Uzbekistan: Do You Speak Russian?

do you speak russianTASHKENT, Uzbekistan | I had a misunderstanding over an Internet card I was trying to buy from a young merchant in one of Tashkent’s stores not far from the Russian Embassy. He tried to convince me that the card was valid until 2010 while I distinctly saw that it expired in 2009.

Suddenly it dawned upon me that we were speaking about the same thing, but the vendor mixed up devyat (nine) and desyat (10) in Russian. When I spoke Uzbek, we were in agreement on the expiration date.

Since gaining independence, Uzbekistan and many other former Soviet republics have replaced Russian as the official language and it has fallen out of favor with younger generations. English is increasingly the preferred second language.

Liliya Chekhomova, an elementary school teacher and chairwoman of the Russian Culture Center in Tashkent’s Yunus Abad district, believes that Uzbekistan has taken a giant step back by distancing itself from the Russian language. “As a result of a rather crude language policy, the whole decade [of the 1990s] was lost for the indigenous population in terms of Russian language skills,” Chekhomova said.

Rakhmatjon Kuldashev, a prominent Uzbek poet and journalist, agrees that Uzbeks are slowly losing their former official language. “My nephews, who came from the provinces to Tashkent, don’t know Russian,” Kuldashev said. “They’re studying at universities and trying to learn Russian. My fourth-grade daughter can translate Russian texts but can’t speak Russian. My son, a second-grader, knows only one word, zdravstvuyte, [hello] in Russian.”

One reason for this decline, according to Kuldashev, is the decrease of the ethnic Russian population. “A lot of ethnic Russians used to live here, and we socialized with them very often. As a result, Uzbeks knew the Russian language very well,” he said.


For much of Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet existence, President Islam Karimov has pursued de-Russification policies that have steadily decreased the number of ethnic Russians in the country, from roughly 1.65 million in 1989 to about 620,000 in 2005, or about 2.3 percent of the population at that time. Government policies have also de-emphasized the teaching of Russian language and cultural traditions in schools.

Russian was the mandatory language of government and instruction during Soviet times. Uzbek was made the official language in 1995. In the ensuring years, legislative acts and government documents were published in Uzbek. Uzbek has replaced Russian in commerce as well as government.

The 14 former Soviet republics, other than Russia, have pursued similar policies, some more vigorously than others.

“The deteriorating status of the Russian language in Uzbekistan has been furthered by a deliberate state policy that aims to gradually expel remnants of Russian culture from Uzbek society,” Alisher Ilkhamov, a research fellow at the University of London’s Center of Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus, wrote in a 2006 paper for the U.S.-based National Bureau of Asian Research.

Before moving to London, Ilkhamov was founder and president of a private research company and executive director of the Open Society Institute’s Assistance Foundation in Tashkent.

“Although the Russian language remains a second obligatory language in the national school system, the number of schools where Russian is the primary language of instruction declined from 1,230 during the Soviet period to 813 in 2000,” Ilkhamov wrote.

While some schools teach in a mix of Russian and Uzbek, in most Uzbek schools Russian is taught as any foreign language, for just two hours a week.

As a result, growing numbers of young people in Tashkent cannot count in Russian and students in universities do not understand questions in Russian. But the situation is more pronounced outside Tashkent, where declining numbers of people, mostly local authorities, understand Russian.

Minor Interest in a “Major Language”

“It’s a problem not to know Russian because this is a major language, a world language,” Kuldashev said. Poor Russian language skills also limit job opportunities because Russia remains a leading market for Uzbek migrant workers.

There were 102,658 officially registered labor migrants and about 1.5 million illegal Uzbek immigrants in Russia in 2006, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestiya. Poor language skills and a lack of cultural knowledge of Russia, particularly among younger migrants, can lead to alienation and few career advancement opportunities.

But Russian is not totally lost. Ilkhamov’s paper estimates that 70 percent of Uzbeks speak Russian fluently and Russian-language magazines and television dominate the foreign media.

When the country’s relations with the United States and other Western states soured after the brutal suppression of the Andijan uprising in May 2005, language trends tilted back toward Russia, as did the country’s political relations. Many ethnic Uzbeks moved their children to Russian-language schools and classes.

“A tendency to decrease the number of Russian-language schools and Russian-language classes stopped two years ago,” said Farit Mukhametshin, the Russian ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Mukhametshin said his embassy donates Russian-language books to the libraries of Uzbek schools and universities, and organizes summer and winter camps throughout Uzbekistan so that schoolchildren can learn Russian. Branches of three Russian universities have opened in Tashkent and are popular despite their high cost.

However, Chekhomova, the culture center director, says a major shift back to Russian is unlikely because many qualified teachers have left the country since independence. Instruction in other languages is more common. Besides English, German is increasingly popular among younger people because of the sizeable German business and investment community in Uzbekistan.

And in a sign that de-Russification continues, Tashkent authorities in May renamed Alexander Pushkin street. The street from the capital’s center to the monument honoring the great Russian poet is now called Mustaqillik (Independence).


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