Russian: Language of a Transforming World
Russia is a huge, wildly vast and ambitious country that has impacted world history continuously with its magnificent literature, political intensity, and continuing economic transformation. Torn between an unrepentant and authoritarian oligarchy and vital yet volatile market forces inspiring an emerging generation of entrepreneurs, Russia is struggling to strut upon the world stage as an economic superstar.
While it has not yet reached its goals, there is no question that Russian will be a very important language of international business as the years unfold. No one can afford to ignore Russia or the Russian Language.
After the Soviet Union
Since the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been in an unprecedented period of economic change. Lifted from the economic stagnation of the Soviet era and freed to lurch forward reinventing itself, the way has not always been simple nor easy. There has been corruption, hyperinflation, and rising crime amidst the initially haphazard privatization of major state-owned firms. Freed from state ownership these firms were turned over from state control to politically connected individuals who soon became “oligarchs” in a program of radical, market-oriented reform that was known by then President Yeltsin as “shock therapy”. The results were often disastrous and led to a deepening financial crisis in 1998. However, from that point of crisis forward the economic health of Russia improved dramatically as economic reforms like a flat tax of 13% were enacted and broad deregulation of small and medium businesses spurred positive and robust economic growth. Disposal income has increased eightfold in dollar terms and poverty has been reduced from 30% in 2000 to 14% in 2008. When you think about how far Russia has come in a relatively short period of time since the Soviet era, these statistics are actually quite astonishing.
As Russia’s economy has continued to emerge as a burgeoning force in international business, the path is still not always smooth. Many extreme challenges remain today including the devaluation of the Russian Ruble. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his (denied yet suspected) militarism toward Ukraine have led to economic sanctions from the EU, Japan, Canada, and the United States. These sanctions have continued to impact Russia’s economy and the whole world watches nervously as it gyrates and oscillates toward a crash. However, even in these uncertain moments, it is important to remember that history has shown that Russia is resilient.
Pepsi, Energy and McDonald’s
Russian has a dynamic economy although energy is dominant with 70% of its total exports being petroleum products, oil or gas. Pepsi is a star in Russia where it has its largest market share outside the US with around $5 billion in annual revenue. McDonald’s is also popular with 413 restaurants and $2.5 billion in revenue. Altogether, Russia remains a critical market for many large American banks, American retail, construction, and energy companies.
Russia’s economy is also entwined tightly with that of the EU; it is Moscow’s largest trading partner with $460 billion dollars worth of business being transacted, much of it in the energy sector.
The Russian language is highly homogenous
During the Soviet era, the Russian language was standardized. Compulsory education and the mass migration from rural areas to urban areas also homogenized the language in terms of dialect variation. Though the country is vast with an enormous distance between East and West, the standard Russian language is used in written and spoken form nearly everywhere from Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg in the West to Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the East. However, this does not mean that there is no regional variation at all in dialect. Southern, Northern, and Central (Moscow) variations do exist though the overall standardization is still extant.
A unique feature of Russian is the use of a Cyrillic alphabet consisting of 33 letters. This difference alone makes Russian a challenging language for native English speakers to master as well as for anyone to learn who uses the Latin alphabet.
Spoken all around the world and in space
Russian is spoken by around 259.8 million native speakers. These include speakers not only in Russia but in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as Western Europe. Russian is also spoken in the United States and Israel by ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is also spoken in Latin America, Asia, Northern Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Russia is the 6th largest language in the world.
Interestingly, Russian is one of two official languages spoken aboard the International Space Station. English is the other. However, because the Russian Federal Space Agency is managing space flight to and from the International Space Station, all new astronauts are required to learn Russian first before they embark on their space travels.
Russia is still changing
When doing business with Russia, it is important to remember that the country is still in a state of great economic and cultural flux. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has created a generation gap in management styles. Younger business people may be more influenced by emerging non-hierarchical or less directive management styles in vogue in the west, while older business people may still be more comfortable with direct communication that is top-down and where expectations are clear. Navigating these conflicting styles signals the need for special consideration of generational differences when approaching international business projects in Russian.
As Russia morphs from a static state-run economy into a dynamic, market-driven economy – the Russian language also travels along that arc of transformation, becoming increasingly vital as a major language of international business. Chang-Castillo and Associates can help your company stay on top of these changes and in direct communication with Russian speakers and readers the whole world over.