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Main | Archive | Issue 10/2007

The Russian World Is Really Worldwide
Column: Russian Language

By a decree of the President of the RF, V. A. Nikonov, the president of the Polity Foundation, was appointed Executive Director of the Russian World Foundation established in June 2007. He answered questions put to him by Diplomats editor in chief Y. V. Tavrovsky.

Mr. Nikonov, why was the new foundation set up?
The Russian World Foundation was set up to promote and disseminate the Russian language, Russian culture and to interact with Russian Diasporas, or communities, abroad. The fact that it was the initiative of Russias president himself points to the need for such a foundation and the significance of its activities. The need for such an institution has been felt for many years. And not only because Russia remained one of the few major countries where an organization like that was absent. The experience acquired by the British Council, LAlliance Franaise, the institutes named after Goethe (Germany), Cervantes (Spain), Dante (Italy), and Confucius (China), as well as the Japan, the Korean foundations, etc. , are well known. One way or another, all leading countries are promoting their languages and cultures and are keen on creating a positive image of their country. Russia lagged behind them, however. That was due to the fact that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was busy solving acute problems that were a matter of its very survival and has only recently started tackling development issues. The Russian world encompasses a fairly wide area and numbers hundreds of millions of people. It is therefore only natural that Russian society and the Russian state began showing a keen interest in it.

Do you mean former Soviet citizens who found themselves in other countries?
Not necessarily. There are people who lived abroad even before the Soviet Union was founded. Overall, I have singled out two target groups with whom the Russian World Foundation intends to work. The first is the Russian World proper in its broadest sense. In my view, birth place or blood do not necessarily determine ones connection and affiliation with the Russian world. What counts is the self-identification and self-awareness of a person. As a matter of fact, the Russian world is multiethnic and multi-religious, but most frequently it is a Russian- speaking world. If we look at who attends congresses of Russian Germans or Russian Americans, well see Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Georgians among them. This is why the Russian world is a conglomeration of people who feel they belong to the Russian world.

There were several waves of emigration from Russia. The first was after the Russian revolution and the Civil War, the second followed World War II. Then there was the wave of the 1970s 1980s that was essentially the so-called Jewish emigration. The last wave of emigration of Russians to many different countries started in the 1990s. And millions of Russians just found themselves outside of the Russian Federation after the Soviet Unions collapse. They were ethnic Russians or Russianspeaking people who felt they belonged to Russian culture. As a saying today goes, they remained on the shore... On the whole, the Russian world is not only wide but truly worldwide at that.

The foundations second target group is experts on Russia and Russian language teachers who are interested in Russia either professionally or emotionally. They may not be native Russians or even Russian speakers. Yet, they make up a fairly large portion in the present-day world, a layer that also deserves our attention and backing.

How are you going to interact with large centers of the Russian world, such as Germany, Israel, England, and the CIS countries where there are established communities with their own media, libraries, theaters, and churches?
I dont think we will invent something special, even though each country has, of course, its own specifics. The main problem I see in Israel is the absence of Russian schools despite the huge demand for studying in Russian there. In Germany, on the contrary, there are Russian schools, both Saturday and Sunday, but there is a problem of keeping Russian alive in families, as well as the need to revitalize the work of those Diaspora organizations that actually represent broad sections of the Russian-speaking community. The foundation will primarily give grants for specific projects. I think in Israel we will mainly run educational projects, whereas in Germany there will be projects connected with the activities of various associations of compatriots. Similar and various other projects will be implemented in all countries.

Mr. Nikonov, are you going to get involved in any way with already existing Russian state-run and grassroots organizations working abroad? I mean the Foreign Ministry and Roszarubezhcenter that reports to it, as well as the Pushkin Russian Language Institute, ROPRYAL (Russian Society of Russian Language and Literature Teachers), and the Culture Foundation.
Of course, we are not going to duplicate the functions of those organizations, although we are ready to get involved in their events and support some of their activities. On the whole, however, I dont see any problem in joining forces with other organizations, because they are not so numerous. At the initial stage, we dont intend to set up branches abroad, because if we did, our activities would only be confined to that. The network of Russian Culture and Science houses left behind from Soviet times is the cornerstone of any Russian organization engaged in public diplomacy, and there we will not be an exception to the rule. As for the MAPRYAL (International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature) offices, they will also serve as points of support.

In Moscow and many other major Russian cities there are lots of foreigners from ambassadors and students to journalists and businessmen. Many heads and employees of diplomatic missions whom I have spoken with are fluent in Russian, they like our theater and classical literature and find time to familiarize themselves with modern literature. Are you going to work with them?
We wont leave out Diplomats readers and other members of the foreign community in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other places where experts on Russia are concentrated. In our activities inside Russia I see another priority, however. It is work with native Russians. Listening to radio stations, watching TV channels and reading newspapers and magazines, one realizes that the Russian language in Russia itself is in danger of mutating. Young people poorly speak and increasingly poorly write Russian. There are many reasons for that. Here are some of them. We have 70 different Russian-language textbooks for the elementary school. You cannot say, though, that these textbooks relate to the same language. There are also problems linked to the enforcement of the Law on the Russian Language, a law that exists but has no linguistic basis because of the absence of any norms for the Russian language. Whats more, there is a problem with teaching Russian to non- Russian school students, who are numerous in the Russian Federation. There is also the problem of immigrants who want to get Russian citizenship, but have to first pass an exam to prove their proficiency in Russian. The exact number of foreigners staying in the Russian Federation both legally and illegally is not known, but it is clearly in the millions. Russian language courses for foreigners are certainly one of the priorities. If serious projects in this respect are proposed, we will be ready to endorse them. As you see, there are lots of problems in Russia itself and around the global Russian world, and its about time we started tackling all these problems.


-, 2006