Saving Russian in the South Caucasus
Russian-language devotees often like to remind listeners that the first words in outer space were said in Russian. But Russian promoters have been struggling to make sure that those words continue to make sense to folks in the South Caucasus, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the former Soviet Union.
Local cultures here have always put up strong resistance to Russia’s attempts at linguistic and cultural homogenization; now, Russian is challenged by both the ongoing comeback of vernacular languages and, as the area opens up ever further to the outside world, a growing command of English.
But other developments -- such as Moscow's ongoing endeavors to grasp breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its embrace -- apparently offer opportunities, too. And, so, where else for the Russian Book Publishers' Association (along with the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and the Russian cultural-center network, Moscow House) to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus but in largely Russian-speaking Abkhazia?
On December 18, an array of Russian linguists, writers, researchers and educators gathered in Sukhumi to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus. “The Russian language is what creates our shared cultured space, ties our nations, regions and peoples together,” Ilya Manevich, head of the Russian Book Publishers’ Association declared at the conference, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
But not all of the South Caucasus was there to hear Manevich's thoughts on the matter. Georgians, for obvious reasons, and their allies, the Azerbaijanis, also beset by a separatist conflict, were absent. Present instead, along with the Abkhaz hosts, were representatives from other sites with varying degrees of economic, military and/or diplomatic reliance on Russia -- the fellow breakaway, Russian-guarded region of South Ossetia, and Armenia.
But the Russians and their language are facing challenges even in these friendliest of Caucasian locales. In Abkhazia, knowledge of the Abkhaz language is a growing must in educational and public institutions. In Armenia, there is a strong cultural and nationalist headwind against Russia’s cultural influence. One popular bard called for changing a situation in which Armenians speak Russian even in bed.”
But as much as knowledge of Russian may have waned, it is far from disappearing. At another conference in Tbilisi, an Azerbaijani presenter spoke in Russian and a Georgian participant asked him questions in English. Both seemed to understand each other perfectly well.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.