Why do Armenians know Russian?

Why do Armenians know Russian?

The official language in Armenia is Armenian. However, almost anyone in Armenia understands and speaks Russian. According to ArmStat, 52,7% of Armenia’s citizens speak Russian as a second language. Why is that? Let’s find out!

Armenia has always had tight ties with Russia. This was exacerbated during the Soviet era. Due to cultural, educational, political, and other ties, the Armenian population has become a carrier of Russian as a second language.

In this blog post, I will dive into the topic of why Armenians know Russian. If you want to share your thoughts, please ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips.

Historical background

Although historically most Armenians inhabited the Eastern Anatolia regions of the Ottoman Empire, the countries that we know today as Armenia and Russia share a long and intricate history. Armenian-Russian relationships, in fact, date back to the medieval era. At that time the Armenian Kingdom established trade routes with the Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire which had connections with Slavic tribes that inhabited what is now Russia.

In the 18th century, Russia reinforced its position in the Caucasus region, including the territories of modern-day Armenia. Russia, of course, sought to keep control over the area guided by the desire to counter the Ottoman Empire’s and Persia’s influence. As a result, in 1828 the Treaty of Torkmanachay was signed, granting Russia control over what was back then known as Eastern Armenia.

Although at the beginning of the 20th century Armenia had a brief history of an independent 1st republic, splitting away from the Tsarist Russian Empire, in 1920, the Red Army invaded our lands and established Soviet Armenia here. What followed were 7 decades of Soviet rule, which meant that knowing Russian wasn’t an option, but pretty much a requirement.

Vladimir Lenin and the Revolution. Source: @socialist.revolution on IG

Influence of the Soviet Union on Armenia

Armenia was one of the republics of the Soviet Union for almost 70 years. These 70 years were prominent with economic and cultural growth. Although the Soviets suppressed various freedoms, they managed to reach a certain point of industrialization where the economy and infrastructure proliferated.

In the meantime, the Russian language became a key tool in everyday life. Those in the intelligentsia even spoke Russian in their families. Cultural and educational ties between Armenia and Russia increased. The Russian language was taught at secondary schools since the students were 7 years old. Russian education continued throughout the university. This is the reason that most of the people that come from the Soviet era know Russian. Education, media, and culture variously reinforced the Russian language everywhere. Today, there are some Armenians in the 50+ age bracket that are still more comfortable using Russian than Armenian in their day to day.

Brezhnev (in the middle) in Soviet Armenia. Source: @soviet_armenia on IG

Socio-political factors

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia kept strong socio-political and economic ties with Russia. According to the National Statistics Committee of Armenia, trade turnover between Armenia and Russia in 2022 reached $5 billion which is 91,7% reported growth as compared to 2021. As of 2022, 40% of Armenia’s Foreign Direct Investment is of Russian origin.

The Armenian diaspora across the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) led by Russia, is as large as the population of Armenia itself. Armenia is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led security alliance, which has recently proven to be rather a joke, but it’s a whole different topic.

Do these figures tell something about Armenia and Russia? Sure, they demonstrate strong economic and social ties. And the language barrier, which is virtually non-existent, contributes to these ties.

I think it’s a topic open for a debate, whether this has been an organic development or rather something that’s been crafted strategically by KGB and its people in the Armenian leadership after the fall of the USSR. The fact is that between 1990 and the revolution in 2018 Russian capital dominated Armenia’s economy. There was little to no effort to attract any other foreign investments on the government’s side. So, in effect, Armenia was, and to some degree still is, bound to have strong ties with Russia due to lack of diversity in its economic partnerships built over 3 decades of independence.

Member States of EAEU. Source: @eurasian_economic_union on IG

Current situation

Despite tight relations between Armenia and Russia, the current geopolitical situation is not without challenges. The complex dynamics in the Sought Caucasus region are a scene for territorial disputes and rivalries, which have historically made Armenians dependent on Russia for security (at least in our minds).

The geopolitical situation is exacerbated by the war that Putin launched against Ukraine. Balancing between regional powers and navigating geopolitical interests is an everyday challenge for Armenia today.

In addition to this, Armenia seeks closer ties with the European Union (EU). An active search for other partnerships with countries like India, Iran, China, USA (crazy combo, I know!) is underway. This is so, especially after the war between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in 2020, and various skirmishes that followed, when Russia did not take a decisive stand supporting Armenia as its strategic military ally.

Public sentiments have also changed today. Most Armenians do not see Russia as a security guarantor anymore and are looking for other sources of national security. In fact, increasingly Russia starts being perceived as a potential threat to Armenia’s security and sovereignty.

Putin vs Russians: perceptions in Armenia

With all the above being said, it’s important to note that in people’s minds, there is a pretty clear distinction between the Russian government and Russians as people. The former slowly turns into a threatening force in the minds of Armenians, but Russian people are very welcome in Armenia. They’ve always been welcome here, and this doesn’t really change much irregardless of the behavior of their government.

An estimated number of over 70 000 Russians who fled their country after Putin started his war in 2022, relocated to Armenia. Many of them settled here by the time I’m writing this post. Their kids attend local schools, where in special classes they can even be taught in Russian. They found jobs here, and many relocated their businesses and entire teams to Armenia. Both culturally and economically Armenia has won by attracting these progressive and well-educated Russians, the so-called “creative class”..

Celebrating EU Days in Syunik. Source: @euinarmenia on IG

Cultural and personal motivation

Given the strong economic and cultural ties with Russia, historically Armenians often had personal motives to learn Russian since childhood. Most of the movies we watch are dubbed in English or Russian. Russian TV channels are widely available, so people often get exposed to Russian news and other TV programs. Even Armenian broadcasters often include licensed Russian shows without translation into Armenian. Although, this is changing as Russian propaganda is becoming unbearable.

Bilingualism is also an important skill in the job market. Given the relations with Russia, historically knowledge of the Russian language was a regular requirement. This is true even for relatively low-paying jobs like office secretary or clerk. So, it’s not surprising that the Armenian youth was motivated to learn Russian for job opportunities.

It’s also important to remember that many Armenians who live in Armenia have relatives in Russia, where kids often don’t learn proper Armenian. So, often, you need to be able to communicate in Russian just for the sake of connecting with your extended family across borders. I wrote about the Armenian diaspora (including that in Russia) in a separate post, so check it out to learn more.

Reading children. Source: @mane_safaryan on IG

The role of education

Education plays a key role in the fact that most Armenians are bilingual. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the Russian language schools were closed. However, Armenians still learn Russian when they are kids. Russian language classes are offered from the elementary school through secondary school. The Russian language curriculum includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension.

Higher education establishments in Armenia also offer Russian language courses. There are Russian language departments in many universities where students can study the language, culture, and history of the Slavonic world.

Given all these, it should be mentioned that the knowledge of Russian has declined dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is especially common among younger people. They may understand Russian but have difficulty speaking.

One funny thing was that when the Armenian prime minister was elected to his post, he could hardly speak any Russian. However, in less than a year we’ve noticed that he got to a very decent degree of language proficiency when he spoke in Russian to international guests and partners.

Armenian and Russian ministers of education. Source: @universityrau on IG

Wrapping up

Today, an average Armenian person knows Armenian, Russian, and English, especially in larger cities. Cultural ties and job opportunities are the primary drivers for learning Russian if you live in Armenia. The knowledge of the Russian language among Armenians is deeply rooted in historical, cultural, and geopolitical factors. But today, it’s also because of practical reasons. And the reason is that Russian is still the main language for international business, trade, and diplomatic relations of Armenia. These are the main factors behind why Armenians know Russian.

If you liked this write-up, you might want to learn more about our culture. Read this one on 8 facts about Armenian culture and maybe this one about the Armenian language. In my blog, I try to unveil new and new sides of Armenian culture for you. Hope I explained clearly the topic of why Armenians know Russian. And, if you like my writing, let me know about it on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips.

Featured image credit: Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash (edited)

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