TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. September 2010

Sektion 2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Meryem Şen (Kocaeli University, Turkey), İmran Karabağ

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Russia in the XXI century:
changes in culture, communication, and language(1)

Tatiana Larina (Moscow, Russia) [BIO]




The transformation of social and economic aspects of modern Russia along with her orientation to the West affects all realms of human activity including ideology, worldview, cultural values, human relations, communication, and language. This paper points out some of the cultural, communicative, and linguistic transformations resulting from globalization.



The process of globalization, which we are witnessing nowadays, is a result of increased international cooperation and communication. It affects not only the  material aspects of life, (we wear the same clothes, eat the same food, drive the same cars, and use the same toothpaste), but all realms of human activity including ideology, worldview, cultural values, type of human relations, language and communication. It is a complicated, controversial process which is a natural consequence of the increased contact that exists  between people and countries. As M. Guirdham said, ‘Cultures are nothing more than common ways of thinking and acting, which develop because of relatively isolated within-group communication. Cultures differ from one another because there is less contact between cultures than within them. If everybody communicated with people outside their culture as much as they do with people within it, cultures would soon disappear’ [Guirdham 1999: 60]. Hopefully this  will never happen but at the same time, we should perceive changes in our cultures as the logical result of our contemporary dynamic way of life.

This process intensifies in periods of transformation in societies. Modern Russia is a vivid example. Social, political and economic transformations in Russia, characteristic of the last two decades, have affected all aspects of life. I will point out some of them in the interrelated areas of culture, language and communication.


Changes in cultural values

Traditionally Russia has belonged to the collectivist type of culture where strong interpersonal links, solidarity, interdependence, and the interests of the group prevailed over independence, personal goals and individuality. But nowadays we can observe considerable changes in the minds of people, especially of the younger generation who perceive themselves more as autonomous individuals independent of groups rather than members of them. They are more career-orientated, and interested in their own individual growth and achievements. Personal goals influence their actions and behaviour. Values of collectivist culture are being supplanted by individualistic values and this often causes difficulties in communication and makes the generation gap wider.

While discussing the key differences of individualist and collectivist cultures proposed by Geert Hofstede [Hofstede 1984, 1991] postgraduate students (30+), or those who come from small towns, tend to favour collectivist characteristics though they accept that the attitude to them is changing and that they are less typical of Russia nowadays than they used to be.  The younger students whose social consciousness was formed after perestroika, without any doubt, suggest that individualistic characteristics are more typical of the Russian culture and sometimes are even surprised to hear that some of their classmates or the teacher have another opinion and share opposite cultural values. So these facts prove that on the scale of collectivism / individualism Russia is drifting from collectivism towards individualism. For young Russians who have learned  to think in terms of ‘I’, ‘individual interests prevail over collective interests’, ‘everyone has a right to privacy’, ‘everyone is expected to have a private opinion’, ‘identity is based on the individual’, ‘hiring and promotion decisions are supposed to be based on skills and rules only’, ‘task prevails over relationship’ and so on.


Changes in communication

The process of democratization and some changes in cultural values affect communication and communicative style.
I would point out several  aspects concerning:

The level of formality. The Russian style of communication compared with the English one can be called, in the terms of Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey [Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey 1990],  more status-oriented rather than person-oriented which is typical of collectivist cultures.  However there are some noticeable changes which suggest that it is getting less formal.

Traditionally Russian communication is characterized by a greater level of power distance compared with Western cultures and tends to be more formal.  In asymmetrical (unequal) contexts, addressing a person who is older or has a higher status by his/her first name is mostly unacceptable. As respect of status (and age) is one of the traditional Russian cultural values it is perceived as over-familiar and impolite. The Russian language offers a greater variety of forms of address than English including vy (vous) pronoun and patronymic names which added to the first name make it more formal and respectful (Victor Nickolayevich / Vladimir Ivanovich / Maria Petrovna). Such combined forms of address (first name + patronymic name) are used in asymmetrical situations and demonstrate a respect of the status or of the age of the interlocutors. They sound less formal and distant than honorific names (Gospodin Nikitin / Gospozha Nikitina which correspond to Mr. / Mrs. Nikitin), but more formal and respectful than a bare first name (Victor / Vladimir / Maria).

The fact that the Russian style of communication is more formal compared with the English one and can be called status–oriented is easily explained through cultural differences. According to Hofstede in collectivist cultures Powerful people try to look as impressive as possible, in individualist cultures Powerful people try to look less powerful [Hofstede 1991: 43].

But nowadays the situation in Russia has been changing as can be evidenced by the following:

These facts show that the terms of address in asymmetrical situations are getting less formal and the Russian style of communication is getting more person and not status – oriented.

The degree of imposition. Another vivid characteristic of the Russian communicative style is a high level of imposition. Traditionally it is more direct in comparison with the English one. Imperative is the most conventional form used in so called Face Threatening Speech Acts (FTAs) – request, invitation, advice, suggestion etc. There are different reasons for that. One of them is that due to collectivist values, these Acts are not so threatening by themselves in Russian culture. Besides an Imperative modified by пожалуйста (‘pozhaluysta’please) does not sound as demanding and imposing as in English. Russian 'pozhaluysta’ (please) seems to have a stronger pragmatic meaning than in English and easily transforms directives into requests. Thus the Russian model Дай мне ту книгу, пожалуйста (Day mne tu knigu, pozhaluysta Give me that book, please) should be characterized as a polite request (typical of the neutral level of politeness) but not as a command. An imperative modified by ‘please’ is the most frequent form employed to make a request. Indirect utterances Не могла бы ты подать мне ту книгу?(Ne mogla by ty podat’ mne tu knigu? Could you give me that book?) are also possible but, as they sound more formal and distant, they are considered to be more appropriate for a high register of communication (for formal level of politeness) and mostly appear at formal level. They are hardly ever used in interactions between equals (friends, students); neither are they used by those who have more power (parents talking to children, teachers addressing students, etc.) [for more details see Larina 2003, 2006].

Nowadays as people have started to value their independence and individuality more, they are becoming less tolerant of verbal imposition. They tend to use an indirect style more often – Could you do that instead of Do that, please. This trend affects not only the language forms but the Speech Acts themselves. Young people have become less tolerant and perceive advice as an imposition. Traditionally giving advice in Russian culture is a positive rather than a negative activity, a sign of involvement and solidarity. In giving advice, people want to help rather than interfere.

Public notices are another example. They have become less direct and imposing than they used to be. Instead of traditional Не курить (Ne kurit’ Don’t smoke) (literally ‘Not to smoke’ which sounds in Russian even more direct than imperative) one can see У нас не курят (U nas ne kuriat) (which can be roughly translated as No smoking here and which is often followed by Thank you). Instead of Закрыто (Zakryto Closed) on doors of shops, banks etc. one can see notices giving explanations and apologies: Закрыто на ремонт. Извините за доставленные неудобства(Zakryto na  remont. Izvinite za dostavlennye neudobstvaWe are closed because of redecoration. Apologies for any inconvenience caused). Apology notices can be seen near construction sites: Здесь ведется строительство новой станции метро. Приносим извинение за доставленные неудобства (Zdes’ vediotsia stroitel’stvo novoy stanciyi metro. Prinosim izvineniye za dostavlennye neudobstva   A new metro station is being built here. We apologise for any inconvenience caused).  Such notices are new in Russian culture. They demonstrate the growth of respect being shown to the public and the increase of the role of phatic communication. The latter can be evidenced in other ways too.

Role of phatic communication. Russian style of interpersonal communication is traditionally more direct and explicit compared with English.  Russian interlocutors express their communicative intentions in a more direct way and usually say what they mean (as truth and sincerity are among the most important Russian cultural values). They are more concerned with the meaning rather than the form. Thus their communicative style can be called message – oriented.

English speakers put the main emphasis on the form of the utterance. They are more concerned with the hearer’s interests and the notion of face.  Their style can be called hearer-oriented and form-oriented. Jenny Thomas [Thomas 1983] gave an interesting example of these differences. She noticed that the utterance X, would you like to read?, which in an English classroom would be a highly conventionalized polite request / directive to do so, in a Russian classroom often elicited the response no, I wouldn’t (from students who had no intention of being rude, but who genuinely thought that their preferences were being consulted) [Thomas 1983: 101]. This difference in the style of communication provokes a lot of difficulties in interaction and leads to serious misunderstanding.

But nowadays Russian expressions are also getting more implicit and less meaningful. The expressions of greeting and parting are examples of this new trend. The greeting  Как дела? (Kak dela? How are you?), which traditionally used to be a question and an honest answer was expected, is nowadays more a signal of acknowledgement of others similar to English How are you. It has become a conventional way of greeting and the response to it is expected to be short and positive. The parting formula Увидимся (Uvidimsia We will see each other) no longer conveys that the speaker intends to arrange a meeting with the hearer. Nowadays it has the same meaning as See you which is a conventional expression of parting. Берегите себя (Beregite sebia Take care) has also become less meaningful. Traditionally it has been used by close relatives on serious occasions (before a long trip or parting for a long time).  Now these words are used by TV and radio news presenters at the end of programmes. They have lost their semantic meaning and have changed into a phatic expression which just means goodbye.

These trends prove that the role of phatic communication is increasing and that if this process continues the Russian communicative style may lose its characteristic of being message–oriented.

The change of the prestige value of language is another modern trend manifested by the increase in the use of substandard language, slang and swear words which are getting more acceptable and penetrate easily from the low level of the language into the neutral one. Brown and Levinson, the authors of the book ‘Politeness some universals of language usage’ [Brown & Levinson 1987], recommend to Use Hearer's language or dialect as a positive politeness strategy. They call it an ‘in-group code language’ [Brown & Levinson 1987: 124], which helps to demolish interpersonal borders and accelerate the communication. Some authors claim that slang and even swear words are also markers of ‘involvement’, ‘intimacy’, ‘affiliation’ [Eggins & Slade 1997: 144]. ‘Involvement includes the use of vocatives, slang, anti-language and taboo words (bloody / shitty / fucking)’ [ib: 124]. They claim that these words have different functions. They can be used as ‘appraisal items’ – Reminded me of my wife. She was bloody silly too; as ‘amplification resources’ – ‘You’ve got a mouthful of bloody apple-pie there’) and as resources of involvement’(Autonomous expressions of swearing (Bloody hell!) are considered resources of involvement’ [ib: 135]. This means that traditional norms are changed by new norms and even swearing nowadays is considered to be quite acceptable among equals in a friendly conversation. Swear words have lost their meaning and are used in a phatic way.

This trend characteristic of English speaking countries (about swearing in Australian English see Wierzbicka 1991) may become universal. The latest facts prove it. Though the Russian language has a vast vocabulary of swear words they are still taboo in many contexts. They are not given in general dictionaries and as a rule they are characteristic of the speech of uneducated lower class members. But nowadays usage of these words is becoming more commonplace: they can be heard in the speech of well-educated people (in private conversations), can be encountered in books of some modern writers and are sometimes used by educated women. That was absolutely unacceptable 1 2 decades ago.

Substandard language is used nowadays by journalists – people whose language is supposed to follow the norm: тусовка, разборка, беспредел, наезд, халява, забить, кинуть (tusovka, razborka, bespredel, naezd, haliava, zabit’. kinut’ etc.). Elements of it appear frequently in the public speeches of  politicians of the highest rank including the president. The last conference of President Putin (14.02.2008) is a vivid example of this. Talking to journalists from all over the world and addressing the whole country, he felt free to use the language which according to the Russian norm is not acceptable in official public speeches: я пахал как раб на галерах (ya pahal’ kak rab na galerah); это их хотелки все  (eto ih hotelki vsio), пусть жену свою учат щи варить (pust’ zhenu svoyu uchat schi varit’);  не ныть и не пускать слюни (ne nyt’ y ne puskat’ sliuni);все выковыряли из носа и размазали по бумажкам (vsio vykovyriali iz nosa y razmazali po bumazhkam) [Kommersant].  The register and modality of his speech insulted intellectuals and were barely acceptable to the man on the street for whom the leader of the country traditionally should be setting an example rather than trying to be like him.

Summing up the transformations in Russian communicative style I’d like to emphasize that

These changes reveal interesting and opposing tendencies – the democratization of the language on the one hand and the respect to individuals on the other.

Borrowings. As for modern changes affecting the structure of the language, the most significant of them is borrowing. Globalization has resulted in numerous borrowings mainly from the English language which has obtained the status of the global language and whose expansion, influence and role nowadays is enormous. These words have infiltrated from different domains: political, economic, technical, cultural, educational etc.

Researchers point out this process as the most significant and emphasize the fact that these new words are actively used in many areas of modern life [Krysin 2004: 184]. Some of them were borrowed before, but now they are actively used. This process was inspired (stimulated) by political, economic and social changes; the widening of international contacts; and integrative processes on all levels.

Changes in political life have led to the active use of such words as парламент, премьер-министр, вице-премьер, спикер, префект, мэр, электорат, лоббист, импичмент, инаугурация, саммит (parliament, prime-minister, vice-premier, speaker, prefect, mayor, electorate, lobbyist, impeachment, inauguration, summit) etc. They have been transliterated and adapted to suit Russian phonetics.

Economic changes such as the orientation to western economic and financial systems gave impetus to the adoption of numerous international terms. As a result, the Russian language has got such words as аудит – audit, консалтинг – consulting , брокер – broker, дилер – dealer, маркетинг – marketing, инвестор – investor, дистрибьютор – distributor, рекрутинг – recruiting, фьючерс – futures, лизинг – leasing, логистика –  logistics  and many others.

Computer technologies is another source of borrowing: дисплей– display, файл –file, сайт - site, вебсайт – Website, Интернет– internet, винчестер – Winchester, хакер –  hacker, принтер – printer, scanner – сканер, байт – byte  etc.

Active adoption of foreign words is observed in the entertainment industry. In modern Russian there are a lot of borrowed words which have become common:шоу бизнес – show business, ток-шоу – talk show, шоумен – show man, дискотека – discotheque, жокей – jockey, римейк – remake, казино – casino, триллер –  thriller, фитнес центр –  fitness centre, карцентр – car centre, джек-пот – jackpot , пейнтбол –  paintball etc.

There are traditionally a great number of borrowings in the area of sport. There are two reasons for this. The first one is quite reasonable: a new kind of sport becomes popular and the terminology is inherited:бодибилдинг – body building, виндсерфинг– windsurfing, бобслей – bobs lay, скейтборд – skateboard, армрестлинг – arm-wrestling, фристайл – free style, кикбоксинг – kickboxing, керлинг – curling. The second one deals more with fashion, when Russian words are pushed out by English words. The words голкипер – goalkeeper, овертайм – overtime, рефери – referee, хавбек – halfback are preferred to the originalRussian words with the same meaning:вратарь, добавочное время, судья, полузащитник.

Another area is the restaurant business: Макдональдс McDonald’s, пиццерия – pizzeria, стейкхаус – steakhouse, grill bar – гриль бар, паб – pub not to mention the names of dishes and drinks.

All the words listed above have been borrowed and transliterated. Some words are borrowed and then translated: горячая линия – hot line, утечка мозгов –  brain drain, мыльная опера – soap opera, отмывать деньги – to launder money, шоковаяя терапия – shock therapy etc.

How should this trend be analysed? There are positive and negative aspects to it. On the one hand borrowing is an important way of expanding vocabulary and in many situations it is quite reasonable. For example, when new objects appear and they already have a name they are borrowed with their names: компьютерcomputer, принтер – printer, факс–  fax, плеер – player etc. But there are a lot of borrowed words which have their Russian equivalents but which are pushed out by the English words because they are considered more fashionable: отель(hotel) – гостиница, сервис (service) – обслуживание, бренд(brand) – торговая марка, спонсор (sponsor) – меценатt, тинэйджер (teenager) – подросток, сертификат (certificate) – свидетельство, киллер (killer) – убийца, секьюрити (security) – охранаetc.This is a phenomenon of language fashion which can hardly be regarded as something positive. Texts overloaded with borrowed words are difficult to understand and if the readers or listeners do not know the English language it is an extremely onerous task.


Whether all these transformations and changes (cultural, communicative, and linguistic) are positive or negative is a complicated multifaceted and disputable question. But it is a reality which I suppose is characteristic not only of the Russian language and culture. It is a world-wide phenomenon which should be a subject of serious multicultural research and which could reveal some trends for the future development of our civilization.





1  The research is supported by RGNF, project № 050705-2-589


2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive

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For quotation purposes:
Tatiana Larina: Russia in the XXI century: changes in culture, communication, and language – In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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