Russian still dominates higher education but is slowly disappearing from Kyrgyz schoolrooms.
by Hamid Toursunov 26 May 2008
OSH, Kyrgyzstan | The exodus of native Russian speakers out of Kyrgyzstan shows no signs of slowing.
That is according to Eugene Breslavskiy, head of the Sodrujestvo association of ethnic Russians. “Those who remain have doubts about their future in this country,” says Breslavskiy.
He says the association’s mission "is to protect the Russian world – that is, to preserve Russian culture, language and traditions.” But in much of Kyrgyzstan this is a rapidly disappearing world.
The Russian language, although still widely used by the Kyrgyz political establishment and in higher education, is becoming an alien tongue to the younger generation. Kyrgyzstan, where 20 years ago nearly one in every three inhabitants spoke fluent Russian, is seeing the gradual extinction of the language as its native speakers dwindle.
The Russian language is declining among the younger generation partly due to a shortage of teachers and textbooks. Photo by Ben Paarmann.
The outflow of Russian speakers, combined with earlier efforts in support of the Kyrgyz language in education and government, have led to a paradoxical situation. Because many young Kyrgyz now have little or no exposure to Russian, they are virtually shut out of the universities owing to the continued dominance of Russian in higher education.
Top Kyrgyz officials try to stem the outflow of Russian speakers, often praising the Russian language and its important place in the multinational country. In 2003, Kyrgyzstan became the only former Soviet Central Asian republic to restore Russian as an official language.
Parliamentary Chairman Adakhan Madumarov said last November that “100 percent of Kyrgyz state officials” obtain information on world events from Russian language media.
The appointment of ethnic Russian Igor Chudinov as prime minister in December was widely seen as another move to mollify Russian speakers.
But changes in Kyrgyzstan are reflected throughout the former Soviet Union, where laws were changed after independence to replace Russian as the mandatory language of government and education, and de-Russification policies triggered an exodus of ethnic Russians. English is increasingly competing with Russian as a preferred foreign language.
Around half of the officially-denoted “ethnic Russians” have left Kyrgyzstan since independence and in southern Kyrgyzstan in particular, few young people know any Russian, although their parents and grandparents speak it well from their schooling in the Soviet period.
Since 1989, government jobs are reserved by law for those who can speak and write the Kyrgyz language.
“Russians are leaving the country because the law prohibits non-Kyrgyz speakers from working for the government,” says Sadykjan Makhmudov, an Osh lawyer and human-rights activist.
“Although the Kyrgyz Constitution bans any infringement of human rights and freedoms based on lack of knowledge of the state [Kyrgyz] language, employment opportunities for non-Kyrgyz speakers are very few. What happens here in fact is that present law contradicts the constitution.”
“The Russian language is not being forced out, it is being replaced by Kyrgyz,” Madumarov remarked last year.
RUSSIAN’S LAST BASTION
The Education Ministry now acknowledges that this process is contributing to the deterioration of educational standards. Many young teachers are emerging from university with a less-than-perfect grasp of their major subjects owing to their faulty knowledge of Russian. In 2007, the ministry said that more than 60 percent of primary school children and at least 80 percent of secondary school students do not possess even basic knowledge of mathematics and demonstrate inadequate reading skills.
The universities remain a bastion of Russian partly because the Kyrgyz language is not yet equipped to handle abstract and technical concepts, a number of academics believe.
“The Kyrgyz language is not fulfilling its functions, that is, enlightenment and education. The language’s capacity for scientific education is seriously limited,” a professor from Kyrgyz-Turkish University in Bishkek – the name reflects the main languages spoken there – said in February, as quoted by the 24.kg news site. Zamira Derbisheva also said that Russian continues to be used in scientific research, seminars, courses, theses and monographs.
Most Kyrgyz universities and vocational schools still use Russian as the language of instruction. Russian dominates in science and technology because Kyrgyz lacks many specialized terms, but is not confined to those fields. At Osh State University, authorities could not find a Kyrgyz equivalent for the Russian word meaning “art,” so the Faculty of Arts bears the Russian title iskusstvo
Another academic, Alexander Katsev of Kyrgyz-Slavic University, echoed such concerns at a roundtable in March on the role of the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan, stating that no important texts have been published in Kyrgyz since the country’s independence.
The decline in use of Russian is putting many young people in double trouble. This is particularly true of those from rural and remote areas especially hard, who have limited or no access to higher education owing to their lack of Russian and who face a language barrier if they follow their many compatriots to Russia looking for work.
Today, according to official statistics, over 250,000 Kyrgyz labor migrants work in Russia. Unofficial estimates put the figure as high as 800,000 people, a staggering figure in a country with a population officially given as 5 million. In the last few years, over 100,000 Kyrgyz nationals have obtained Russian citizenship.
RUSSIAN TEACHER SHORTAGE
Last August, the then-minister of education, Kanybek Osmonaliev, admitted that a lack of books and teachers was keeping schools in remote areas from teaching Russian. In another sign that the decline of Russian is being noticed by official Bishkek, the Education Ministry in March announced the start of a program to build up the use of Russian in primary and secondary schools. The ministry said it was concerned that the language was losing its former high status.
Secondary school teachers and observers point out that more and more parents want their children to get education at Russian language schools.
“Four Russian language classes have started up at our school since 2004,” says Sanobar Saidova, a teacher from an Uzbek-language primary school in Osh. “All Uzbek language schools have similar classes,” she says.
“More groups could have started, but it hasn’t happened owing to the shortage of Russian language teachers,” she added, illustrating a problem that is affecting schools countrywide.
The plunge in living standards following Kyrgyzstan’s exit from the USSR stripped much of the prestige from the poorly-paid teaching profession. Retiring teachers are often not replaced, particularly teachers of Russian as a second language. Many of those still on the job are elderly.
“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. More and more teachers either retire or leave our schools. Young teachers have poor [Russian] language skills and don’t meet our requirements,” said Svetlana Karpushkina, the principal of Osh’s Russian language school No. 20.
“Our school badly needs teachers who know Russian well. Graduates of the Russian philology department of Osh State University cannot even speak Russian well,” Karpushkina complains.
The dearth of teachers is aggravated by shortage of textbooks. Many Kyrgyz schoolchildren are still learning from the same Soviet-era books their parents used.
Breslavskiy says the Education Ministry is not meeting schools’ demand for new Russian texts. The ministry admits that a shortage of textbooks is a problem for schools teaching in all three of the country’s main languages – Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian -- and has earmarked new texts for the recently-announced Russian-language teaching program.
THE MULTILINGUAL SOUTH
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was home to nearly a million ethnic Russians. The emigration of many of this community has made the 800,000 ethnic Uzbeks the second biggest ethnic group after the Kyrgyz.
Today observers assert that the Uzbek language is taking more an active position in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the southern region.
Russian speakers are concentrated in Bishkek and the north. Estimates are that only 30,000 ethnic Russians still live in the three southernmost provinces bordering Uzbekistan. In contrast, the south is home to about 700,000 ethnic Uzbeks.
As use of Russian has slowly dwindled, Uzbek has gained strength. Several television stations and newspapers use all three major languages, and for the past 10 years Uzbek speakers have been able to use their mother tongue at Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and the urban center of the southern provinces.
Historically, Uzbek language schools have been common in Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces, so when Kyrgyz authorities wanted to bring in new teaching plans for Uzbek-language secondary schools that would have cut the amount of Uzbek used in classes, large protests by teachers forced Bishkek to cancel the policy.
Kyrgyz and Uzbek are related Turkic languages.
“When I speak Uzbek to Kyrgyz people, they speak Kyrgyz back to me. This way we easily communicate because it is easy for us to understand each other,” says Azamjan Yakubov, a taxi driver from Jalal-Abad, a city near the Uzbek border.
Saidova, the Uzbek school teacher, says she also speaks the language at home and with friends and neighbors.
“Besides, we watch Uzbek language television every day, including the channels based in Uzbekistan,” she says.
Long the prestige language in Kyrgyzstan, Russian still holds sway in the universities, the hospitals and many schools and even kindergartens despite official efforts to boost the standing of the Kyrgyz tongue. Both at home and in Russia where so many Kyrgyz citizens now work, knowledge of Russian is still seen as a prerequisite for success by many.
Saidova says she will send her three children to a Russian-language school.
“A good knowledge of Russian will give my children more opportunities in the future,” she says.