The Russian language maintenance and language contacts

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In our introductory article, we outline the main sociolinguistic features of Russian as a heritage language of post-Soviet immigrants in European settings and beyond. We offer a general overview of the evolution of Russian as a global language, with a particular focus on its geodemographics and economic and social value as a lingua franca . Based on this, we analyse the main principles defining the maintenance of Russian as a language of migration and as a heritage language in different countries, and emphasise the most important questions that still need to be addressed in this field of research. The main objective of this special issue is to combine the most recent research on the vitality of different languages of post-Soviet republics in new political milieu, with a particular focus on European and Asian countries, but there are other objectives as well. We propose to explore the factors that have either favoured or hindered the maintenance and transmission of languages of post-Soviet immigrants and repatriates, and how these sociolinguistic processes become evident in language vitality on both private and public levels. Our special issue primarily addresses the questions of family language policy, new language contacts and their management, and linguistic landscape in heritage speakers, diasporas and their new settings in Europe, Asia and the US.

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  1. Introduction

The sociolinguistic situation of languages of the post-Soviet states, both as national and heritage languages, has been dynamic and highly heterogeneous in the past three decades. The situation of the Russian language is, probably, one of the most complex and challenging in terms of its sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic framework. Russian is a supranational language, with more than half of its speakers living outside the Russian Federation. It is difficult to estimate how many speakers of the Russian language actually live outside Russia, and the first obstacle to determining this is the variety of terms that are used in referring to them. Based on official documents from the Russian government, Pieper (2020) mentions at least six common terms (ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers, cultural Russians, compatriots, countrymen abroad and fellow tribesmen), which reflect, in the author’s opinion, uncertainty about whom to include in this group. Indeed, historically Russian was not considered a language of an ethnic nation-state, but rather a “transnational connector” with functional and affective symbolism during the Soviet era (Ryazanova-Clarke 2017). As a result, current estimates show that, in addition to 146.1 million speakers living in Russia, there are approximately 32 million native speakers of Russian in the surrounding area and between 130 and 160 million speakers who use Russian as a second language all around the world (Ustinova 2016). These data place the Russian language among the ten leading world languages (Aref’ev 2014).

At present, Russian performs different functions in different sociolinguistic settings, and it is necessary to revisit social correlates of its maintenance or loss in immigrant environments. In addition to its status as a native and second language internationally, the Russian language also gained new roles outside Russia, and post-Soviet migration played a very important role in this. Extended knowledge of Russian among post-Soviet citizens not only allowed it to maintain its status as a lingua franca and a language of international communication, but also to strengthen its position in new, previously unknown ways. Among these, two new functions have received little attention: the commodification of Russian and its consolidation as a heritage language worldwide.

Concerning the first function, recent research reveals that Russian has gained a commodity which “relies on the promise of mutual understanding and the elimination of barriers for successful communication” (Muth 2017a: 405). Consequently, in many European countries (and non-European ones) Russian began to occupy an important market position, which assures its role not only as a language of international and interethnic communication, but also as a language with economic value (see Muth 2017b, Suryanarayan 2017, Viimaranta et al. 2017 etc.). Within the original theory of commodification, according to Duchêne and Heller (2012), languages are defined in terms of their ability to generate economic profit. In this respect, the situation of Russian in the worldwide arena may be described in Pavlenko’s (2015: 387) definition of languages as commodities, i.e. their role as market values: “(t)he corollary of this trend is a shift from the discourses of ‘pride’ that tie languages to identities, territories, and nation-states to the discourses of ‘profit’ that frame languages in economic terms as commodities useful for production of resources.”

However, it is the second new function of Russian, which deserves deeper attention because of its dynamics and direct effect on the understanding of the sociolinguistic value of the language. The linguistic destiny of Russian is unique, since it is a widespread language with multiple possible functions: native language or one of the first acquired languages, one of the home languages or a heritage language, a language of cultural heritage, a lingua franca, a minority language or a language of a minority group, a language of commodification, a language of a former occupier, a foreign language, a language of power, a tool of soft power, a language of (linguistic, political, geopolitical, etc.) tensions, a language for debates, etc. Indeed, this peculiar sociolinguistic situation of Russian has led to an extensive area of research dealing with its scope as a language of diaspora and a heritage language in immigrant populations. One of the most challenging issues relates to the understanding of social and psycholinguistic aspects that drive its maintenance in immigrant families and among groups of ex-pats from different post-Soviet states. Interestingly, these countries themselves are important subjects of sociolinguistic analysis, since different approaches to national language policies have given rise to highly heterogeneous status levels of Russian and its presence in linguistic milieux.

Russophone communities – let us use this term instead of ‘diaspora,’ following suggestions of caution from Ryazanova-Clarke (2014), who defines ‘diaspora’ as less accurate for referring to all possible Russian-speakers outside Russia because it implies strong links to the homeland – are numerous and variable. Their sociolinguistic positions may be stronger or weaker, and the statuses of contact languages and cultures have a great deal to do with the vitality of Russian and its intergenerational maintenance or shift. One should also not ignore the role of attitudes and the divergence between attitudes and language competence in immigrant communities (cf. Lasagabaster 2008).

At the same time, these new sociolinguistic realities have always gone hand in hand with Russian in a new jacket (Pavlenko 2017). In summary, understanding sometimes incomparable situations may be highly enriching for the sociolinguistic description of the Russian language. According to Cheskin & Kachuyevski (2019: 4), “it is important to examine why different, generalised trends in language use, self-identification and group identification are occurring across the post-Soviet space”.

The sociolinguistic situation of Russian as a heritage language still leaves many questions unanswered and it is the purpose of this special issue to contribute to a deeper understanding of some of them. It offers new comparative studies on Russian as a heritage language transmission and maintenance in countries with (to some extent) the historical presence of Russian (e.g. Estonia, Germany, Israel, Sweden and the USA) but also in less studied milieux with very recent histories of Russian as a heritage language (e.g. Spain, Cyprus, India, South Korea and Japan). Furthermore, this special issue aims to reflect different current aspects of Russian as a heritage language: it gathers works on different communicative and functional roles of Russian as a heritage language, on family language policy related to Russian as a heritage language in different countries, on longitudinal changes in its sociolinguistic status, and on the structural changes that speakers produce in Russian as a heritage language. Thus, the contributors discuss different sociolinguistic variables which drive first-generation migrants to transmit or not to transmit their native languages to second-generation speakers; the peculiarities of identity construction in different generations of migrants; phenomena which characterise language choice and heritage language systems in successive generations; and the visibility of migrant languages in such settings as a linguistic landscape.

  1. The Russian language in post-Soviet immigrant communities

The Russian language has spread all around the world. Apart from the Russian Federation and the fourteen national states resulting from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there are numerous countries where a significant number of Russophones have settled. In addition to the traditional destinations of Israel, Germany and the United States (Ben-Rafael et al. 2006), Russophone immigrant communities have recently become particularly large in Western Europe, the Near East and Asia. As stated above, most of them are internally linked by the Russian language rather than by specific ethnic or national adscription. Laitin (1998) even defined the Russian language as the marker of group identity among Russophone communities abroad, though some caution is called for in terms of different identities and attitude backgrounds among post-Soviet immigrants. Cheskin & Kachuyevski (2019) insist that Russophone identities are complex and vary among communities the Russian language is spoken in.

As a result, different definitions are currently applied to Russian as a means of communication, identity and commodification outside Russia. For post-Soviet states, it is common to define Russian as a lingua franca, a language of inter-ethnic communication, an official language, a minority language or a foreign language in the newly generated sociolinguistic landscapes. Importantly, as Pavlenko (2006) suggests, the role of Russian as a lingua franca is extremely variable within the national policies of de-Russification, and there has been extensive research on shifting language negotiation in the fourteen post-Soviet national states (e.g. Pavlenko 2008). Major findings set the Baltic States apart, with their deep and pervasive pro-national language policies (Brubaker 2014), and the Caucasian countries, which excluded Russian from legislation (Hogan-Brun & Melnyk 2012), from the Central Asian countries, with Russian-favouring language policies that recognise Russian as either an official or inter-ethnic communication language (Aminov et al. 2010). Such East European states as Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova form a particular group of countries with shifting dynamics in language management. Whilst Belarus adopted Russian as its second state language, which is currently used as a de facto main language of the country (Pavlenko 2013), and Moldova is polarised between the national Moldovan and the prestigious Russian (Prina 2012), Ukraine has gone through different stages of language regulation involving extreme degrees of politicisation of the language question (Csernicskó 2017, Smaglo 2020).

Considering countries beyond the post-Soviet area, the Russian language is mainly conceived of as a common and shared trait among immigrants. In post-Soviet immigrant communities, Russian frequently serves as the lingua franca and the language of interethnic communication, independently of the ethnic or national groups of the speakers (cf. Ryazantsev 2015). Importantly, not all post-Soviet immigrants are Russophones. Malyutina (2020) stresses the importance of discerning among those post-Soviet immigrants who use Russian and those who want nothing to do with it, in order to avoid any superficial or oversimplified approach to diaspora. This seems to be a very relevant observation, considering that historically there has been a general tendency to label as ‘Russian’ any immigrant from the former Soviet Union (see, for example, Andrews 1998 on such a historical perspective).

Despite these differences, it is the Russian language that has received a lot of explicit support outside Russia. The Russian Federation launched the “compatriots project”, aimed at engaging with Russian nationals living abroad, specifically encouraging connections with the homeland and using such connections to promote Russia and Russian in the West (Byford 2012). The effects of this project extend to many post-Soviet immigrants. As Suslov (2017: 10) puts it, the “Russian diaspora is not a diaspora in the strict sense, nor is it 'Russian'”: compatriot groups worldwide not only include Russian citizens living abroad, but also immigrants from the Soviet Union, Russian-speaking former Soviet citizens, Russian nationals and former Soviet nationals in general. These immigrant communities are united by a common history and shared memories, and Russian plays a key role in these ties (Elias & Shorer-Zeltser 2006). A shared language and culture, as Mustajoki, Protassova & Yelenevskaya (2020a) state clearly, can have much more power in consolidating a diaspora successfully than any principle of ideological or political loyalty. Thus, generally speaking, the sense of belonging to a Russophone diaspora is not tied to political allegiances (Golova 2020).

In some host countries, the role of the Russian language as the means of communication of the diaspora has already achieved considerable success. In Israel, for example, Russian is systematically used in a very extensive network of print and electronic media (Elias 2011). Based on narratives from immigrants in Israel, Yelenevskaya & Fialkova (2003) showed that there is deep language awareness among Russian-speakers in Israel about its value and functional possibilities. As a result, Russian has been used even in the most formal situations, e.g. in business and high-tech industry. A similar situation exists in Germany and the United States, with extensive Russophone communities located in both of them. In Germany, there are approximately six million speakers of the Russian language, most of whom consider Russian their identity marker (Hamann et al. 2020). As a result, the Russian language is maintained and used in multiple contexts, from education (mainly kindergartens and primary schools) to commercial infrastructure, mass-media and social media, as well as medical institutions (Bergmann 2015). In the United States, with more than three million speakers of Russian as of 2010 (Aref’ev 2014), Russian acts as a language of immigrants’ social context (Hubenthal 2004), which is positively viewed, learnt and used by many heritage speakers (Kagan 2010). The public presence of Russian in the USA is very extensive, including not only in the press, but also in legal and medical services, educational settings, commercial infrastructure and, especially, academia (Kagan & Dillon 2010). In all the three mentioned countries, there is a generally positive attitude among Russian-speaking groups towards Russian as a heritage language, ensuring maintenance and transmission from generation to generation (cf. Moin et al. 2011 for Israel and Germany, and Kagan 2010 for USA). However, the sociolinguistic status and functionality of Russian in other countries with major Russophone communities does not necessarily follow the same pattern. In some of them, the reason may be greater dispersion of Russian-speakers throughout the country, with less cohesive (and fewer) community connections. An example is the Russian-speaking immigrants in Great Britain, which is a highly fragmented community with strong social and cultural differences and diverse community practices (Byford 2012). As Byford (2012) reports, there is a Russian-based network of establishments within a Russian-speaking migrant marketplace, including material (products, labour, services, etc.) and symbolic (information, favours, contacts, etc.) forms of exchange, but it is clearly aimed at a dispersed and somewhat undefined target group, which is mainly tied through informal social networking.

In other countries, the presence of Russophones is very recent and the diaspora is not clearly organised. The most salient examples may be the Russian-speaking communities in Southern Europe, where Russian is one of the many minority immigrant languages, with challenging, dynamic and variable sociolinguistic situations. In Italy, for example, the Russophone community is characterised by individualism and atomism, mainly because of its relatively small size and high dispersion throughout the country (Perotto 2014). In her sociolinguistic study, Perotto (ibid) found that most members of this community were not very concerned with the maintenance of contact with other Russophones or with the preservation of the Russian language.

In summary, the sociolinguistic situation of the Russian language in post-Soviet immigrant communities is highly variable and unstable. As Yelenevskaya & Protassova (2015) point out, present-day diasporas are defined by the transnationality of their social, cultural and economic activities. This is one of the factors that explain the sociolinguistic variation in Russophone diasporas, but definitely more research is needed on more specific (national-specific and community-specific) factors that explain (and predict) the functional and symbolic value of Russian as a language of immigrants. In this respect, one of the first steps needed is to look at factors that either favour or hinder the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language in different communities around the world.

  1. Russian as a heritage language

The status of the Russian language as a heritage language varies greatly among communities. In some of them, Russian is a transgenerational full-fledged heritage language with a long sociolinguistic history. Such deep-rooted diasporas are composed of both Russian-speaking émigrés’ descendants and newcomers (Mustajoki et al. 2020a). However, not all members of such diasporas maintain the Russian language and culture over time (Smyth & Opitz 2013). In fact, even in countries with important Russophone communities, such as Germany, many members of the second generation of immigrants assimilate linguistically (Golova 2020) and it is clear that there are multiple factors conditioning the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language universally. It should be added that Russian does not remain stable and that changes and variations are inevitable (see Ryazanova-Clarke 2014 for some background reading).

Sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic research on heritage languages shows that such factors may be classified as external or internal, and that they do not act separately in driving heritage language maintenance. There are multiple factors involved in heritage language maintenance or language shift over time, and studies show the role of factors conditioned by the receiving society and factors coming from heritage language speakers themselves (Schalley & Eisenchlas 2020). Indeed, the social value of a heritage language with minority status is determined by the roles it plays in the host society. Hornberger (2005) has suggested that all global characteristics of the host community play a role in heritage language maintenance, including heritage language sociolinguistic status, heritage language speakers’ attitudes and heritage language presence in different public domains, such as education and the labour market. The functional potential of a heritage language outside of the home is also important. The frequency of use and the possible communicative roles of a heritage language both within and outside of family contexts are highly influential in respect to its vitality (Banfi 2018). Among other factors, research highlights the role of the prestige of a heritage language and the cultural background it conveys (Romanowski 2021), the opportunities for a heritage language to be used in situations with socioeconomic opportunities, e.g. in education, the labour market, media, healthcare systems or any other public service (Aalberse et al. 2019), the degree of self-identification with heritage language culture and positive attitudes to its symbolic and functional values (Ivanova 2019), and the amount of exposure to a heritage language and the degree of reduction of such input at home (Montrul 2016). In summary, Aalberse, Backus & Muysken's (2019: 49) statement seems particularly true: “Perhaps the main conclusion of many years of research on maintenance and shift is that there are so many factors that play a role, and they play it so differently in concrete cases, that it has proven impossible to construct a single widely accepted theory that accounts for maintenance and shift and that predicts what will happen in any given bilingual setting.” Thus, social factors are systematically complemented with a set of individual characteristics of the speakers: their age, gender, marital status, language knowledge, reasons for migration, length of residence in the host country, contact group, etc. (Nesteruk 2010).

Concerning Russian as a heritage language, several observations may be made. There are some important aspects conditioning the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language in different Russophone communities. Among the most influential factors are the contact language and its social prestige, educational opportunities, socioeconomic advantages, and speakers’ attitudes to the political and social associations of the Russian language as the national language of Russia. Mustajoki, Protassova & Yelenevskaya (2020b: 5) summarise this very clearly: “Non-ideological support of the Russian language outside the nation is a sensitive issue that does not only require goodwill but calls for expert knowledge of local language, education policies and the economic situation that can either create incentives for Russian-language maintenance or make it irrelevant for diasporans’ socioeconomic upward mobility.”

In many countries, Russophone cultural institutions contribute to the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language through Sunday schools, heritage language courses or even (though less frequently) regular education. However, families seem to play the key role in the strength of Russian as a heritage language and, in this respect, it is essential to understand how family language policies are created in different Russophone communities globally.

In her description of the family language policy in Russian-speaking families in the U.S., Nesteruk (2010) mentions the necessity of following Fishman’s distinction between language transmission and language maintenance for understanding bilingualism in heritage speakers: she points out that language transmission (using Russian as a heritage language with children in the family) is rather more common and successful than language maintenance (use of Russian as a heritage language by succeeding generations for multiple functions). With a focus on the Russophone diaspora in the USA, Laleko (2013) stresses that third – and fourth-generation immigrants, including post-Soviet citizens, usually display less intense emotional concern with the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language. Her conclusion in this respect is not very positive regarding the fate of Russian as a heritage language in the USA: “<…> assuming that language attitudes in the home serve as a predictor of continued inter-generational language maintenance in immigrant families, we may hypothesize that desire for maintaining and actively using the heritage language beyond the home and family domain may not be among the highest priorities for the American-born generation of heritage Russian speakers” (Laleko 2013: 391).

By contrast, the Finnish sociolinguistic situation shows that most family language policies favour Russian heritage language maintenance. Protassova (2008) has reported that most Russian-speaking families choose schools teaching in both Finnish and Russian or teaching Russian as the heritage language, though these results show a significant social correlation: families with low socioeconomic status are less prone to exposing their children to Russian as a heritage language. Similarly, Schwartz (2008) has shown that Russian-Jewish immigrants in Israel are highly involved in transmitting Russian as a heritage language to their children and, importantly, complain when educational and social conditions do not assure balanced exposure to Russian for their offspring. Sociolinguistic situations in regard to Russian thus vary greatly among countries, and historical issues (e.g. Russian language presence or social openness to the languages of migrants) may explain a great deal about this variation in addition to social and individual factors in the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language. Language ideologies and the management and practice of Russian as a heritage language – the three pillars of the family language policy according to Spolsky’s classical model (2004) – are country-dependent and form a sort of kaleidoscope of shifting and fluctuating contexts favouring or hindering the preservation of Russian as a heritage language.

Finally, there is the effect of the status of Russian as a heritage language and the consequent family language policies on Russian’s internal evolution and change. Limited exposure to the heritage language may have an important effect on heritage language acquisition. Reduced input is systematically argued to be the major reason for difficulties in the acquisition of certain heritage language properties, for example, and particularly for Russian as a heritage language in connection with gender (cf. Rodina et al. 2020). For Russian, referential studies have been carried out in many immigrant settings, revealing changes in the structure of Russian as a heritage language (cf. Protassova 2008 for Russian in Finland, Isurin & Ivanova-Sullivan 2008 for Russian in the USA, and Schwarz 2008 for Russian in Israel). However, a very recent comparative study by Rodina et al. (2020) on Russian in Israel, Germany, Norway, Latvia and the UK has revealed the necessity of searching for common and contrasting traits of language change in Russian as a heritage language.

  1. Articles in this special issue

Based on this multilateral perspective on migrants’ languages and identities, this special issue addresses the following questions:

  • Sociolinguistic portraits: who transmits or does not transmit their languages to the second generation? How Russian and other post-Soviet heritage languages are perceived?
  • Social visibility of languages: how are these languages included in different spheres of language use (linguistic landscape)?
  • Cognition and attitudes: what do post-Soviet immigrants and repatriates believe about their heritage languages and how do their beliefs influence their vitality?
  • Cognition, society and language system: how do all these sociolinguistic and cognitive processes influence the transformation of the language systems of Russian and other post-Soviet languages as heritage languages in constellation with their contact languages?

Looking in detail, this issue includes case studies on language management in bilingual Russian-Estonian and Russian-Spanish families (Ivanova & Zabrodskaja), sociolinguistic patterns of the maintenance of Russian as a heritage language in Germany (Brehmer), grammatical aspects of Russian as a heritage language in Israel (Meir et al.), grammatical changes in Russian under the influence of English among Russian-English bilinguals residing in the USA (Isurin), multilingualism and translanguaging among Russian-language speakers in Cyprus, Estonia and Sweden (Karpava et al.), the presence of Russian in the linguistic landscape of Nuremberg, Germany (Ritter) and in three Asian countries – India, Japan, and South Korea (Protassova et al.), the use of Russian, Kazakh and the spread of English in naming practices (Smagulova & Madiyeva), and heritage language and identity maintenance in the Lithuanian diaspora (Ramonienė & Ramonaitė). At the end of the current collection Branets and Verschik present a structural and extra-linguistic analysis of receptive multilingualism, providing evidence how Estonians understand Ukrainian via their knowledge of Russian. Putjata concentrates on language maintenance among multilingual teachers, presenting her research on Russian-Hebrew speakers’ ideas of language related normality in educational settings. Three book reviews at the end of this issue are included with the specific aim of exemplifying how in different countries each new generation finds their own ways of using their heritage language, depending on the relationship between language and society, attitudes and perceptions. Thus, the process of the Russian language maintenance and language contacts of post-Soviet immigrants in Europe and beyond might be seen more clearly when compared with special situations involving two or more languages investigated and presented there.

  1. Conclusion

Forced by political, economic and demographic instability, not only ethnic minorities (mostly Jews and ethnic Germans) but also ethnicities of already independent states began migrating to Central and Western European countries. Migration between newly independent states, which involved voluntary movements of repatriates, also became extremely intensive. As a natural result of migratory processes, many languages of post-Soviet immigrants became heritage languages of migrant families in the new milieux and started to consistently form part of their language settings. The linguistic outcome became multi-layered: while some post-Soviet migrants formed large communities of ex-pats, which favoured heritage language maintenance, use and new-place vitality, many others integrated into their host societies and/or assimilated culturally and linguistically, leaving their heritage language behind. Our special issue shows that none of these changes happened overnight and it is difficult to discern which sociolinguistic changes are still in progress.

The expected contribution of this special issue is to analyse the patterns, which define sociolinguistic and cognitive aspects of heritage language vitality, as well as the effect of such extra-linguistic factors on the internal systems of the heritage languages. In this respect, the special issue offers proposals for the further analysis of social relations in the respective societies and of language system transformation in heritage languages. These sociolinguistic realities surrounding Russian might be shortly described by a saying in Estonian: “Heal lapsel mitu nime”, that is, ‘A good child has many names.’ In their recent edited volume, Mustajoki et al. (2020a) pose a question: “Russian as a communicative tool: Lingua franca, intermediator or something else?” and present a collection of articles trying to suggest best possible scenarios. The present special issue, while answering some old questions, leads to new ones; needless to add that some unforeseen features of Russian are discovered in a more complex situation (i.e. transfer, translanguaging, and receptive multilingualism).

As case studies in our special issue reveal, Russian and other languages (e.g. Lithuanian) of post-Soviet immigrants in Europe and beyond might become the (cultural) heritage acquired mainly as the home language, often without conscious awareness or family language policy planning. A lot depends not only on certain uses of the language, and its educational and economic status in the larger community, but also on children as active agents who may provide their own sets of norms and expectations regarding the use of the heritage language.


About the authors

Anastassia Zabrodskaja

Tallinn University

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8082-3549

(PhD) is Professor of Intercultural Communication and Head of the Communication Management Master’s programme

Narva mnt 27, 10120 Tallinn, Estonia

Olga Ivanova

University of Salamanca

ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9657-5380

Associate Professor of General Linguistics at the Spanish Language Department

Plaza de Anaya s/n, 37008 Salamanca, Spain


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