If a person you are working with speaks Russian, would it be safe to assume they are Russian? Well, it’s complicated.
First, the term “Russian” itself is ambiguous and can mean different things. It may mean a Russian citizen (rossiyanin) or a person of Russian heritage (russky), whether or not they live in the present-day country of Russia. To complicate matters further, people from the former USSR have been colloquially referred to as “Russian,” although some of them may not identify as such.
Legacy of Russian
In fact, many people from the former USSR may speak Russian as their first or second language. There are several reasons for that:
- Russian was the official language in the USSR, often privileged over local or national languages of other constituent republics.
- In Soviet times (and before), people moved from the territory of Russia to other parts of the country, bringing their language with them.
- Russian remains an official or common language in some Eurasian countries like Kazakhstan or Moldova.
I have interpreted for people from Russia, Moldova, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, and even Lithuania—a country that does not currently have a high proportion of Russian speakers. As a rule, older people throughout the region are more likely to speak Russian natively or fluently, whereas younger people are more likely to speak the national language as their first language and study other languages like English as their second language.
This history has several implications for individuals who work with speakers of Russian.
- Your Russian-speaking client or partner may not come from Russia or be of Russian ancestry. Don’t assume and, if their country of origin is relevant to the conversation, just ask.
- Conversely, people from countries of the former USSR do not necessarily speak or understand Russian. If you are arranging translation or interpreting, check what language they actually prefer.
- Be mindful of how you phrase your questions. I once heard a medical provider ask me what the patient’s “nationality” was. This kind of phrasing may be dehumanizing for people coming from a region where your ancestry and nationality are a fraught subject. If all you want to know is what language your client is speaking, that’s probably what you’ll want to ask. In that case, that patient happened to be Moldovan but was speaking Russian!