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Russia’s Language Could Be Ticket in for Migrants

Russia’s Language Could Be Ticket in for Migrants

by Sergei Gradirovski and Neli Esipova

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the Russian government continues to promote its culture and language throughout the post-Soviet realm, Gallup finds favorable attitudes toward learning Russian, most notably in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.


Russia's domestic policies do not always mirror its cultural openness. In January 2008, the Russian Federal Migration Service reduced the quota of foreign laborers coming to Russia, from 6 million in 2007 to 2 million in 2008, most of whom come from Russia's neighboring states, including Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Central Asia-Caucus Institute at Johns Hopkins University attributes the policy change to growing anti-migrant sentiments in Russia, where popular culture often depicts migrant workers as middle-aged men speaking broken Russian, with dirty clothes and awkward behavior.

Migrants' interest in Russian and their ability to learn the language could help bridge the gap between Russians and foreigners seeking work among them. In 2007, Gallup asked respondents in nearly all former Soviet Union countries about their attitudes toward studying the Russian language. Countries with the most positive attitudes also had large percentages of its residents permanently or temporarily working in Russia. Respondents in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia were the most likely to say learning Russian is important; combined responses for "very important" and "somewhat important" totaled 98%, 95%, and 94%, respectively. Economies in these nations rely heavily on remittances and often have up to 10% of their work-age residents living in Russia. Seventy-eight percent of residents in Tajikistan chose "very important," more than double that of respondents in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Moldova.

Of the populations surveyed, Ukrainians were the most likely to say learning Russian is not important. A large portion of Ukrainians speak Russian (83% of Ukrainian respondents preferred to take the Gallup survey in Russian). However, Ukrainians have strengthened their alliances with Europe in recent years, joining the World Trade Organization in May 2008 (ahead of Russia) and seeking European Union membership. Economically, large populations of Ukrainian labor migrants are working in Western Europe, most notably in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. These factors all contribute to cultural distancing from Russia, not to mention the widely publicized book by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma titled Ukraine Is Not Russia.

Despite this cultural distancing, Gallup's data underscore the importance of the Russian labor market on regional economies. High percentages of residents in Tajikistan (95%) and Kyrgyzstan (77%) say they have family members temporarily working in Russia.


In 2006, remittances from temporary workers into Tajikistan totaled $1.3 billion and accounted for over 36% of that nation's GDP. In Kyrgyzstan, remittances represented more than 27% of GDP.

Bottom Line

In recent years, tougher immigration regulations, hostility toward migrants, and economic decline have affected European migration patterns. Emerging markets in Eastern Europe, most notably Russia, will draw migrant workers because of their physical and cultural proximity. The Russian economy is approaching 8% annual growth, making it a beacon for migrants with the financial means and language abilities to work there. According to Gallup data, large majorities of temporarily workers from post-Soviet states go to Russia for temporary work. This means employment opportunities could maintain interest in "Dostoyevsky's language" more readily than the cultural celebrations discussed in the first article in this series.

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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