Do They Speak Russian in Georgia?

Early in my Georgia Q&A, the following exchange takes place:

Q: And they speak Russian there? A: No. Q: Some other Slavic language? A: No. Q: A language even distantly related to Russian? A: Wrong again, idiot.

I intended for the Q-idiot to be asking about the native language of the Georgians, and indeed Russian is not it. However, a loyal reader pointed out to me that the question “Do they speak Russian in Georgia?” is ambiguous, and could easily be interpreted to mean “Do they speak Russian at all in Georgia?” And in that sense, the answer is yes, many Georgians do speak Russian. Georgians speak so much Russian that I (who know very little Russian) often have trouble getting them to speak to me in Georgian, no matter how much Georgian I use with them. Here is a typical exchange between me and a fruit vendor in the street:

Me: Portukhali ramdeni ari? [How much is the orange?] Vendor: [something in Russian] Me: Rogor? [What?] Vendor: [the same Russian as before] Me: Kartulad? [In Georgian?] Vendor: [the same Russian as before, but holding up five fingers and visibly irritated] Me: Ormotsdaati tetri? [Fifty cents?] Vendor: Da, [same Russian as before].

This is a common experience among non-russophone-foreigners in Georgia, but it is perhaps worse in my case because I look vaguely Slavic.

russian georgian sign

Is this the face of someone who knows Russian? You decide.

It’s easy to see why they should act like this. The Russians conquered lots of peoples over the past two hundred years, and they all used Russian to communicate not just with Russians, but also with each other. Older Georgians, who were accustomed to dealing with everyone from Armenians to Kazakhs in Russian, are unable to believe that anyone would learn their small local language. My guess is that the same is true of older people throughout the former Soviet countries.

russian usage in soviet countries

Knowledge of Russian in former Soviet countries in 2004

Georgians speak Russian with an accent. I don’t know all the features of this accent, but I do know that they often eject Russian consonants, so that Kiev, for instance, is pronounced as K’iev, with a hard, popped k. A Russian-speaking American friend told me that Georgian accents are associated with gangsters in Russia, and sound generally badass. The blogger Russophilia argues that because so many different peoples speak Russian fluently, the distinction between native and non-native speakers is insufficient. Instead, she proposes that speakers of Russian can be 1) native, 2) non-native, or 3) native, but with a non-native accent. Many Georgians probably fall into the third category. If you want to know just exactly how much Russian is used in Georgia and you have a lot of time, try reading this paper. General Stuff About Russian Russian is no longer an official language in Georgia, but it is official, co-official, or regionally official in several former Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and, notably, the “countries” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

russian official language map

Can you find Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Outside of the former Soviet countries, Russian is somewhat well-known in the former Warsaw Pact countries. Elsewhere in Europe, it’s not well-known.

knowldge of russian in eu

I’m pretty sure this unlabeled picture is a map of knowldge of Russian in the EU, but it could be something else.

Russian is a Slavic language. Within that language family, it belongs to the East Slavic group, which also includes Ukranian and Belarusian. The other Slavic groups are West Slavic, which includes Polish and Czecho-Slovak, and South Slavic, which includes Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian.

slavic language map

East Slavic, West Slavic, South Slavic

Due to their history of slavery, colonialism, and unbridled expansion, Russians from different areas have historically intermingled and not been able to stay in one place for very long. Thus Russian, unlike many European languages (and Georgian), has few dialacts. (This is the same reason American English has few dialects.) Slavic languages are typically written using the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets according as whether they are the languages of Catholic or Orthodox countries. Russian is an Orthodox country, so it is written using Cyrillic.

greek roman cyrillic alphabet comparison

The Greek, Roman, and Cyrillic alphabets are pretty much the same.

Because of Russian influence, Cyrillic has often been used to transcribe the languages of Central Asia.

kazakh cyrillic arabic alphabet

An archaic cyrillization of Kazakh

This post is sprawling like the Russian Empire, so I’ll end it here.

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27 thoughts on “Do They Speak Russian in Georgia?

  1. Fascinating. It does not seem that this area of the former SSSR has achieved post-colonial status yet. To use your street vendor as an example: How does he feel about Russia? His use of Russian is, I assume, strictly utilitarian, like the use of English in many areas of the British Empire, past and present, and not indicative of any loyalty.
    Did South Ossetia ever exist as a more autonomous region in our modern, nationalist era? Does Georgia want to protect its land mass, natural resources, or citizens living in Ossetia? Would there not be some benefit to granting Ossetians independence? The two do not seem to be ethnically or linguistically interconnected, but ethnicity is a tricky business. Once people start claiming ethnic purity, ugly things occur. Do South Ossetian Georgian children attend regular South Ossetian school? Is there a natural geographical boundary?
    Though they fought and conquered each other’s lands, and Norway was only officially freed from Sweden in something like 1905 (fact check needed here) the mountains between the two modern nations form a natural, geographical boundary, making the sorting of one land and people, however closely related, simpler than it would otherwise be.
    At what point does it, or does it never, become counterproductive to carve out tiny nations? Being tiny certainly works for Qatar and Singapore. I assume that extreme wealth comes at the expense of neighboring nations and control of citizens. At some point does the existence of many little Macedonias, for example, return us to a more violent (is that possible?!) world of kingdoms and duchies? Or is nationhood, and nationalism, the root of the World Wars, worse?
    It certainly seems, to return to Russian Imperialism, that there must be other areas within that vast territory striving for independence. Being very, very large, however, serves its purpose on the world stage, as it does ours in the U.S.

    • The use of Russian certainly does not indicate any allegiance to Russia. You raise some interesting questions about nationalism, but they would have to be addressed in another post (maybe?). I don’t know as much about it as I would like, and I know a lot less about Ossetia than I do about Abkhazia.

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  4. Came across your blog as I look into travelling the Caucasus.region, and this is very interesting. I just finished a trip across Eastern Europe and across Russia (and I speak Russian), and it was very interesting to find out how people reacted in different regions/countries to speaking Russian. In Western Ukraine, who try very hard to portray themselves as Central European (and completely de-Sovietised), most people strongly dislike speaking Russian, even though everyone understands it. In Moldova, most people speak Russian fluently (even the Romanians), and although irritated that Russian is still dominant, they will speak it without complains. In Bulgaria, the language is similar enough that people understand, but most people didn’t appreciate my Russian at all. Interesting how in Georgia, even with the extreme anti-Russian sentiment, Russian is still the lingua franca.

  5. People like you should be shot. In Georgia Russian must be the language of inter-ethnical communication and you shouldn’t even dare to travel to the former Soviet Union without knowing Russian. You filthy Western fascinated by little languages of little traitors.

    • Ok, ok who do you call traitor? I mean you Russians backstabbed us in 1795 when we had Georgievski agreement that said that you should have helped us if anyone tried to invade us, but you didn’t and Tbilisi was destroyed along with lifes of hundreds of thousand Georgians and since that you have been traiting us over and over, so read some books before you write some bullshit like this .
      p.S it’s our choice whatever language to speak.

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  8. I am a Chinese, an Overseas Chinese (not born in Mainland China) to be precise. This whole language thing is almost the same for the Chinese people. Every province/state, they speak their own local language. My grandpa is from South from China, Guangdong. Everyone in my family and relatives speak Cantonese (Guangdong’s local language). Native/Local peoples in Guangdong speak Cantonese as well, but they all speak Mandarin as well (due to the fact it’s the official language in China). And some people (not all) in the neighbouring provinces in China also can understand Cantonese as well. And Hong Kong is the Cantonese culture hub, produce songs/movies. In fact, Cantonese culture is second most influential after Mandarin. Cheers.

    I founded this:
    “Do Georgia people speak the same language with Russians?”
    https://malaysia.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080818202059AAmVRaL

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  13. Interesting article! Thanks for the information. Especially the useful graphs. A question: is it seen as rude or ignorant to speak Russian with Georgians? In most of the countries I’ve visited many people have English as a second language. Still, it would show the arrogance my country is known for if I were to walk into a shop in France (for instance) and use English without even trying to use French.

  14. Good article. I was a Russian Studies major in the college in the late 1970’s and went to Georgia back in the Soviet days. By the way, two of your maps do not show Georgia!

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