You’re likely reading this blog because you would like to learn Russian (русский язык, rysskiy yazik) and familiarize yourself with Russian culture. But why is Russian an important language to learn?
Why learn Russian?
Although Russian is among the least commonly taught languages in the United States, it’s the most commonly spoken Slavic language in the world: it’s the mother tongue of at least 145 million people and a second language for at least another 100 million around the world. And although Russia’s political influence in Eastern Europe diminished after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian is still widely spoken in Eastern Europe and is even taught in schools of many former Soviet republics.
As one of the six working languages of the United Nations, Russian is an important language on the international political stage and, given the country’s incredible wealth in natural resources and their projected impact on global markets in the next several decades, it’s a very important language to know for those who wish to do business in Eastern Europe and parts of
Origins of Russian
It’s impossible to identify exactly when any language is born but scholars agree that Russian became a distinctive language between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time various regional dialects and what is now known as “Old Church Slavonic” — an archaic language used for religious and educational purposes, and which is still used today as the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church — were spoken.
These regional dialects became more acceptable and similar with time as trade between regions increased and a secular literature tradition developed, leading to greater ease and similarity in oral communication and writing. By the time of the seventeenth century, when centralized governance of Russia from Moscow unified the country, Russian finally became the national language.
During the eighteenth century, as the country transformed itself from a backward state on the outskirts of Europe to a powerful empire with strategic access to the Baltic and Black Seas, the country’s language continued to develop: with increased international trade, Russians began assimilating foreign words (especially French) into the Russian vernacular while greater centralization led to more uniformity in the way the language was used and spoken.
French had the greatest impact on the history of Russia during this period in its history: it became the unofficial first (and sometimes only!) language of the aristocracy, thereby — by as late as the twentieth century — creating a linguistic divide between the classes: while the aristocracy preferred to speak French, the masses spoke several regional varieties of Russian.
The poet who created a language
Born on June 6, 1799, poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is probably the most revered of Russia’s literary figures — undoubtedly, he’s in incredible company: among Russia’s literary elite are such names as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov — and for good reason: his impact on the development of Russian language and culture is nearly impossible to overestimate.
As a young man, Pushkin was inspired by the beauty of the different Russian dialects spoken by commoners. As an incredibly gifted poet, he was able to successfully synthesize their common vernacular and the literary language of the day with his works into what is now universally known as Modern Literary Russian even before his untimely death at 37 following a duel. (Pushkin died two days after a duel with George d’Anthès for the honor of his wife, Natalya Goncharova — considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, after rumors spread of their alleged affair.)
Portrait by Orest Kiprensky
Enriched by the expressiveness of everyday folk language, literary Russian became the standard for oral and written language and culturally unified Russian society while simultaneously marginalizing other varieties of Russian. Today, although dialectal differences still exist (which isn’t surprising considering the immense Russian landmass), they are less divergent than in many other languages and can be grouped together into the Northern and Southern clusters. As a result of its political, cultural, and historic importance, Moscow is viewed as a transitional zone between the two clusters of regional dialects and the Moscow accent remains the standard, widely used in media, education, and politics.
Today, Russian is classified as belonging to the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family, which is diverse enough to include English, French, German, Hindi, and many others. Although other Slavic languages include Slovak, Czech, Serbian, Slovenian, Polish, Bulgarian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian, only Ukrainian and Belorussian are considered sister languages to Russian as all three developed from the same linguistic stock and have since retained similarities in sound systems, grammars, and vocabularies.
The revolutions further influence language
The Bolshevik Revolution in October of 1917 has been viewed by linguists as yet another turning point in the development of the Russian language: words that were once exclusive to the educated elite entered the everyday lexicon while those that dealt with concepts rooted in political, legal, and military concepts which existed before the revolution suddenly became obsolete.
Even city names changed: St. Petersburg was renamed Leningard, Yekaterinburg became Sverdlovsk, and Volgograd became Stalingard… at least until 1985 when another revolution, known in the West as Perestroika (перестройка, the rebuilding), prompted the return of many pre-revolutionary names. Another important influence of Perestroika on Russian language was the (temporary) end of state censorship: as a result of the policy of glasnost (гласность, openness), censorship over media was lifted and citizens were finally able to engage in discussions of previously taboo subjects, such as open criticism of the political regime and its leaders, spurring renewed discourse throughout the country.
Relaxed border controls permitted Russian citizens a greater ability to travel and interact with the rest of the world, prompting an extraordinary influx of foreign words and phrases from business, entertainment, fashion, and technology. Likewise, even the traditional, gender- and class-neutral address of tovari (товарищ, comrade) — which, according to Hollywood movies, was and remains the norm in Russia — was no longer used, replaced with the semantically neutral gender salutations of the pre-revolutionary period.
Following the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the increasing effects of globalization, Russian language has been assimilating foreign words for international innovations, concepts, and developments, which led to a backlash among Russian language purists like writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who advocated language reforms to ensure the use of native words and prefixes in the creation of Russian equivalents rather than the borrowing from foreign languages.
In fact, the backlash was so strong that laws were enacted to discourage the use of foreign terminology in place of Russian words! However, these measures were anything but effective because, today, ninety-nine percent of current “borrowings” in Russian come from American English, a fact that should greatly aid an English-speaking student in their comprehension of modern Russian.