Ulyanovsk Governor Embraces English

With international corporations like Mars and Metro Cash & Carry shopping around in his region, Ulyanovsk Governor Sergei Morozov is sending his top officials back to school to learn English.

Morozov -- whose region is better known as the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin than as a future producer of Mars and Bounty bars -- announced at a meeting last week that all top officials would be required to converse in English with a basic level of fluency, his spokesman, Dmitry Shikov, said Wednesday.

"At times, we are like dogs," Morozov told the meeting, using a popular Russian saying. "We understand everything, but we can't say anything."

Ulyanovsk's drive is a rarity in regional government, where most officials' English skills remain limited. In contrast, top federal government officials and Russian business leaders nearly all speak good English these days, as evidenced by their speeches at international conferences.

Ulyanovsk's top officials will take English lessons paid for by the regional government, Shikov said. It was unclear how long the lessons would last.

Shikov said that if an official failed a test at the end of the course, he would be required to repeat the course until the test was passed.

The officials, however, will not face demotions or salary cuts for not learning fast enough.

"The law forbids that because knowledge of English is not a legal requirement for a civil servant," Shikov said.

Morozov himself will be taking lessons as well, because his own English "is not so good," Shikov said.

He denied media reports that Morozov had ordered the lessons after being embarrassed by his officials' poor English during a recent real estate conference in Cannes, France.

Instead, he said, the governor saw English as the way to attract more investment.

"Ulyanovsk is a growing region economically. We regularly host international companies and would understandably like to be in a position to converse with their representatives without the help of interpreters," Shikov said.

Shikov singled out recent visits to the region by representatives of Mars and Metro Cash & Carry. Mars, the privately owned U.S. food giant, is negotiating with the regional administration to build a 3 billion ruble factory to make Mars and Bounty bars. Germany's Metro Cash & Carry is looking to expand its wholesale stores in the region.

Representatives from Mars and Metro had no immediate comment about Russian officials' English skills on Wednesday.

Russia seems to be gradually shaking off its historical reluctance to conduct public discussions in English, the international language of politics and commerce. Just a decade ago, Russian officials and business executives rarely spoke in English at international conferences. These days, everyone seems to be doing so, both on and off the stage.

President Vladimir Putin famously broke with tradition in August 2007, when he delivered a key speech in fluent English to Olympic officials in Guatemala. The decision has been credited with playing a crucial role in securing Sochi's right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov both speak fluent English. Ivanov displayed his skills at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. Medvedev had his chance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007, but he has promised to refrain from speaking in English during public speeches in Russia.

A noticeable exception is Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who still prefers to speak in Russian at conferences. At the most recent World Economic Forum, he slipped on his translation headphones as fellow panelists from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Norway spoke in eloquent English about sovereign wealth funds. When it was his turn to speak, Kudrin took off his headphones and a rustle washed across the hall as the other panelists and audience members reached for theirs.

Many Russians would probably sympathize with Kudrin. Only 6 percent of the population believes that their English is good enough to read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television without subtitles, according to a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in 2006, the latest year available.

The survey found that English was the favored foreign language, with only 3.7 percent of respondents saying they were similarly fluent in German, and 2.5 percent saying the same about Ukrainian. Other languages scored less than 1 percent.

While English has been taught in schools for years, obtaining statistics on the number of English-speaking Russians is impossible, said a spokesman for the Education and Science Ministry.

In Ulyanovsk, this will not be the first time officials have gone back to the classroom. In February 2007, as the region began celebrating 2007 as the year of the Russian language, Morozov ordered 2,500 regional officials to retake high school-level exams in their mother tongue. Media reports said at the time that Morozov was angry that pamphlets and Internet documents were riddled with basic grammar and spelling mistakes.

Weeks later, Morozov told the officials that they had prove they knew how to use computers by taking computer literacy tests, said Shikov, his spokesman.