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Russian Language Enjoying a Boost in Post-Soviet States

Russian Language Enjoying a Boost in Post-Soviet States

by Sergei Gradirovski and Neli Esipova

This article is the first in a two-part series on attitudes toward the Russian language in post-Soviet states. This first article reviews regional opinions toward learning Russian; the second evaluates regional migration and the impact on emerging European and Central Asian markets.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Former president Vladimir Putin decreed 2007 as "The Year of the Russian Language." The declaration was not merely ceremonial -- the number of Russian speakers has declined annually since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gallup Polls reveal increasingly favorable attitudes toward learning the Russian language in several post-Soviet states, most notably in Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia.

Russia is currently one of the top 10 spoken languages in the world, but some estimate the number of people speaking Russian is declining. In many Central and Eastern European countries, older generations often associate Russian with compulsory lessons under communism. Throughout the post-Soviet years, Moscow has stressed the significance of the Russian language as one of communication and trust, of great literature, and of global science. In contrast, some opponents have branded it as a remnant of imperialism, and they have encouraged a new generation toward fluency in their own national language.

Despite the prolonged tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, in Georgia, 64% of respondents said it is "very important" for Georgian children to learn Russian, compared with the 43% who said so in 2006. In March 2007, shortly before the Gallup survey, the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi expressed interest in opening a Russian language school in the hopes of renewing declining interest in the language among Georgian youth.

In Moldova, the percentage of respondents saying it is very important for their children to learn Russian rose 12 percentage points, from 27% to 39%, between 2006 and 2007. This likely reflects a thaw between Moscow and Chisinau (Kishinev) resulting from the return of Moldovan wines and meat to the Russian domestic market. Russia lifted the trade ban, which had put Moldova's economy in jeopardy, in November 2006.

Despite the small percentage of Armenian respondents (3%) who asked to take the survey in Russian, the percentage of respondents' saying it is very important for their children to learn Russian increased two points (from 73% to 75%) from 2006 to 2007.

Russian as the Mother Tongue

Gallup Poll results underscore the prevalence of national language use over Russian; when asked in what language they preferred to conduct the Gallup interview, only respondents in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus overwhelmingly chose Russian. Ukraine and Kazakhstan retain larger Russian populations. In Belarus, where the interethnic differences between the Belarusians and Russians are minimal, Russian is one of the official languages.

Bottom Line

"The Year of the Russian Language" was a momentous attempt to maintain the status of Dostoyevsky's language. But based on official language status, Russian has fallen substantially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian language's official status is granted in only three of the countries surveyed -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. In three other countries -- Moldova, Ukraine, and Tajikistan -- Russian is identified as a "language of interethnic communication."

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007 with approximately 1,000 residents, aged 15 or older, in each country. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Ian T. Brown contributed to this report.

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