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Russian language in Georgia: not number one

Who needs it and why?

The area of use of the Russian language in Georgia has been getting more and more limited over the past 20 years. Russian language skills are not a mandatory prerequisite for career advancement nowadays. Cap it all, there have been tense political relations between the two countries and the economic, cultural and educational ties have been disrupted.

Increase in the tourist flow from Russia, that could be observed in recent years, can possibly promote renewed interest in Russian language, though this language is unlikely to regain a status of first foreign language in Georgia.


The ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, a scriptwriting debut of Joanne K. Rowling, is on in Amirani Cinema.

13-year-old Anna and her classmate, Mariam, equipped with huge bags of popcorn and Coca-Cola, took the best places in the cinema hall. The fans of Joanne Rowling and Harry Potter had been long looking forward to release of this film.

The film started, but exactly 10 minutes later the girls stood up, carefully made their way through the darkness and left the hall:

“The film was in Russian. I could understand almost nothing,” says Anna, almost crying.

Anna is the 8th grade student at one of the public schools in Tbilisi.  Her favorite book is Harry Potter and she has read all volumes of that book in English. She’s been learning English since her 1st grade. She has foreign language classes every day. In addition, she attends private tutor’s classes. Anna watches movies and animated films in English and is going to take part in the English language Olympiad this year.

“Would you like to hear a funny story,” Anna asked me. “When my mom and grandma want to say something that I shouldn’t hear, they talk to each other in Russian. And, when my mom and I try to conceal something from my grandma, we talk to each other in English,” she said, laughing.

Anna doesn’t know yet what career she will finally choose, but she already has a dream – to study at Oxford University.

Anna and Mariam have Russian language classes twice a week.

“I study Russian, but not quite well,” said Mariam. “We need Russian only at school. As for English, we watch movies and read books. And also, on the Internet everything is available in English.”

“We often search for the chemistry lab tests on YouTube, and that’s also in English. Our parents urge us to study Russian, so we learning it a little bit,” said Anna.

Anna and Mariam were born in 2003. It was the year that brought some significant changes to Georgia. A new government, that came to power in the country as a result of the ’Rose Revolution’, announced about taking a sharply pro-Western course. This further spoiled the political and economic ties with Russia, which resulted in suspension of air and land traffic between the two countries.

Then-President, Mikheil Saakashvili, claimed that the small country that was going to say farewell to the Soviet past and integrate into Europe, necessarily required the international language skills in order to overcome the global challenges and introduce itself to the world.

In 2011, English language was brought as a mandatory subject to public schools. Today, school students are taught English language since the very 1st grade. Thousands of volunteer English-speaker teachers arrived in Georgia as part of the government-run program to teach English in Georgian public schools.

However, the plans have turned out to be more far-reaching than the outcome. The quality of teaching English in schools is relatively low, though the tendency has really changed. It’s safe to say that English language has replaced Russian language and has become the first foreign language in schools.

In Soviet Georgia, Russian language competed with Georgian. Although in Georgia it wasn’t as actively used at the household level as in other soviet republics, but it often dominated in the state agencies, scientific institutions, and Georgian intelligentsia liked to express their opinions in this language.  Russian language skills were necessary for career advancement.

Today, Russian language has lost this function and this has been conditioned by two things – first of all, a political factor, and second and the most important, pragmatic considerations.

Video : Natia Amiranashvili
Who and why needs Russian in Georgia today?

Nelly Kikvadze is a Russian language teacher with 40 years of experience. She is retired now. She’s at home and is engaged in private tutoring.

“I have no complaints about the lack of students. I mostly deliver classes to the children from well-off families, who are studying Russian as a second foreign language. Nearly all of my students study English along with Russian…none of them are going to continue their studies in Russia. Everybody sets sights on the USA and Europe,” says Ms. Nelly.

In her opinion, that’s exactly the main problem of the Russian language: it is no longer perceived as the language of future and career development and the Georgian youth don’t aspire to enroll in Russia’s higher education institutions:

“When a new minister is appointed in the government, it is, first of all, stressed that he studied either in Europe or the USA. It is regarded as a major advantage nowadays. And the young generation certainly sees that, and their parents also see that and go to any length to ensure that that their children learn English and get education abroad, so as to achieve something. “

According to the ACT marketing company’s 2012 survey findings, only 36% of interviewed Tbilisi residents said they were fluent in Russian language. It means that the remaining 64% don’t feel themselves comfortable with the Russian language. And even fewer people know Russian in the regions.

With rare exceptions, ethnic Georgians don’t use Russian language in their daily communication.

The movies dubbed in Russian are actually no longer broadcasted by the Georgian national TV channels. Only a smaller part of the population, who are provided cable TV companies’ services, have access to Russian TV channels.

The fact that the majority of films in cinemas are still dubbed in Russian language, points to the financial problems in this industry, rather than to the need for Russian-language films.

Although it’s true that Russian pop and chansons could be often heard in restaurants and route taxis and there are predominantly Russian channels in the cable TV companies’ menus, but those who consume these products are mostly representatives of the older generation, who still remember the Soviet Union. The younger generation is far away from this culture and is almost unfamiliar with it.

Neither does Russia attract Georgian youth from the tourism point of view. The only thing they heard from their parents and grandparents are the myths about 37-ruble tickets to Moscow and the unforgettable time they had spent there. For Georgian citizens, who are expecting to be granted a permission to travel to Europe visa free any day now, it’s much more difficult to get Russian visa than that of any other European country.

Consequently, people, who travel to Russia, are mostly those who have relatives there. None of the popular Georgian tour operators, whom we interviewed, offer any tours to Russia to their clients.

“First of all, there is a big problem with visas. Secondly, politics also plays its role. Georgian young people think, they won’t feel themselves comfortable in Russia, because people there dislike Georgians,” said Natia Labartkava, a representative of one of the tourist companies 

What are we going to lose or gain if Russian leaves?

Giorgi Tskhadaia, a political analyst, believes that, on the one hand, a drop in popularity of the Russian language is quite acceptable, because ‘former Soviet republics, that were part of the Russian cultural space for years, are thus gradually regaining their identity.’

‘This is an important process, allowing the countries in our region to manifest themselves as independent and unique cultures, rather than the supplements to  Russia and the Russian culture,’ believes Tskhadaia.

Withdrawal of the Russian language from Georgia’s dominant orbit is viewed as beneficial from the political perspective. Tbilisi believes that totally Russian-speaking country will be a perfect target for the Russian ‘soft power’ and the Russian media propaganda. Whereas the English language can bring more openness and information to the country, more contacts with Europe and European values that will help to change the Soviet mindset.”

However, this issue also has another perspective.

Over 13% of Georgia’s population are ethnic minorities. Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions are densely populated predominantly by ethnic minority groups. 90% of ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians residing in those regions don’t know the official language, Georgian. So, Russian is the only language for communication with them, both for regular Georgians and the government officials. The Russian language is the only means of communication with Abkhazians and Ossetians, who are also the citizens of Georgia.

Russian language is still a kind of lingua franca in the Caucasus. Georgians communicate with their regional neighbors – Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, in this particular language. Therefore, if Russian language is forgotten, it will probably complicate communication in the region and Georgians will no longer be able to talk to their neighbors.

Another important problem is that despite the fact that the Russian language is gradually passing away from country’s life, it still can’t be fully replaced by the English language. As a result, there are generations who are fluent only in one language. This problem is most dramatically manifested in higher education institutions. Most of the manuals haven’t been translated into Georgian. So, student, who don’t know any other language but Georgian, are deprived of significant information.

Does Russian language stand any chance in Georgia?

Despite the ongoing changes in favor of the English language, it’s glaringly obvious that there are still more people who know Russian than those who know English. It could be attributed to certain tradition and inertia.

Although it’s true that the Russian language is no longer in privileged conditions in Georgia, but it’s neither banned nor persecuted. It’s in equal competitive conditions with other foreign languages and it’s up to the people to decide individually which of them is more pragmatic for them to learn.

“Small nations have no other choice but to know many foreign languages. One language is clearly not enough. Therefore, Russia stands a pretty good chance to become the second foreign language. So far, none of other languages can compete with it for holding this place, because the Russian language still is and for quite long will be the major regional communication language,” says Gia Nodia, a political analyst.

Tourism is the most important and pragmatic factor, due to which people in Georgia will not forget the Russian language.

Georgia has an ambition to become the major tourist center. If you look at the present-day and past statistics, most of the tourists come to Georgia from the Russian-speaking countries, from the post-Soviet states.

In this regard, the Russian language has a practical use. Russian language skills are a mandatory requirement for those, who seek jobs in hospitality&tourism business.

Those, employed in the tourism field have mastered the subtleties of this trend quite well. So, along with Georgian and English, you will also find Russian-language inscriptions and menus in the cafés and hotels in tourist spots.

“I never call Russian the occupants’ language. 90% of those, who stayed in my guesthouse this year were tourists from Russia or Ukraine. And I expect more of them to come next year. I teach my children both, English and Russian. When they grow up, they will run this business together with me,” says Nukri, an owner of a small guesthouse in the old part of the city.

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