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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Language of Lenin Losing Ground

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Zulya Kalimbetova, a 22-year-old waitress at an outdoor cafe, boasts that she is the only one of 10 siblings in her family who speaks Russian.

"I learned it here by myself, in town, because I am smart," Kalimbetova said, speaking slowly with a heavy accent, confusing her verb endings and pronouns.

But she concedes she's at a disadvantage compared to earlier generations. "My mother speaks Russian better because she studied in school," she said.

Kalimbetova never had a chance to study Russian in school because, coming from Osh, the country's most depressed region, she never went to school.

She is not alone. Like Kalimbetova, millions of young men and women in the former Soviet Union and its former satellite states are either unable or opting not to study the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin.

While the numbers have been slipping since the Soviet collapse, the decline of Russian speakers is now beginning to be felt more acutely around the world.

Indeed, by 2025, according to a recent study by the Center for Demography and Human Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the number of people speaking Russian will be roughly equal to that at the beginning of the last century.

For now, Russian is the fourth-most-spoken language on earth, behind English, Chinese and Spanish, according to the center's figures. In Russia, 130 million people speak the language, not counting newborns. Another 26.4 million citizens of former Soviet republics are native Russian speakers, and there are an additional 7.5 million Russian speakers sprinkled around the globe. About 114 million people speak Russian as a foreign language.

But the center projects that in a decade, Russian will be eclipsed by French, Hindu and Arab and, within the next 15 years, it will be pushed to 10th place by Portuguese and Bengali.

One obvious reason for the decline is that Russia itself is shrinking, as the population sheds 700,000 people every year.

Another factor is that, beyond Russia's borders, the prestige associated with the language has been ebbing since the country lost its status as a global communist empire.

"As the geopolitical importance of Russia degenerated to being little more than a big supplier of raw materials for other countries' growing high-tech economies, so did the demand for knowing Russian," said Kirill Razlogov, an analyst at the Institute for Cultural Research.

In many former Soviet republics, particularly in Central Asia, Russian was once the language of the elite. "Now, with advancing globalization," Razlogov said, "more people opt for English rather than Russian, deciding they'd rather read Shakespeare in his native tongue rather than the Russian translation."

Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov has made the anti-Russian movement state policy, banning in 1995 the teaching of Russian at almost all universities and schools as well as books, street signs, posters and advertisements that are printed in Russian.

Elsewhere in the former communist world, the anti-Russian trend is not quite so draconian, but widespread.

From the Romanian capital of Bucharest to Budapest to Warsaw to Prague, English, not Russian, is the language of commerce and, in many cases, mass communication.

The Center for Demography and Human Ecology estimates that the number of students studying Russian in Eastern and Central Europe plunged to 935,000 in 2004 from 10 million in 1990.

In the Baltics, where opposition to the communist regime was strongest and the first Soviet republics declared independence, there has been an unmistakable move away from Russian.

In Estonia, a 1995 law relegated Russian to the status of a foreign language. And in Latvia, a 1999 law mandated that officials communicate with citizens only in Latvian, even in those areas with a majority of Russian speakers.

"We want to make Latvians out of Russians," Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reported as saying in 2004.

While there are no restrictions on learning or speaking Russian in Lithuania, the language suffers from a serious image problem, as is the case elsewhere.

"Young people here don't associate their career aspirations with Russia," said Aurelijus Gutauskas, a professor at the Law Institute of Lithuania. "They all look to the West and choose instead to learn English, French and German."

Likewise, Western students have lost interest in studying Russian.

While a generation of young Americans were urged to study all things Russian in the wake of the 1957 Sputnik launch, in 2004 a paltry 27,000 chose to learn it, according to the center's figures. With Latin America to the south and the war on terrorism raging in the Middle East, central Asia and elsewhere, Spanish and Arabic are widely considered more useful.

Back in Bishkek, they seem to feel the same way.

Within the walls of the private American University in Central Asia, ethnic Kyrgyz students from middle-class families are more likely to converse in English than Russian.

But for those who hail from the country's rural precincts, where abject poverty, backwardness and a feudal Oriental civilization predominates, Russian may remain for some time a symbol of progress and culture.

Shirin Narynbayeva, an American University student with a round face, explained: "I chose to learn Russian so that no one would ever think that I came from a village."