Tuesday, October 04, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: russian influence

Once again, I am dipping into EurasiaNet for some inspiration. This time, it is about the decreasing importance of Russian in Turkmenistan. During the time of the Soviet Union, Russian was introduced to the other nations as an obvious common language to help with unification and also colonization. Many 'ethnic' Russians (and I use quotes since that is such a loose term) moved to other member republics like Turkmenistan and it was not so long ago that the country was nearly one-third Russian. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has led many of those Russians to leave and with them, the strength and influence of their language. The trend is further accelerated, at least here in Turkmenistan, by a push to bring back and reclaim Turkmen cultural heritage and especially the Turkmen language. It is of no small significance that former President Saparmurat Niyazov switched the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin shortly after Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991.

Schools are increasingly taught in only Turkmen and Russian schools are increasingly less common. While all the home country engineers here studied Russian when they were in school, they have told me that now it is more likely that children do not learn any Russian in schools. One colleague told me that anyone who is proper Turkmen will be going to Turkmen schools now. He did not say say "proper" as that is my paraphrasing of his intent to describe those who are culturally and ethnically Turkmen as opposed to those who live within the borders but are of Russian, Uzbek, or Kazakh descent. It should be noted that the definition of who is proper Turkmen is at least not terribly restrictive, but it still exists. It's certainly not a "no true Scotsman" scenario and includes people who at least I did not think were Turkmen at first glance. There are different types of Turkmen and my colleague mentioned some differences in particular between the capital of Ashgabat and another large city, Mary, and the region around it.

I made a remark to that colleague about everyone who I have met who works for the state company is ethnic Turkmen. He said that it is perhaps a somewhat defensive measure on the part of the state company, but when he was interviewing several years ago for a job, the situation was very different, at least at the other oil and gas operators and even here at work. Our other clients were much more Russian-dominated, with a much larger percentage of employees being Russian even just five or six years ago. Even in this office, it was evidently a much stronger Russian presence, though I can think of a few practical reasons why that would be the case. (Briefly, Russia has a much older and more mature, and thus more experienced industry. This base was still relatively young six years ago and needed people who knew the language and who had experience, hence many Russians.) Now, almost all new engineers are home country and almost all of those are Turkmen, within the somewhat broad range that encompasses.

While the reclamation of their culture, heritage, and language are important, the phase-out of Russian may have unintended consequences. For example, many documents are still in Russian. Our contracts are in Russian and English, not Turkmen and English. Give this process another twenty years of independence and will there be a generation in positions of influence who do not know Russian and are unable to easily access that relatively recent historical past. Additionally, and this is a challenge faced by all relatively small nations, learning Turkmen is important in Turkmenistan, but of very little practical use elsewhere. This is like my experience in Hungary. The value in learning the local language when it has almost zero application once you leave is greatly diminished. (Plus, I am terrible with languages.) At work, the de facto second language is Russian over Turkmen. In fact, plenty of the engineers who are around my age say that while they can speak Turkmen, they are not very strong with it and would have trouble writing. It was a problem when we interviewed a local person for an equipment operator position and he knew Turkmen, but barely any Russian since Russian is what all the locals speak amongst themselves since they are a slightly older set (mid-20's-40's mostly). It's not that the country should not promote Turkmen language, but it should also keep using Russian. Dropping Russian will make the country and the people less accessible to non Turkmens and also make it much harder for Turkmens to go outside the country. Maybe that's the point.


Sciencebunny said...

i like this post. =)

Brian said...

Why thank you.