Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia alike have reevaluated their relationship with Russia, which has often manifested itself in attempts to distance themselves from the Russian language. Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is catalysing the decline of the Russian language. The irony of such a situation arises from the coexistence of policies across Eastern Europe and Central Asia which reduce the prominence of the Russian language as well as the Kremlin’s official reasoning for the invasion, which is to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, language is a battleground. Not only have a significant number of Ukrainians chosen to stop speaking Russian in favour of Ukrainian, but recent laws diminish the existence of Russian in Ukraine. For example, a temporary ban in Kiev on Russian language arts and culture in public spaces. However, this prohibition is not legally binding as it has not been implemented by the Ukrainian Parliament and so has limited effect. Human rights activist Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties highlights the unconstitutional nature of the bans:
"These are illegal decisions, because local authorities have no right to regulate such
issues and impose such bans. That is why they have no legal consequences."
In this way, these regulations serve a largely symbolic purpose.
Despite governmental support for the expulsion of Russian culture, there are concerns that Ukraine is implementing undemocratic practices. In June 2022, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture issued guidelines which direct libraries and cultural institutions to expel Russian literature and Russian-language books from their shelves. The director of the Ukrainian Book institute defended this move in an interview, stating;
"It's really very harmful literature, it can really influence people's views. Therefore, my
personal opinion is that these books should also be removed from public and school
libraries. They should probably stay in university and research libraries to be read by
the academics studying the roots of evil and totalitarianism."
Furthermore, in June 2023 President Zelensky signed a law prohibiting the commercial import of Russian books.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering that although the current population of Ukraine are acquainted with Russian texts, by heavily restricting access to them, the next generation of Ukrainians will be unfamiliar with Russian works. The decline of Russian literature is not inherently concerning, but the lack of choice definitely is for a few reasons.
Banning Russian texts may significantly damage Ukraine’s education system. Yevgeniy Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, criticised the new regulations, stating that they are not only ‘ridiculous and extremely harmful to education and research,’ but also violate academic freedom protections established by Ukraine’s 1996 constitution. Article 10 of the constitution states:
"Free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national
minorities of Ukraine shall be guaranteed in Ukraine."
The decline of the Russian language can be observed not only in Ukraine, but in other states across Eastern Europe, such as Latvia. On September 24 2022, the Latvian Government passed a law which requires all Russian citizens to take a Latvian language proficiency test (minimum A2 level) in order to maintain permanent residence in Latvia. Despite exemptions which include those under 15 and over 75 years old, those holding a Latvian language bachelor’s degree, and those with specific medical conditions, many fear that they will be forced to leave the country. Failure of the exam will result in a requirement to leave Latvia within ninety days.
The efficacy of Latvia’s recent ruling must be interrogated. Firstly, not everyone registered for the exam took it, and only 11,301 out of the 13,147 registered took the exam. Furthermore, the majority of Russian citizens failed, and over 6,500 applied for a retest. In addition to a partial lack of participation, resistance to the exam has manifested itself in the cases of Russian speakers bribing doctors into giving them a prescription which will exempt them from having to take the Latvian language test.
On September 28th 2023, the Latvian Parliament passed the ‘National Security Concept’, which outlines that all ‘content created by public media must only be in Latvian and languages belonging to the European cultural space’ from 1 January 2026. Therefore, content in Russian will be banned. This policy is particularly worrying for Russian speakers, who make up over a third of the Latvian population, as they may be more susceptible to consuming unreliable or inaccurate news stories.
‘The government of Latvia has an obligation under international law and regional instruments to protect and uphold the language rights of the country’s minority communities, without discrimination.’
The Latvian authorities defend their policy as being part of the wider effort to derussify the country, ‘to ensure, maintain, and develop the Latvian language as the official state language and the common language in the society.’
There is a difference between developing the state language and targeting unofficial languages. The Latvian Government is focusing on the Russian speaking population through the suppression of Russian language news. The backlash from human rights groups highlights that these policies are not the most effective way to promote state language. Forcing people to learn a language for a test is unlikely to have long lasting effects on their day-to-day usage of said language.
Contrarily, Kazakhstan’s new policies regarding language seem more realistic, as they focus on promoting the Kazakh language instead of demoting Russian. Kazakhstan is home to the second largest ethnic Russian minority after Ukraine, and Russian is an official language. Despite Kazakhstan’s maintenance of historically close economic and political ties with Russia, since 2022, the Central Asian country has attempted to move away from Russian influence. The Russian language in Kazakhstan has long been the predominant language in education and employment but has started to represent the long-lasting effects of Russian colonialism.
Kazakhstan’s Government aims to promote the Kazakh language. Although favouring the Kazakh language is a response to the situation in Ukraine, Kazakhstan is wary of the Kremlin’s reaction to diminishing Russian’s importance. Issatay Minuarov, a Kazakh sociologist, noted that:
‘For the Kazakh government, especially after the Ukrainian case, it’s too fragile to
remove the Russian language from the constitution. It’s the issue of national security.’
She stressed that improving the protection of the Kazakh language is not intrinsically an attack on the Russian one.
Nevertheless, the Education Ministry’s alteration to the state curriculum to improve focus on the Kazakh language received criticism from Yevgeny Borbov, the head of the Russian consulate in Astana. During an interview, Borbov argued that the Kazakh authorities are deliberately discriminating against the Russian language and expressed his concerns over the reduction of classes delivered in Russian. The consul was recently fired because of his criticisms.
Moving away from Russian is not only seen in legal spheres and Russophone countries, but also on a global scale. The Russian language is losing prominence worldwide as well as in Russophone countries. Learning Russian as a foreign language has declined, as people are keen to disassociate themselves with all things Russian. The decline of the Russian language is inherently political, as the process has sped up significantly since the war in Ukraine began, but there are concerns about the long-term effects. Despite Russian being a language imposed by colonisers, it is also a language which unites many nations.