Monday, April 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Velkum, Jamshud!’ – Teaching Russian to St. Petersburg’s Gastarbeiters

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 6 – Special classes for many of the more than one in five St. Petersburg residents who are migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus and who do not speak Russian at all or well are being organized under the decidedly unofficial and un-Russian title, “Velkum, Jamshud!” according to a report in today’s portal.
The organizer of the classes is a private school for adults that has been in operation for ten years. Its director, Irina Shishova, told the news service that “the idea for opening such courses” came to her because she was hearing so many of the migrant workers there either speaking Russian badly or not speaking it at all (
Through the teaching of Russian, she said, “we plan to teach the Gastarbeiters how to behave on the streets and in stores. We will tell them about Russian traditions and customs” and explain that “a militiaman has the right to ask you to present your documents in only three instances. At least, according to the law.”
“Finally, we will teach them the magic words of politeness” that will smooth the way of the immigrants in their interaction with the indigenous Russian population of the northern capital and thus make their stay there pleasant not only for them but for those among whom they are now living.
Instructors for the school will come from St. Petersburg State University of the Institution of International Educational Programs, that latter being a place, Shishova said with particularly “rich experience in work with foreigners who come to this higher educational institution from more than 80 countries.”
At present, she continued, her colleagues are surveying the Gastarbeiters to determine what their level of knowledge is as well as the major supermarkets, construction sites, and transportation companies where they work and where their bosses can explain what level of knowledge the migrants need.
Shishova pointed out that “we of course are not so naïve as to assume that Gastarbeiters themselves will find the money for such instruction.” Rather, she and her colleagues expect that firms will see the advantages of having their workers learn Russian and that perhaps officials either at the level of the city or in Moscow will support this effort.
And she expressed the hope that officials will set Russian language knowledge requirements by law and thus require immigrants to study until they achieve that level of proficiency, a hope that some in the Duma share and are pushing for despite current budgetary problems brought on by the crisis.
One reason she said that these courses are so important is that they have the potential “to increase the comfort level of our own society with the Gastarbeiters,” given that the native residents of the city “encounter them every day” and that’s why, Shishova said, her colleagues jokingly call the courses ‘Velkum, Jamshud!’”
The Moscow city government recently adopted a law requiring migrant labors to have a certain proficiency in Russian, and officials in other cities and regions have been discussing similar measures, on the principle that just as the authorities require people to know certain rules before driving a car, they should have the power to require Russian language knowledge.
Shishova’s school is in business to make money and therefore is prepared to “organize special courses evenings, weekends or even at night,” reported. And to attract the attention of Gastarbeiters and their employers, the school plans to make a special video to help the former orient themselves in the city and the latter see the value of Russian instruction.
But it remains unclear whether this effort will get off the ground: The media outlet reports that the local office of the Federal Migration Service said that there is no money in the government budget for it, and it remains uncertain whether businesses in the current environment will be prepared to pay for such courses.

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