Thursday, October 26, 2017

Non-Russian Languages Absent from Public Space of Russian Cities but Form Basis for Underground Communities, Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 26 – Many different nationalities live in St. Petersburg, Vlada Baranova and Kapitolina Fedorova point out, “but the city is not marked by their cultural diversity” because its residents deal with each other “exclusively in Russian.”  But many of these groups form “’underground’” communities where their national languages play the key role.

            The two St. Petersburg-based scholars, one at the Higher School of Economics and the other at the European University, summarize their articles about their research on these issues on the IQ portal today, research that suggests the non-Russian simultaneous remain hidden from others and quite organized on their own (

                “The ‘façade’ of St. Petersburg,” they write, “unlike of a number of other world metropolises remains mon-lingual … Only in more confined areas,” where non-Russians are far more numerous, “is it possible to see advertisements in Uzbek, Tajik, Chinese and other languages.”

            They examined the language milieu in three St. Petersburg micro-districts: two primarily residential ones on the outskirts and one in the center, Apraksin dvor.  “Despite the large number of migrants” in all three, “announcements and advertising in their languages was encountered no that often.”

            Baranova and Fedorova identify several different kinds of ads and the ways in which they are linked to language:

·         “Many informal advertisements in the sleeping districts – paper ads or writing on asphalt – offer sex services. Here there are two kinds: Russian language ones in which eastern names figure … or advertisements in one of the non-Russian languages.”

·         More rarely, advertisements for doctors and dentists are in non-Russian languages.

·         “Uzbek words are encountered only in announcements posted in closed area,” such as an Uzbek café.

·         “Commercial proposals are written exclusively in Russian.” But they often contain “specific ‘ethnic’ markers,” such as the color green or letters suggesting the Arabic script.

In the city’s Apraksin dvor neighborhood, they report, there is a large infrastructure largely of the migrants’ own creation.  Large signs on the streets are in Russian, but smaller signs in back alleys or other closed spaces are in the non-Russian languages of the migrant groups.  The only prominent ads in Uzbek there are for sex services.

Intriguingly, the two authors say, the migrants are more inclined than Russians to employ international words in advertising and to write them in Latin script regardless of whether their nations use the Latin script at home.

Baranova and Fedorova stress that “in Russian megalopolises, migrant networks ever more often are considered ‘a second society,” one of the reasons for their disdainful atttidue toward other languages.  But they note that indigenous Russians “are not prepared to accept the fact of coexistence with other ethno-linguistic groups.”

As a result, “the mono-linguistic façade of the Russian metropolis continues to conceal the everyday linguistic and cultural diversity which like everything secret and hidden seems beyond the understanding of and frightening for its residents,” the two scholars say their research shows.

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