Along with political and economic domination, a great power exerts tremendous cultural influence over its colonies or satellites. Language offers a particularly dramatic illustration, as with the linguistic quilt the French and the British stitched across Africa. When empires decline, so does their cultural sway, including the use of their language. For insight into changing power relations after communism's fall, listen to what the former Soviet bloc is speaking.

People's attachment to language and the culture it embodies-or resentment of them, in the case of a conqueror's tongue and culture-runs deep. But whether the motivation is emotional or pragmatic, ardent nationalism or the desire to get along, any language people choose for themselves and their children is a function of their perception of that language's standing in the world and of the relative importance of the nation or nations that use it.

As Moscow's power waned across the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, and on the periphery of empire, so did the linguistic hold of Russian. Six years after the demise of the U.S.S.R., among the 15 erstwhile republics and 20 countries of the old Soviet bloc, Russian is the official language only in Russia and--after the referendum on the June 1997 union treaty with Russia--in Belarus, where it has equal status with Belarusan. By comparison, almost four decades after the collapse of the British and French empires,

English or French is still one of the official languages in more than half the former dependencies, and many use only English or French.

Moreover, as the newly independent and the once nominally but now genuinely autonomous states turn to powers other than Russia for their economic, military, and other needs, their citizens are increasingly speaking those powers' languages, along with their own native tongues. Russian is no longer the language that elites and people concerned with getting ahead are encouraging their children to study. English is, followed by German, with French often a distant third. Language use serves as a barometer of the severity of the Soviet collapse, the attraction of Europe, and the allure of English, which is emerging as the contemporary lingua franca of the West and large reaches of the rest of the world.


Russian was never thought of as an international language until the Soviet Union came to be considered a superpower during the Cold War. In czarist Russia, aristocrats and educated people spoke French, frequently as their only language. Pushkin learned Russian from his nanny; his parents spoke to him solely in French.

From the time of their incorporation into the Russian empire, all the lands that later became Soviet republics had Russian as at least one of their official languages. Sometimes the Soviet government made efforts to support the native languages; more often it suppressed them. But although Russian was mandatory in schools in the Soviet Union, its adoption was far from wholehearted. In half the republics, less than 50 percent of the population learned to speak it. Often it was more the language of the cities than the countryside. Party officials, local managers of factories and collectives, and people tied to the modern sectors of the economy had to know it, but not necessarily farmers. Russian was spoken most in the richest republics and least in the poorest. In many of the republics where knowledge of Russian was and is widespread, the proportion of ethnic Russians in the population was high or (as in Belarus and Ukraine) the national language was very similar to Russian.

As Moscow's hold weakened, nationalism arose throughout the Soviet Union, encouraging among the non-Russian nationalities a rejection of everything Russian. The effect was especially pronounced in the areas of language and culture, says Tatiana Marchenko, a senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Science. "The Russian language is disappearing from the lives of the younger generations" outside Russia, she observes. She points to the diminishing number of schools and universities where instruction is in Russian.

The same holds true for book publishing and television. While overall releases of new books were down everywhere in the last years of the Soviet Union because of paper shortages and price increases, publication of native-language books rose, according to Marchenko. Between 1986 and 1990, except in Ukraine and Belarus, the number of foreign-language texts published also increased-at least 300 percent in Moldavia (now Moldova), Azerbaijan, and Kazakstan, 150 percent in the Central Asian republics, and 20 to 30 percent in Latvia, Estonia, and Georgia. For books translated from Russian into native languages, startling reductions were reported between 1986 and 1990 in the Baltic and Transcaucasian republics and in Moldova; in Lithuania, Marchenko says, translations of Russian children's books fell 95 percent over the same period. In television, airtime once assigned to Russian-language broadcasts is now devoted to broadcasts in national languages. But because Russian TV is frequently better than the programming in local languages, recent polls show that many people in the former republics favor at least some hours of Russian programming.


While Russian was never the official language of any of the countries of Eastern Europe, it was the second language, spoken in the higher government, military, and intellectual circles. Most schools in Eastern Europe taught Russian as a second language, but students frequently learned it the way American students learn foreign languages: they took courses, but most could never really speak it. It was a different story, though, if they were planning to study in the Soviet Union or had hopes of rising to the top of the Communist Party or the government. Then they had to be fairly fluent in Russian.

In countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba, and Vietnam, on the periphery of the Soviet sphere but still under heavy Russian influence, the percentage of Russian-speakers was lower but still significant. Military and Communist Party officials, technicians, and others were taught or picked up the language during training in the Soviet Union or in working with Soviet advisers. Chinese President Jiang Zemin learned Russian well enough as a student and as a trainee at the Stalin Automobile Works in Moscow in the heyday of international communism in the 1950s that Boris Yeltsin complimented him on it during Jiang's trip to Russia last November.

The data now coming in suggest that the countries that were least politically tied to the Soviet Union and had the fewest ethnic and cultural links with Russia most easily gave up the Russian language. When former Soviet bloc countries are ranked by the number of post-secondary students they send to Russia to study, 14 of the top 15 turn out to be former Soviet republics-some with very large ethnic Russian populations-while the bottom 10 are all either Eastern European or peripheral countries.

English and German are displacing Russian as the second language across the Soviet bloc, for historical but even more for practical reasons like access to business and professional opportunities. German's roots in Eastern Europe are deep. In the Baltic states, it was the language of education and of sophisticates from the Middle Ages until World War I. German was the official language throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its half-century of existence from 1867 to 1918. Language follows trade, and in Central Europe during the interwar years, Germany was far and away the leading trade partner of virtually every country. Today Germany is again the top trade partner of the Eastern European nations (except Slovakia, whose major partner is the Czech Republic, with which it was until recently united). Most of these countries have a strong desire to join the European Union (EU) under the joint leadership of Germany and France. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are to be considered for membership in 1999, with

Estonia and Slovenia next in line. Data from the Munich branch of the Goethe Institute, which promotes German language and culture, show that German is the most widely studied foreign language in primary and secondary schools in five former Soviet bloc countries, three of which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of the 20 million people around the world learning German today, two-thirds are in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But it is English that has become the common language for Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc, as it already was for large areas of the rest of the world. English is the most widely studied foreign language in eight of the 16 countries the Goethe Institute examined, including Russia, and is the runner-up wherever it is not first. This has much to do with the fact that the United States is the sole remaining superpower. It dominates trade in many regions. It is the major supplier of arms (with English operations manuals) and training (conducted in English, if held in America) for the militaries of the world. California's Silicon Valley produces the world's most advanced computer technology, and English sites on the World Wide Web, many of them American, outnumber those in all other languages combined by an estimated 20 to 1. If a young person wants to study at a university in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, India, Nigeria, or many other countries, she or he had better be fluent in English. Aside from all this, because English is so widely spoken as a second language, people believe that if they know it, they can get around almost anywhere they would want to go. They are not far wrong.


Another indicator of the decline in Russian power and in the perceived importance of learning Russian is the number of foreign students choosing to study in Russia. Before the Soviet Union's collapse, Russian universities and technical schools, combined with government scholarships, drew the best students from the other republics. Moreover, students from Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc came on Soviet scholarships or grants from their own communist governments or were sponsored by relatives who were high-ranking officials. If these youths were to assume positions of influence in the communist world, their backers believed, they had to learn Marxist economics and imbibe the Soviet viewpoint-preferably in Moscow or Leningrad. Students, recognizing Russia's importance in their world, aspired to do just that. No figures are available from communism's apogee, but anecdotal evidence indicates the number of foreign students studying in the Soviet Union was very large. Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow was set up for the sole purpose of accommodating students from Eastern Europe and the developing world.

There is some data from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for 1989, when dissolution of the empire was just beginning, and much more for the 1990s. (The most recent available figures are from 1994 or 1995, depending on the country or region.) In 1989, there were 20,926 students from Africa studying in Russia; by 1994/ 95 the number had fallen to 3,762. Asia sent 31,600 students in 1989 and 5,900 in 1994/ 95, South America 3,400 in 1989 and 522 in 1994/ 95. Among the few individual countries for which UNESCO has data going back to 1989, Bulgaria sent 4,146 students that year and just 134 in 1994/ 95, the number of Polish students dropped from 2,221 to 130 over the same period, while the former East Germany sent 1,255 in 1989, compared with 96 from united Germany in 1994/ 95. From year to year, the falloff in the flow is dramatic. Twenty-five former Soviet bloc countries sent fewer students to Russia in 1994/ 95 than in 1993, while only two sent a handful more. Of the 11 countries that sent more than half their students studying abroad to Russia, all are former republics, and many have large concentrations of ethnic Russians.

Patrice Lumumba University is still functioning, but not because of government scholarships or communist solidarity. Education is cheap in Russia compared with the United States, and it is not easy to get into British, French, or Japanese universities. While a Russian education may not be as good and is not as prestigious, it is better than anything most Third World and some Eastern European students can get at home.

But if they can find a way, Eastern European families and those from elsewhere in the Soviet bloc increasingly send their children west to study business administration, computer science, medicine, and other technical subjects in which Western countries are perceived to excel. Perhaps several hundred thousand students from the former Soviet sphere are studying in Germany, other Western European countries, or the United States. Some students go elsewhere for linguistic, religious, or historical reasons, but they are the exceptions.

After the initial rejection of Russia and its language, the last few years have witnessed some movement in the opposite direction, notably in Belarus. Eastern European countries producing goods that are not competitive in Western markets may well turn back to Russia; such trade has increased in the last few years. Countries not invited to join NATO or the EU or that otherwise feel slighted by the West may look more kindly on Russia. But if the economic, military, and political power of the EU and NATO continues to expand in the former Soviet bloc, while Russia's declines, the use of Russian will also decline.

The relationship between power and language is summed up by the experiences of Quoc Khoi, a Vietnamese man who made an appearance in a May 7, 1995, New York Times article:

Quoc Khoi carries the history of Vietnam on the tip of his tongue. As foreign powers have come and gone, Mr. Khoi, who is now in his fifties, has learned French, then Japanese, then English, then Russian. Vietnam is on its own now, and Mr. Khoi is again riding the linguistic wave of history: He is making his living teaching English.

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  • Marshall R. Singer is Professor of International and Intercultural Affairs at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Weak States in a World of Powers: The Dynamics of International Relationships.
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