Russian diaspora may account for some 20 to 25 million people living in the so-called ‘near abroad’ and in developed countries – in all cases with flat or negative rates of natural growth. In the aggregate, therefore, there will be approximately 30 percent fewer native Russian speakers in 2050 than there are today, and the relative global weight of native Russian speakers will be half of what it is today – falling from two to one percent of total world population. Some of this negative growth dynamic will certainly affect the number of non-Russians learning and transmitting the Russian language over the next few generations – although other factors are also at play here.

Of course, Russian is widely spoken in the Baltic states and in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – effectively, in the former Soviet space. After the disintegration of the USSR, the elites in these new republics consolidated their power on the basis of modern nationalistic claims. And so, despite the enduring footprint of the Russian language, the affirmation of non-Russian national languages in contradistinction to Russian will doubtless continue to play an important role in building a sense of national community.

For all practical intents and purposes, there are three ‘circles’ at play in the future market share of the language of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Lenin and Trotsky. The first circle is that of de facto Russian bilingualism: it includes Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In these countries, a major or large part of the national mass media, business and daily communications operate or are carried out in Russian. The majority of the population speaks both Russian and the national language. (A recent Gallup study showed that more than half of the people in these countries preferred to answer a neutral sociological questionnaire in Russian, rather than in their national language.) We might also add Latvia and Estonia, where there is effective ‘segregated bilingualism’ – that is, where Russian-speaking and native populations are roughly comparable in size, but strictly separated in terms of ethnic identification. In all six of these countries, linguistic nationalism is eroding the footprint of Russian: new political elites have, to varying degrees – and with some periodic, politically inspired exceptions – been adopting laws on the national language (on education, mass media and bureaucratic officialdom) to the exclusion or relegation of the Russian language. Most importantly, the gradual exclusion of Russian from scholastic curricula in these countries will diminish bilingualism over the next two generations. Based on this dynamic, we can project that, by 2050, the Russian language will be spoken only by a minority in all of these countries, with the exception of Belarus.

The second circle is made up of countries in which Russian is widely used by a sizeable Russian-speaking minority. This circle includes Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Israel. Usage of Russian in each of these countries is clearly limited to certain geographic, ethnic or sociocultural segments of the population, representing between five and 20 percent of overall population. With no institutionalized role in the national educational systems, Russian will inevitably lose its foothold over time, and the Russian-speaking minorities will be marginalized. Indeed, the emergence of pidgin Russian is likely in countries like Israel and Moldova.

In the third circle, we find countries in which Russian is a popular foreign language learned by the native people, and/or the language of a small ethnic minority representing less than five percent of the population. This circle includes Armenia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. (Beyond the former USSR, it might also include Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.) The future of Russian as a foreign language in these lands will depend on the economic and political conjuncture, with the likelihood being that these Russian-speaking minorities will be mostly absorbed by 2050. (The Russian-speaking minorities in the US, UK, Germany and Canada are also very likely to have been assimilated by then.)

On the positive side, brute economics – to wit, the enormous natural resource wealth that has made Russia the world’s seventh largest economy – will likely grow the number of those who choose or will have to learn Russian as a second language. This growth, to be sure, will be limited somewhat by poor physical and institutional infrastructure, along with the said demographic decline. As a result – absent luck or national virtuosity – Russia’s economy will be ceding market share to other large, emerging economies with greater demographic dynamism or better politico-economic institutions, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Still, given its borders, Russia will certainly remain an influential regional economic power, with very active cross-border commerce with the EU, China and Central Asia. The result will be an enduring group of Russian-speaking national (economic) elites in these regions, just as, paradoxically, the Russian language continues to provide an economic advantage – down-market, as it were – to manual workers in the poorer countries of regions like Central Asia – especially in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The histories of the Latin, Arabic and Persian languages show that the footprint of a language may outlast – by a matter of centuries – the decline of the metropolis. This happens when the philosophical, artistic, religious or legal texts written in the original language carry authoritative normative weight in new historical and social conditions. Does the Russian language have such a cultural code to transmit? Notoriously, the USSR exercised an ideological influence on a global scale through a Marxist, humanist-revolutionary promise that appealed to the European left and to developing countries. However, since Lenin’s political writings, no Marxist texts written in Russian have played any lasting intellectual role in the world. The USSR left no texts to read for its posterity – except for critiques of the Soviet system itself. (The failure of the USSR may well serve as paradigmatic example of what not to do, but this is not enough to serve as a norm!) The cultural appeal of the Russian Orthodox Church – including the works of the religious philosophers of the early 20th century – is also modest.

That the major global message and legacy delivered in the Russian language was the classical Russian literature of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov is quite uncontroversial. These original testimonies to humanism and alienation in urban societies are likely to secure some future Russophiles as long as humankind continues to read literature. However, this Russian heritage does not have a paradigmatic, political or normative dimension in the idiom of, say, Greek philosophy or Roman law. It is simply part of European and Christian self-reflection. And self-reflection does not necessarily make for geopolitical import or impact (or export!).

New technologies, global economics and new ways of individual and collective self-moulding are accommodating more fluid identities. They specifically favour a 21st century, eclectic, post-modern multilingualism. If the modern personal identity was rooted in the single national language and culture, then the men and women of the 21st century are – to be sure – experimenting with multiple identities. Virtually all socially active people in Eurasia will, in the very foreseeable future – on top of their native tongues – be speaking fluent ‘Global English.’ They will try to obtain competitive advantages through more tongues if everyone already speaks English. In this competitive quest, the Russian language has some chance of becoming a positive, elitist marker on at least the regional level. It will provide its adepts with tangible economic advantages, cultural distinction, and even an ‘anti-consumerist,’ humanist flavour – as it were. That Russian grammar is difficult to master only raises the entrance barriers for non-natives – thereby heightening the value-addedness of Russian to foreigners who seek distinction through language. This is, of course, to say nothing of the entrance barriers to the ‘Russian soul,’ which are near insurmountable to the lay foreigner.


Timur Atnashev is a lecturer in the Russian Presidential Academy of Public Administration and Economics in Moscow.

(Image: Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 Anti-Censorship Poster)

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