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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Annals of Russian Incompetence and Illiteracy

The New York Times Lede blog reports:

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, people would often make pilgrimages to Ulyanovsk, the city about 600 miles east of Moscow that birthed Lenin. These days, the Lenin museum struggles while the city tries to lure foreign investment with an unusual plan.

The Moscow Times reported that the regional governor, Sergey Morozov, has ordered all high level government officials to learn English so they can do a better job of selling the region to foreign companies. The officials will have to take an exam to show their proficiency. And keep taking it, until they pass.

According to, the governor’s drive for better English was prompted by his dismay at the results of a visit by an Ulyanovsk delegation to a real estate conference in Cannes, France. Members of the delegation had difficulty interacting with others at the conference because of their poor or nonexistent English.

The governor described the situation with an old Russian saying, “We are like dogs, we understand everything, but we can’t say anything.” According to an aide, the governor will share his subordinates’ pain and take lessons, because his English “is not so good.”

The city of 600,000 people was once called Simbirsk, but was renamed Ulyanovsk during Communism in honor of Lenin, whose given last name was Ulyanov. Unlike other cities — such as St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad — it has not reverted to its czarist name.

The governor’s initiative has not been well received among some officials, one of whom said, “Nothing sensible will result from this idea … We already work till nightfall, now it seems we’ll be here till morning.” A member of the local legislature, Professor Isaac Greenberg, said that “if the governor thinks a bureaucrat needs more education, then why hire someone who is unqualified?”

Locals, in fact, have gotten used to the governor’s innovative ideas. He has already tested officials on their knowledge of local history and Russian language and threatened to test them on their computer skills. “What’s next?,” one newspaper mused, “are they going to make them retake advanced math or even worse, biology?”

Unlike on the regional level, many Kremlin officials speak decent English, including the president-elect, Dmitri A. Medvedev. President Vladimir V. Putin, who served as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany in the 1980’s, speaks excellent German, though his English is not considered to be strong. Mr. Putin did win praise for giving a speech in English to Olympic officials in 2007, a tactic that was believed to have helped Russia win the right to host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.

However, according to the 2002 census, Russia’s leaders are in the minority. Only 6 percent of Russians speak English, compared to 38 percent in the European Union, 39 percent in neighboring Latvia and 29 percent in Poland.

The level of English proficiency will likely increase as Russians continue to embrace the language of capitalism, hoping that it will help their careers. Many Russians have also come into regular contact with English through the Internet. (Russians have to use Latin letters for their email addresses and web site names because the Internet domain system does not yet recognize Cyrillic.)

Teaching English in Russia is a booming business and often the only requirement for getting such a job is not a college degree or a teaching certificate, but simply being a native English speaker.

While it is doubtful that Lenin would approve of the proliferation of capitalism in his home town, he might not have been against the English lessons. Lenin spoke English and visited London six times between 1902 and 1911, even finding time to admire the British Library.

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