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Language Research

2. Background: Background notes

East Slavic peoples, mainly Russian but also Ukrainian and Belarusian, form over 85% of the total population and are prevalent throughout the Federation.

The Slavs emerged as a recognizable group in Eastern Europe between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD, and the first Slavic State, Kievan Rus, arose in the 9th century. Following the Mongol invasions, the central power of the state shifted to Moscow, and the Russian Empire expanded to the Baltic, Arctic and Pacific, numerically overwhelming the indigenous peoples.

Despite its wide dispersal, the main features of the Russian language are homogeneous throughout Russia. Indo-Iranian speakers include the Ossetes of the Caucasus. In addition, there are sizable contingents of German speakers (mainly in southwestern Siberia) and Jews (mainly in European Russia); the numbers of both groups have declined due to emigration.

Updated (July 2002)

According to the census carried out in 1989 by the Soviet authorities, there were 127 different nationalities in the territory of the Russian Federation, most of them with their own language. Although the number of languages in use oscillates, 104 languages are still spoken in Russia nowadays. Most of the languages of Russia belong to the main linguistic families of the Eurasian continent. With them cohabit other, less known, linguistic groups. Their present geographical distribution makes up a complex and irregular map:

  • The central nucleus of European Russia is the main territorial sphere of the Slavic Indo-European languages that extend throughout the territory of the Federation, but especially entering into Asia towards the East, occupying almost all the southern fringe of Siberia until reaching the Pacific Ocean. Sharing the same sphere of expansion towards the East, other Indo-European languages of the Germanic group may be found in isolation.
  • The northwestern end of European Russia is shared by Russian and Finnish languages of the Uralic family. The Finno-Ugrian languages are also spread throughout the northern region on both sides of the Urals.
  • The North Caucasus area and the adjacent area of the Black Sea are characterized by an extreme proliferation of languages. Most of them belong to the Caucasian family. Nevertheless, some languages of the Altaic family, as well as from the Iranian, Greek and Roman groups of the Indo-European family are also settled in this area.
  • The area of the Middle Volga is a space shared by the Slavic, Finno-Ugrian families and the Altaic family languages.
  • In Siberia, the southern half is dominated by the presence of Russian and Ukrainian. This space is shared in all its central area with spaces dominated by the Altaic languages, Turkish and Mongolian. In its eastern end, Russian cohabits with other Altaic languages, mainly from the Tungus group, as well as with isolated languages such as Nivkhi and Ainu.
  • The northern half of Siberia, with a less dense population, is an area for the languages of the Uralic family in its western end, always combined with Russian. In the middle, Turkish (Altaic), Uralic-Yukaghir and Yenisseic languages cohabit with Russian. Finally, in the northeastern end of Siberia, Russian cohabits with languages of the Chukchee-Kamchatka family and languages of the Eskimo-Aleut group.

To summarize, five groups of languages cohabit today in the territory of the Russian Federation:

  1. Paleo-Asiatic languages
  2. Uralico-Yukaghir languages
  3. Altaic languages
  4. Indo-European languages
  5. Caucasian languages



At present, around 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Russian Federation are native speakers of Indo-European languages. Within this large family, we can highlight, obviously, the Russian language (around 141 million speakers), the extraordinary expansion of which has marked the modern history of this country. The other Indo-European languages include between 3 and 4 million speakers of other Slavic (Ukrainian), Germanic (German, Yiddish and Norwegian), Romance (Moldavian), Iranian (Osset and Tat), Greek and Armenian languages.

• The Slavic Group

The first large expansion of the Slavs from their traditional nucleus took place in the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D., basically in three directions. Towards the West, the Slavs progressively colonized territories until they reached the Elbe. In this area, the western Slavic languages started to differentiate: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian, Pomeranian, Kashubian, Masovian, and Moravian, basically. The second axis of expansion led the Slavic peoples towards the southwest, colonizing a large part of the Balkan Peninsula. From this trend emerged the southern Slavic languages such as Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Old Bulgarian, Macedonian or Panonic Slavic. The third expansive direction took place towards the North and northeast and from it emerged the Eastern Slavs. They progressively colonized territories scarcely inhabited by tribes speaking Finnish languages. The linguistic differences between the Eastern Slavs were not settled until the 14th and 15th Centuries.

• Other Indo-European Groups


The presence of Germans in Russia dates back to 1762 when Catherine the Great established agricultural settlements for them to occupy the middle and lower areas of the Volga. The settlers on the Volga maintained their original language without special difficulties and in 1914 they amounted to the approximate number of 500,000 people. Despite the establishment of a Germanic Republic on the Volga in 1918, the German linguistic group sustained losses due to the deportations to Kazakhstan in 1927 and 1933. Nevertheless, the critical moment for this group was the Second World War. The German Republic was suppressed in 1941 and all the German population was deported to different areas around the Russian and Kazakhstan border. Unlike other peoples deported during the war, the Germans were not rehabilitated and most of them still live in the areas of destination. Besides undergoing a high grade of assimilation into Russian, this linguistic group has suffered from a significant process of emigration of its members to Germany in the 90s.


As regards the Jews, they initially appeared in the cities of the Black Sea dominated by Greek traders. The Jews have adopted several languages in Russia according to their tradition and geographical situation. However, most Russian Jews descend from those who progressively settled in eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. The predominant language among them was Yiddish, an archaic Germanic language with Slavic and Hebrew influences. The Jews, mostly Ashkenazis, underwent serious restrictions for their settlement in Russia, which originated a migratory process during the 19th Century, mostly to the United States.

When the Bolshevik regime came to power in 1928, the Jewish Autonomous Area of Birobidzhan was established. In 1934, this Area became the Autonomous Region and in 1941, 30,000 Jews out of a global population of 114,000 people lived there. At that moment there were 128 schools that used Yiddish as the language of instructions. The Second World War and the creation of the State of Israel caused that in 60s the percentage of Jews in the area was reduced to 13 percent and today it is less than 5 percent. Besides, the Yiddish language has been progressively abandoned and emigration to Israel left this linguistic group in an increasingly precarious situation.

In the Caucasus area, two languages of the Iranian group survive. Tat is the Iranian language adopted by groups of Jews from mountainous areas in the 5th and 6th Centuries. Many of them have recently immigrated to Israel. The Ossetians are the ethnic and linguistic descendants of the Alans, Iranian people that surrounded the Caspian on the North and settled in a much larger area in the first centuries of the Christian era, moving towards the South under the pressure of the Turks and the Mongols.


Today, the Altaic family in Russia is a collection of 30 languages that are spoken approximately by 10 million people. Within the family there exist three main groups of languages.

The Turkish group is today the most vigorous one, with about 9 million speakers, and it includes 18 languages: Khakassian, Tuvin, Altaic, Yakut, Dolgan, Chulym, Shor, Tofalar (all of them belong to the Northern subgroup), Tatar, Bashkir, Kumik, Karachay, Balkar (Western subgroup), Chuvash (Volga subgroup), Turkmen, Azerbaijani (Southern subgroup) Nogai and Kazakh (Central subgroup).

The Mongolian group in Russia numbers more than half a million speakers of the Kalmyk, Mongolian and Buriat languages.

The last group of the Tungus languages has only 15,000 speakers. This group today has 8 languages in Russia: Evenki, Even, Negidal (Northern group), Nanai, Orok, Orochi, Udihe and Ulch (Southern group). Finally, Korean is frequently considered a language related to the initial trunk of the Altaic family, although this theory is still under debate.


The Caucasian family of languages covers 30 languages spoken by 3 million people. These languages have undergone almost no territorial displacement over the different historical periods and may be considered the original languages of a large territory on both sides of the Caucasus.

Since the first millennium B.C., the territory of the Caucasian family has been increasingly reduced in favor of the Indo-European, Armenian and the Iranian languages. Thus, the Caucasian languages progressively remained isolated in the territory and were gradually pushed towards the mountains.

Linguists divide the Caucasian family into three large groups. The southern group is represented almost exclusively by the Georgian language; however, its territory does not extend to the Russian Federation.

In the northwestern group we find Abaza (related to Abjazian also spoken in Georgia, from which it separated probably around the 15th or 16th Century) and the Adyghe, Cherkess and Kabard languages, which have almost 600,000 speakers in Russia.

The northeastern group appears sometimes divided into two different groups: Nax (Central) and Eastern (Dagestan). In the first one, the Ingush and Chechnyan languages can be found, with almost a million speakers. Both ethnic communities were deported to Siberia during the WW II. The Dagestan subgroup includes 23 languages, some of them in the process of assimilation into other languages surrounding them: Avar, Andi, Botlik, Ghodoberian, Chamalal, Bagulal, Tindi, Karati, Akhvakh, Beztin, Dido, Kuvarsi, Hunzib (all of them making up the Avar-Andi-Dido subgroup), Lak, Dargwa, Kaidak, Kubachi (Laco-Dargwa subgroup), Archi, Lesgo, Agulian, Rutul, Tabasaran and Tsakhur (Lesgo subgroup). The Dagestan group goes beyond the borders of Dagestan and is also predominant in the southern area of the neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan. In Russia, the language has 1,5 million speakers.


Twenty-three languages in Russia belong to the Uralic-Yukaghir family, with approximately 2,5 million speakers. The majority of speakers live outside Russia, in Finland, Estonia and Hungary. Within Russia, the large Uralic family is subdivided into two main groups: Finno-Ugrian and Samoyed. The Samoyed languages, spoken by hardly 30,000 people, are the Nenets, Enets, Nagasagan and Selkup languages. The Finno-Ugrian group in Russia nowadays includes the following Finnish languages: Karelian, Finnish, Ludian, Ingrian, Votiak, Vepsian, Estonian, Saami (all of them from the Northern-Baltic subgroup), Udmurt, Zyrian Komi, Permyak Komi (Permyak subgroup), Mari Olyk, Mari Kuryk, Mordovino Erzya and Mordovino Moksha (Volga subgroup). In addition, Khanty (or Ostiak) and Mansi (or Vogul) are two languages that represent the Ugric group in the Russian Federation. As a whole, the Finno-Ugrian languages are spoken by 2,400,000 people in Russia.


Under the generic name of Paleo-Asiatic languages we gather 11 Russian languages, 9 of them belonging in fact to three small differentiated linguistic families and 2 languages with no proven filiation. As a whole, all these linguistic communities do not number more than 25,000 people. These ethnic and linguistic communities did not have any contact with the Europeans until the 16th Century.

The Russian colonization of Siberia substantially affected the traditional life of many Asiatic indigenous communities, and their linguistic situation, especially from the 19th Century onward.

On the west the Paleo-Asiatic family, called Yenisseic or Paleo-Siberan, is represented by the Ket and Yug languages, with less than 1,000 speakers today. The ethnic Inuit-Eskimo-Aleut family represents the original population of a large part of North America and probably of the most eastern areas of the far Russian North. In the 20th Century, the ideological confrontation of the USSR and the United States motivated the transfer of some Inuits and the prohibition of contacts with their families in Alaska, which seriously fragmented a linguistic and cultural cross-border community. Today, there are between 1,000 and 2,000 speakers of the Yupik and Aleut languages in Russia, in villages close to the Bering Straits and in the Komandirskiye Islands, respectively.

The family known as Chukchee-Kamchatka originally extended across the north-eastern of Eurasia, occupying all the Kamchatka Peninsula and the territory to the North, as well as the Kuril Islands. Although their present “theoretical” territory is not very different, its demographic weakness in comparison to Russian is alarming. The process of Russianization started in this area in the 18th Century. Today, the Chukchee-Kamchatka family covers five languages, spoken as a whole by 20,000 people. Linguists locate the following languages to the northern group: Chukchee, Koryak, Kerek and Aliutor, while Itelm (or Kamchadal) remains the sole representative of the family’s southern group. The Nivhki (or Giliac) language is one of the isolated languages of the Russian Federation though, from a cultural point of view, Nivhki shares a common space with different southern Tungus groups.

The other isolated and currently endangered language in Russia is Ainu. From the prehistoric times Ainu were the original inhabitants of Japan and perhaps of a continental area close to it. Nowadays the Ainu live in isolated areas south of the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands and in the northern area of Hokkaido. In some linguistic classifications, one may see Ainu related to Korean, belonging to a lateral branch of the Altaic family.


The first ethnic census in Russia in 1897 demonstrated the multilingual character of the Empire when Russian was spoken by less than half of the population. However, the arrival of the Bolshevik regime changed the situation. Firstly Lenin proposed the recognition of the right to self-determination for all peoples of the Tsarist Empire.

Thus, from the 1922 USSR Constitution, so-called territorial national principle was introduced, creating certain territorial political structures within the Soviet Union that were hierarchized according to the demographic or historical significance of the ethnic group for which they were constituted. According to this, the Soviet Union, besides being structured as a Federal State, was internally made up of autonomous republics, autonomous regions, national areas and national districts (the latter suppressed in 1937). From the linguistic point of view, a large number of efforts were made to maintain, codify and develop many languages in Russia.

Nevertheless, from the mid-30s, under Stalin’s mandate, a clear involution and return to linguistic and ethnic Russianization could be observed. The 1936 Soviet Constitution incorporated again the national territorial principle and divided the territory to 11 federated republics, 20 autonomous republics, 8 autonomous regions and 8 national areas (the latter were called “autonomous areas” in the 1977 Constitution). In 1938, teaching in Russian became compulsory in all schools of the Union and the Cyrillic alphabet was imposed for practically all languages of the Federation, substituting in many cases the Latin or Arab alphabet.

The war (a huge demographic drain from many linguistic communities, linguistic assimilation) and the merciless policies of massive deportations (Ingush, Chechnyans, Meskets, Kalmyks, Germans of the Volga, Karachays, Bulkarians and Tatars of Crimea) dramatically decimated the linguistic communities. After the war, a non-confessed assimilation policy went on towards the creation of the so-called “homo sovieticus,” a Russian-speaker. Breznev cultivated nothing but this line, which was justified by the need of Soviet people to have a common language. Even though, still in 1970, 57 million out of 112 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union were not fluent in Russian.

However, during the last decades of the Soviet regime, under the impact of the educational system and of the media, bilingualism became widespread.

With the Perestroika new ways for the expression of ethnic or linguistic differences were opened. Concerning linguistic matters, in April 1990, Gorbachev conferred full power to the republics. A new political perception of plurilingualism was imposed, which in most republics was expressed by the wish to return to a monolingualism exclusively based on the corresponding national language. Russia was the last of fifteen Soviet Republics to approve some regulations in linguistic matters in 1990.


The linguistic situation in Russia after attaining independence was defined as a humanitarian catastrophe. The UNESCO, in its Red Book on Endangered Languages, considered almost all minority languages of the Russian Federation as being endangered or seriously threatened, some even in an irreversible process of disappearing.

Besides those 104 languages we have to add the languages spoken by other ethnic or national groups that inhabit the vast urban spaces of Russia and which appeared in the last 1989 Soviet Census (Belorussian, Georgian, Uzbek, Polish, Lithuanian, Letonian, Lirguiz, Tadjik, Bulgarian, Turkish, Karakalpak, Romanian, Chinese, Kurdish, Czech, Arab, Uigur, Persian, Mon-Khmer, Udi and Talysh).

From 104 territorial languages, several dozens have less than 27,000 speakers (42 are spoken even by less than 5,000 people). In this sense, the following languages are endangered:



























Other 16 Caucasian languages of Dagestan are also seriously threatened in Russia. They underwent assimilation process into the Avar or Darguin majority languages.

















The last group of five languages that, according to the number of their speakers in Russia, may be endangered by an irreversible assimilation will definitely survive beyond the Russian borders as the languages of neighboring states.






The second set of languages is in a situation of acute weakness. This weakness may be caused basically by a small number of speakers, the lack of literary production, the process of linguistic assimilation among the members of the respective ethnic group or their geographic dispersion.
















In the 90s, 83 percent of the whole population of the Russian Federation were ethnic and linguistic Russians, together with another 3 percent of Belorussian and Ukrainian population, strongly “Russianized.” As a whole, 97 percent of the population speaks Russian fluently, which means that this language has reached almost every remote area of the Federation. Russian became lingua franca of the Federation.

The ethnic Russian or Slav population does not tend to learn the languages of other national communities. Not more than 3 percent of them can speak languages of other nationalities in Russia. On the contrary, among the non-Russian ethnic citizens, 88 percent can express themselves in the federal language and for 28 percent it is already their mother tongue.

The differences between ethnic groups in the process of linguistic assimilation are important. Among Finno-Ugrian people from 45 to 70 percent of their members have their own language as their mother tongue. In Paleo-Asiatic groups it is from 15 to 30 percent. On the contrary, the ethnic groups with Muslim religion and especially those of the Caucasus geographic area are the most impermeable to the process of linguistic assimilation in favor of Russian.

The media, generalization of the educational system, and cultural production do not show healthy signs for the maintenance of Russia’s linguistic plurality either. As an example one can look at how the editorial publications in languages other than Russian are really scarce in the country. In fact, in the 90s, only 3 percent of the titles published in Russia were in languages other than Russian, this percentage corresponding to only 0.5 percent of the total edition.

After independence, 25 million Russians found themselves outside the federal borders. In addition, a significant part of the Russian ethnic community lives in territorial entities, which are quantitatively or qualitatively controlled by members of other ethnic and linguistic groups. This exacerbates feelings of fear and distrust towards new linguistic realities and policies, especially towards communities with considerable demographic or political strength.

Source: Minority Languages of the Russian Federation, Perspectives for a ratification of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, by Eduardo J. Ruiz Vieytez, Universidad de Deusto, Mercator web page http://www.troc.es/ciemen/mercator/index-gb.htm, Working Papers, Minority Languages of the Russian Federation.

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Updated (September 2002)


Kalmykia is a unique region in the south of Russia with the only Mongolian ethnic group of Buddhist religion in Europe. The population of the Kalmyk Republic is 321,400 people with more than ninety nations. Kalmyks (the ancestors are known as “Oirats”) constitute 47 percent of the whole population. The Kalmyk language belongs to Mongolian group of languages and it has a continuous literary tradition since 17th Century.

Before the beginning of the 20th Century, Kalmyks were mainly monolingual because Russian was not so widespread among them. However, the 20th Century started the fight with illiteracy so learning at schools was carried out in Russian and a national language was taught as a separate subject.

In 1943, Kalmyk people were exiled to Siberia. Thirteen years of a dispersal living in different conditions led to the decline of economic and cultural ties and to the loss of national traditions and a mother tongue. In 1956, Kalmyks were exonerated and they returned to the Kalmyk Republic.

All those factors contributed to mass Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism, when knowledge of Russian started to predominate. Young generation spoke little Kalmyk or did not speak it at all.

Currently, the language situation in Kalmykia is characterized by the bilingualism, when people speak their national language and Russian. According to the 1979 Soviet Census, there were 122,000 Kalmyks and 2.9 percent of them considered Russian to be their native language. In the 1989 Soviet Census this number raised to 3.9 percent of 146,600 Kalmyks. The sociolinguistic survey carried out in 1999/2000 showed that the majority of nowadays Kalmyk community has a poor knowledge of the language or does not speak it at all. (see also “Legislation dealing with the use of languages,” Updated September 2002, Kalmykia)

Source: World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona, April 16-20, 2002, “Language Policy in the Republic of Kalmykia,” by A.N. Bitkeeva, Institute of Linguistics of Russian Academy of Sciences, Research Center on Ethnic and Language Relations, Moscow, Russia,


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Updated (September 2004)


The Republics of Tyva and Khakassia are situated in the south of Siberia. They were founded at the beginning of the 90s and in accordance with the Republican Constitutions and language legislation, the national languages of the Turkic family — Touvinian and Khakass got the status of state languages in addition to Russian.

Many efforts were made during the last decades to maintain these national languages. The results are different despite the common federal legislation. The reasons lie in the different demographic and ethno-linguistic situations in the Republics, and in discrepancy between regional language laws and their implementation.

Most conspicuous results were achieved in the further development of the Touvinian language. The Tyva People’s Republic joined the USSR in 1944. In the 1989 Census, 96 percent of the total Touvinian population (206,000) lived in their republic (making up 64.3 percent of the Tyva population). Seventy percent of the Touvinians lived in mostly monolingual countryside. Almost 99 percent of the Touvinians reported that the Touvinian language is their mother tongue and about 60 percent of them were bilingual with Russian as a second language.

In the majority of households Touvinian is the only language spoken so there is practically no shift from Touvinian to Russian. Democratic changes in the language policies of the early 90s helped to preserve and even improve the position of the Touvinian language. Today it represents the most successful model of the Language Law implementation in Siberia.

However, the situation is different in the Republic of Khakassia. The Khakass people joined Russia about 300 years ago. According to the 1989 Census, 62 percent of Khakass lived in their republic and they made up 11.1 percent of the total population. Almost 65 percent of them lived in the countryside.

The Khakass language was the mother tongue of 76.7 percent of the total Khakass population (78,000) and 67.3 percent of them were also fluent in Russian. About 54 percent of urban children and 79 percent of village children reported the Khakass language as their mother tongue. In 1995/1996, 7 percent of children were taught in the Khakass language and 50 percent studied it as a subject.

Despite positive changes in the attitude to native languages and an increase in the number of schools and schoolchildren teaching and learning Khakass, there is still cause for concern as for its stability in the future.

Source: World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona, 16-20/04/2002, “Language Law in Russia: Models of Implementation in Tyva and Khakassia”, by Tamara Borgoiakova, Khakass State University, Russia, (tborg@khakasnet.ru), http://www.linguapax.org/congres/taller/taller1/Borgoyakova.html

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