Saturday, August 28, 2021

Russian Border Towns Far More Insistently Mono-Lingual than Border Towns in Other Countries, Baranova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 27 – Throughout the world, border towns are often places of linguistic diversity with people living in them on both sides of the border familiar with and even speaking the language of the other country. But the Russian Federation, as a result of state policy, is a clear exception, Vlada Baranova says.

            In its case, be it at Ivangorod on the border with Estonia, Wyborg on the border with Finland, or any number of cities along the Russian border with China, those in the Russian city are less inclined to learn or use the language of the neighboring country, the St. Petersburg HSE scholar says (

            That is in sharp contrast to the cities across the border in Estonia, Finland and China where Russian is widely used and very much part of the linguistic landscape, a landscape that Baranova has been studying with her University of Tallinn colleague, Kapitolina Fyodorova. (The full text of their paper on this subject is available at

            The linguistic landscape of any place, Baranova says, is always the result of forces from above, the government, and forces from below, the population, employers, store owners and the like. In some places, the government is able to largely dictate the situation but never entirely because both speakers of minority languages and employers have distinct interests.

            Baranova says she and her colleague began to study the linguistic landscape of Russian cities and towns in order to see how minority languages were being preserved, “but then the study was transformed into an instrument for the analysis of inequality, social, cultural and educational” of speakers of different languages.

            “Clear evidence of inequality,” she continues, “is the incomplete representation of languages. But even if there is such representation, it does not always reflect real multilingualism.” This lack of correspondence may have political, social or cultural causes or a combination of all three.

            Russian language laws work against minority languages, reducing their use and especially their visibility in the case of migrants and diasporas, Baranova argues. But that doesn’t mean that under the surface multi-lingualism doesn’t flourish. It may do so even if it can’t at least for the present occupy a significant part of the public space.

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