When Two Means Nothing: Bilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries

by Hanna Ulasava

In 1991 the USSR was dissolved, leaving the former Soviet countries with an inheritance of economic crisis, ethnic contradictions and – bilingualism. For almost 70 years the Russian language was an instrument for inter-ethnic communication between 15 countries, but alas, it couldn’t disappear with the disappearance of Soviet Union. The 90s’ generation, that was born after dissolvement, literally got their mother tongue – Russian – from their families, and learned their native language outside, at schools, on streets, etc. At that time former Soviet countries just started their movement for national awareness and the 90’s generation wasn’t faced with a choice – they got two languages naturally. However, the 00’s generation was more inclined to give up Russian language. They were born at peak of national awareness movement, when language became an indication of not only cultural, but also political divide. Thus, Ukraine was divided into two parts: west Ukraine, only speaking the Ukrainian language, and “the rest” of Ukraine, speaking both Russian and Ukrainian, but mostly Russian, and these two parts resist each other acutely to this day. In my home country of Belarus, where Russian has the status of a second national language, Belarusian became a symbol of movement for national awareness and, therefore a language of opposition. The civil rights of Russians in Baltic countries were encroached during 90’s-00’s. In Latvia, the unemployment rate among Russians was much higher than among Latvians. Moreover, according to language politics in Latvia and Estonia — learning the native language became a requirement for citizenship in these countries. And in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, if you don’t know the native language, it becomes hard to keep your job. It means that in the former Soviet countries not only did the 90’s generation become bilinguals, but also the older generation, that spoke Russian for almost their whole life, and Russian immigrants to these countries. And nowadays there is a tendency to give up the Russian language.

This brief summary of the situation in former Soviet countries shows that a language that generally should unite people can become a means of disunity. Bilingualism isn’t an advantage in this case – but, since language is inseparable from culture and politics, bilinguals are not well received by both parts of society; they are another indefinite part of it. People there are faced with a choice. Moreover, it is better for them to make a choice in favor of their native language. This means that if their work is not connected to their first language, they gradually give up using it. And I can suppose that the same issue faces immigrants.

Natural bilinguals obviously have advantages, as many researchers say, but it is only a personal advantage, like a special skill that helps to improve other skills. Whereas from society’s point of view this skill is useless, if the bilingual’s work isn’t concerned with language. I believe most post-Soviet society will forget Russian in the nearest future, immigrant’s grandchildren will almost completely forget the language of their grandparents. Globalization makes us to choose according to pragmatics rather than our cultural heritage.

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2 thoughts on “When Two Means Nothing: Bilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries

  1. Ah interesting, I was talking to some girls from Moscow, one of whom said that people in the Ukraine had pretended not to be able to speak Russian to her. Another girl said she hadn’t had the same experience – this explains it!

    • Yes, depends on what part of Ukraine they were. I had the same experience as first girl when I was to Lviv (town in western Ukraine, quite popular among tourists). I asked a young couple how to get opera theatre, but they said “we don’t understand”, even though “opera theatre” sounds the same in Russian and Ukrainian.

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