Although I knew that the Russian Empire and Soviet regime spread the Russian language to the countries that were once part of the Russian empire and Soviet Union, I only recently truly felt the impact of Russian being a colonial or imperial language.
Russian as a home language of struggling immigrants
Born in the former USSR, I came to the US as a child and grew up speaking Russian at home in California. Russian was NOT in any way a fashionable language to speak in the United States during the Cold War. Nonetheless, my parents forced me to learn to read and write in Russian before I went to kindergarten in the US. I loathed speaking in Russian and telling other kids in school that I was Russian because they’d make fun of me and call me “Commie”. I didn’t grow up in a Russian speaking neighborhood or culturally isolated enclave like Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. I was in suburban California and had few Russian neighbors.
The Russian language did not represent for me the language of wealth and power — traits of a colonial ruler. Quite the opposite. Soviet émigrés were often struggling to make ends meet, with some of immigrants living on the government dole, a far cry from imperial splendor. Russian was a language spoken in the intimacy of my home environment and by a community that was, and in some parts, still is, living poorly or moderately. To me, the Russian language was equated with a world behind the Iron Curtain and middle-of-the-night phone calls from my family in Russia. We left the Soviet Union as traitors to the “Communist paradise”, not to the Russian cultural empire.
Feeling Russian as the colonial language in Kyrgyzstan
Russia did not, until my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, fall into the category of a linguistic imperialist. Bishkek (formerly Frunze), the capital of Kyrgyzstan, seems like a sleepy small Russian city. Like in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I often had to remind myself I was in Asia while roaming Bishkek’s streets because it seemed so like Russia. The grey Communist apartment buildings and pastel Russian architecture all reminded me of Russia.
In general, I found the Russian spoken in Kyrgyzstan to be much softer than the antagonistic Russian I hear in Ukraine and Russia, where it often sounds like people are posturing and speaking aggressively like Khruschev at the UN pounding his shoe on the table to show his point.
On the flight to Bishkek from Osh, where I had given presentations in English and Russian about my book, Language is Music, to mixed ethnic audiences of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russian, I had a wake-up call. The ethnic Kyrgyz (of Asian Mongolian descent) lady sitting near me told me that she lives in Irkutsk, owns and apartment there has a stable job, has Russian citizenship but feels like Russians don’t accept her as Russian even though she speaks the language. She said that other Kyrgyz who move to Russia and speak the language well are also never accepted. Even the ethnic (white) Russians from Kyrgyzstan who immigrate to Russia don’t fit it because the people in Russia see them as below them, from Central Asia.
I had previously and naively considered this type of snobbery as from people in rich countries looking down at the refugees and immigrants from other countries, especially those that were their previous colonies. But listening to the woman on the plane, I realized that Russia was also a colonial power. It’s odd because I always knew that the Russian and Soviet Empires had forced the Russian language on their conquered and annexed territories, but there’s a difference between knowing something academically and feeling it. Speaking to the lady on the plane, I felt that Russian for her was a colonial language.
How Russian is still the colonial “elite” language
The other way to see the marks of Russian as a colonial language in some former Soviet countries is that Russian is still considered to be the language of the elite, educated classes. All throughout Baku, Azerbaijan, I heard Azeris, despite their heavy accents, speaking Russian to each other. In Armenia, people told me that the best schools were the Russian-language ones.
I have now been to 10 of the 15 former Soviet republics. In each one, I have used Russian to get around, talk to people and learn about the local culture. Only in Western Ukraine, in Lvov, did I experience Ukrainian linguistic nationalism with people who pretended not to speak Russian. Other than that, I was fine. Even though the non-Russian people in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, resented the Soviet occupation of their countries and their being forced to learn Russian, but I never had any trouble using Russian in those countries.
Honestly, it’s highly convenient for me as a globetrotter to have Russian be the lingua franca in the former Soviet Union and understood or spoken in Mongolia and some parts of Eastern Europe. However, I now see my language in a new light and see how other people experience it as an imposed language.