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Russian as a Lingua Franca

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Russian as a Lingua Franca

22.10.2008

For the full-fledged development of national culture, all of Russia’s peoples need Russian. The Russian language is much more significant than its status as the language of the Russian people and a role of developing their culture. 

A strange prejudice holds that the Russian language is exclusively a means of spreading an Orthodox Russian culture. What the West generally perceives to be “Russian culture” – the rich legacy of the imperial period – is only a part of our culture. Throughout history, Russia has extended its authority over many peoples, and by virtue of this fact, their cultural heritage is part of world culture. Our language serves as a lingua franca through which anyone may experience the cultural heritage of these diverse peoples.

Several obstacles serve to keep us from fully understanding Russian as a lingua franca now. On the one hand, the challenge of developing Russian as a vehicle to advance Russian culture is all too obvious and forthright. From this perspective, it is certainly difficult to conceive of it as a means of disseminating any other culture, especially those cultures that are very different from Russian. On the other hand, national movements in Russia have not been prepared to accept Russian as a means of preserving and disseminating their respective cultural heritages. The logic is understandable, as one of the most pressing problems that has resulted from their long-term presence in Russia has been precisely the decline of their national languages. The sharp reduction in scope has brought about the threat of extinction, which has meant that some leaders national movements within Russia have put as first and foremost the task of reviving and developing their own languages.

World experience shows that getting rid of a lingua franca is not always an easy task and is certainly not always an essential one. For example, former British colonies, especially India, have not only kept the English language over the past 50 years, but they have even seen its scope expand. Proficiency has greatly increased among the general population. Almost all former British colonies have retained English as their official language. French has maintained a powerful position in former French colonies, and in a number of African countries it has been instituted as the official language. Portuguese and Spanish have replaced the local languages of Indian peoples in those countries’ former colonies. The only major exception to this rule is Indonesia, where the Dutch language, although very commonly used in the former colony up through the 1960s, has given way to the Indonesian language.

The revival of national languages in Russia is impossible without the presence of Russian as an intermediary. Very few leaders and ideologues in the national movements across Russia understand this concept, and many simply deny it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the vast majority of those belonging to the various nationalities speaks Russian and that the teaching of national languages with textbooks and dictionaries requires Russian.

The vast literature on the history, culture and ethnography of the numerous nationalities comprising the Russian Empire was developed in Russian. The Russian language has made it possible to study the languages of these peoples, and their epic and literary heritage is often preserved only in Russian translations. Finally, virtually all contemporary literature coming from Russia’s various nationalities is published in Russian. No academic study or a full mastery of these cultures is possible without the knowledge of Russian.

In order for full cultural, educational and scientific development to be realized by all of Russia’s peoples, Russian is necessary. This can easily be explained by way of example. For intellectuals of any nationality, even a very small one like the Khakas, to move completely into another language, like English or Turkish, would require a significant amount of time (decades) and circumstances that could conceivably force a change in the language of communication and creativity. Such conditions simply do not exist in Russia. Honestly, only a very strong political cataclysm would be capable of causing such a change.
   
Whether this reality is good or bad for preserving the various national identities in our country, it needs to be taken into account. It is difficult to say when and how this situation could change radically, although passions will likely calm in the future and Russian will be recognized as a lingua franca.

What results can we expect by recognizing the international role of Russian? Its role as a lingua franca will strengthen the political unity of the country. Learning to live as part of one culture is becoming increasingly important for Russia’s internal unity. The ability to freely develop culture through the Russian language would give Russia’s national elites further arguments in favor of preserving unity. At the same time, global trends have diversified the profile of Russian and demand for it abroad, which serves to draw the attention of a wider range of people than was previously possible. For example, more people abroad are interested in Tuvinian and Altaic guttural singing, and they need Russian to gain full access to these cultural riches.

Generally speaking, more diversity yields more opportunities for cultural development. Interesting innovations at the crossroads of Russian and, for example, the Altaic cultures, have begun to take place with Russian language as the medium. In such cases the Russian world loses some of its ethnic consolidation, but as a result becomes more diverse.

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