Skip to main content

The Emergence of a Russian-Speaking World and its Impact on Russia's International Relations

"With the fall of the Iron Curtain, and with the dismantling of the Soviet Empire, new Russian-speaking communities have emerged," stated Anne de Tinguy, Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Studies and Research, Paris, and Professor, Institute for Political Studies, Paris, at a 23 May 2005 Kennan Institute lecture. "Today," she continued, "there is a Russian-speaking world which extends from the former Soviet Union to North America, through Europe and the Middle East. This world, which is heterogeneous and on the move, lends a new dimension to the international relations of the Russian Federation." De Tinguy contended that the Russian-speaking world has already influenced the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and this influence will only increase in the future. She based her remarks on research done for her latest book, La Grande Migration: La Russie et les Russes depuis l'ouverture du rideau de fer (2004).

De Tinguy explained that the emergence of a Russian-speaking world is the result of two distinct phenomena: out-migration to Western countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the disintegration of the USSR into 15 independent states. She noted that some 4 million people have emigrated permanently from the states of the former Soviet Union since 1990, and millions more travel to Western countries—legally or illegally—as temporary labor migrants, or for personal, professional, or educational reasons. The most popular destination countries are Germany, Israel, and the United States, but most European states have Russian-speaking immigrant populations, as do Canada and Australia. According to de Tinguy, it is difficult to estimate the size of the Russian-speaking communities in these countries due to illegal and temporary migration and the difficulty of determining who constitutes a "Russian speaker."

The fall of the Soviet Union left over 25 million ethnic Russians living outside of the Russian Federation. De Tinguy noted that although many chose to re-settle in Russia, and others emigrated to the West, some 18 million remain in former Soviet states, constituting another dimension of the Russian-speaking world. She contended that these Russian-speakers have experienced a significant loss of status since 1991: "Once an imperial minority, they have now become an ordinary one."

The Russian-speaking world, de Tinguy argued, is extremely diverse, but is characterized by several common features. The most important of these features is transnationalism. Migrants "are integrated, to varying degrees, in the countries where they have settled, while remaining connected to Russia or whatever country of the former Soviet Union they left behind," she contended. Many migrants are in contact with friends and relatives in their homelands, and many maintain business ties with Russia and other former Soviet states and travel back and forth frequently.

Another common feature, according to de Tinguy, is that Russian-speakers abroad retain a strong attachment to Russian language and culture. Migrants use Russian-language media and web sites as their primary source of information. De Tinguy argued that this is true for both ethnic Russians and migrants of other backgrounds, such as Jews, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. This attachment to the Russian language and to a shared cultural heritage serves to unite diverse groups of Russian-speakers abroad and reduce their dependency on their host societies.

"Because the Russian-speaking world is a new phenomenon, its impact today is not as large as in cases of the Jewish diaspora, the Chinese communities abroad, or even the French-speaking world," de Tinguy said. Nonetheless, it has affected Russia's international relations in a number of ways. Questions of migration policy and the treatment of Russian-speaking minorities has become an important issue in Russia's bilateral relations with other states, particularly Israel, Germany, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Estonia. Migration is the central concern in Israeli-Russian relations, and the need to maintain positive relations with the host country of so many Russian émigrés forced Moscow to rethink its exclusively pro-Arab policies of the Cold War era, de Tinguy argued.

Russian communities abroad, according to de Tinguy, are a source of political capital for Russia. Although Russian-speaking migrants do not see themselves as "spokespersons" for Russia, they raise the visibility of Russia and its foreign policy interests in their host countries. "The images conveyed by Russians and Russian-speakers help to demonstrate that Russia matters in the world," de Tinguy contended. Finally, she argued that Russians abroad build bridges between Russia and the rest of the world. Those who maintain ties with Russia transmit ideas, behavior, and identities to their families, friends, and business associates in Russia.

At present, the Russian-speaking world is not a powerful political or economic force, according to de Tinguy. There are no organized pro-Russian lobbies in any of the countries where Russians live, including in former Soviet states. Although Russian migrants do provide remittances to their families in Russia, Russian communities abroad have not been a major source of investment capital for Russia. However, as de Tinguy argued, "we are probably at the beginning of a process. Today, the Russian-speaking world is primarily a cultural one. It has not taken on an organized political dimension. In the future, like the French-speaking world, it may take on a political dimension and…become an asset for Russia."


About the Author

Erin Trouth Hofmann

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, Utah State University
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more