Friday, April 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Most Immigrants to Russia from CIS Countries Don’t Speak Russian

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 24 – Although most Gastarbeiters in the Russian Federation come from former Soviet republics, “more than half” of them do not speak Russian, a measure of just how much has changed in the 17 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a major cause of tensions between the new arrivals and longtime Russian residents.
That statistic, its causes and its consequences, was the subject of a discussion in the Russian Duma yesterday, during which deputies called for providing free Russian language training centers for Gastarbeiters both in Russian cities and in the former Soviet republics which make up the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In reporting on that debate, Novyye izvestiya today said that the problem is “really very sharp.” On the one hand, the paper said, “as many as 50 percent of the migrants cannot speak a word of Russian.” And on the other, the number of language training opportunities is very small: Moscow has “only two schools where foreigners are studying [Russian].”
And a visit by that newspaper’s journalists to one of these schools uncovered an unwelcome fact: Many refugees from beyond the borders of what was the Soviet Union are seeking to learn Russian, but, the school’s director said, “there aren’t many from the former USSR people” (
A student from Somalia told the paper that even though he was learning Russian, he had no desire to remain in Russia. “I want to become a doctor [through training in Russia and then] live and work in Canada.” That country, he said, “please me: it’s quiet and, unlike Russia, there is no hostility toward people of another nationality.”
“On April 20,” Abdul Aziz continued, “on Hitler’s birthday, my relatives and I tried not to go out on the streets: we were afraid of the skinheads. Why then am I studying Russian? In order to interact with my fellow students. I will be living here for awhile [and] without the language you feel isolated.”
One of the reasons that so few of the migrants from the former Soviet republics attend, school officials said, is that “no one knows” about the free instruction. “The embassies do not do anything to help,” and consequently, the teachers and administrators of the school have been reduced to going door to door and distributing leaflets they have made themselves.
There is any number of paid courses in Russian available in Moscow, but Gastarbeiters seldom have the funds or inclination to use them. “As a result, a Moscow city parliamentarian said, “the overwhelming majority of those who come [to the city to work] remain illiterate” and thus unable to keep within the limits the broader society expects them to.
According to one leader of the 270,000-strong Tajik Diaspora in the Russian capital, “70 percent of them do not speak and no not understand Russian,” although he insisted that “a majority” would like to learn the language if they were given the opportunity to do so at low or no cost.
Unlike the arrivals in Russian cities in Soviet times who generally came from the cities and spoke some Russian, those who have come in recent years often are from rural areas or from cities where Russian is now viewed as a “foreign” language and have never had any instruction in the language, something that makes it difficult for them to integrate into Russian society.
The paper noted that the children of migrants are more likely to be receiving Russian language instruction than their parents. There are some 30,000 migrant children in Moscow schools, of which 270 have special profile courses for those with a limited knowledge of the country’s basic language.
But most analysts and politicians agree that more has to be done, although they disagree as to who should be responsible. Many in the Duma favor an expanded government program, but some scholars, like Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Moscow Center of Social Policy, say that the diasporas should assume responsibility for this.
After all, he points out, very few countries – Israel and Germany are the most prominent – do very much to integrate new arrivals linguistically and culturally. The general attitude is: “’if you want to live here, be good enough to find the time to study the language and gain some knowledge of the history and culture of this country.’”
But given the large number of Gastarbeiters already in the Russian Federation and projections that their number will continue to rise as far into the future as anyone can see, someone will have to address this problem of a large number of linguistically isolated people, lest that in and of itself generates more problems between Russians and migrants.
Meanwhile, this week brought reports of two other developments in the Russian Federation that are very much signs of the changes that country and its people have undergone since the collapse of the Soviet system. Both concern the changing composition of the country’s armed services.
New draftees, Russian defense ministry officials said today, are four times more likely to be religious than are their officers, with 60 percent of the soldiers saying they are believers, with three quarters declaring an attachment to Orthodox Christianity, compared to only 15 percent of the officer corps (
And on Monday, Nezavisimaya gazeta reported that as the Russian military attempts to find enough men to fill its ranks, the medical commissions which examine potential draftees are increasingly declaring fit for service men who earlier would have been excluded because of serious physical or mental maladies (
“Half of the young people called to military service,” the paper said, “are neurotics and psychopaths.” Others suffer from a variety of physical ailments. And many in both categories have to be discharged because they prove incapable of adapting to military discipline or meeting its physical and mental demands.
Given that the size of the draft pool is projected to continue to contract over the next decade at least, the military is likely to be forced either to take into its ranks those it would prefer not to have unless Russia’s political leadership decides to improve health care or reduce the size of the military.

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