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Russian Schooling Still Prized in Kyrgyz South

Russian is still an essential lingua franca at home and abroad, but Kyrgyz and Uzbek parents often opt for Russian schooling because the teaching is better.
By Kamil Satkanbaev
Increasing numbers of parents in southern Kyrgyzstan are sending their children to Russian-language schools instead of those where the teaching medium is Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

Some observers attribute the soaring popularity of Russian-language schools to the constant flow of labour migrants both to Russia itself and to Kazakstan where the language is vital for jobseekers.

Teachers in the south of Kyrgyzstan say classes taught in Russian is also due to the inferior standard of education on offer at Kyrgyz and Uzbek schools.

Russian remains an important language in Kyrgyzstan a decade and a half after the end of Soviet rule. As well as the Slav minority, who mainly live in the north of the country, many Kyrgyz and other ethnic groups are fluent in Russian. In the south of the country, Uzbek, related to Kyrgyz, is another important language.

Since independence in 1991, the authorities have made efforts to promote the use of Kyrgyz as the national language, especially for official purposes, although they have been careful not to marginalise Russian.

But in spite of these attempts to foster pride in Kyrgyz, many parents in the south of the country are opting for schools and kindergartens where some or all classes are taught in Russian.

In the city of Osh, for example, most children go to Uzbek schools, followed by Russian and then Kyrgyz. But in the last year alone, demand for classes conducted in Russian has led to these being introduced at three more schools which previously were monolingual in Kyrgyz or Uzbek. Of the city’s 54 schools, nine are Russian-only, 12 teach classes in both Kyrgyz and Russian, and another 12 use Uzbek and Russian. The city also has 28 Russian kindergartens.

Asan Artykbaev, the head of school and pre-school education at the Osh city education department, attributes the change to the increasing numbers of people leaving for Russia and Kazakstan to take advantage of the better employment prospects there. When whole families are planning to go instead of just the male householder, they want their children to have a head start in Russian.

Zair Turtumamatov, a former maths teacher who now owns a mini-market in the Russian city of Samara, left to find work with his wife and children seven years ago.

“Our children don’t have a future in Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “Now two of my daughters go to school in Samara, and two years ago they received Russian citizenship.”

Turtumamatov said fluency in Russian makes it much quicker to find a job there. His wife, for example, now earns 250 US dollars a month as a housekeeper and nanny – ten times the amount she used to make as a primary school teacher in Kyrgyzstan.

Myrzabek Toichuev, another migrant, said a knowledge of Russian opens up more job options and offers higher earnings.

“Those who know Russian can work as waiters, as superintendents on building sites, or as bus and taxi drivers. Those who don’t – and there are many of them – go to work as builders, but not everyone is up to that kind of job,” he said.

In Kazakstan, too, Russian is the key to success, according to Kalicha Hamidova from Osh.

“Many Kazaks, particularly those living in the capital and regional centres, don’t speak their mother tongue, and prefer Russian,” she said.

Gulchehra Ziyoeva, who works as a seamstress in the Kazak city of Almaty, said she was planning to move her children there from Kyrgyzstan, where they are currently at school.

“It would be difficult for them to find a job after school there [in Kyrgyzstan]. In Kazakstan, they will be able to earn a living when they grow up,” she explained.

Jenish Toichuev was a teacher for 12 years after graduating as a Russian linguist. Even though he is now a market trader in Osh, he does not regret having specialised in Russian at a time when it was falling out of favour.

“When Soviet rule was drawing to a close and Russian stopped being popular, I nevertheless went to study at the philology faculty. Then the Soviet Union collapsed,” he recalled. “But I was convinced that Russian would continue to play an important role for a long time to come. And I wasn’t wrong.”

Toichuev has sent his children to a school that offers classes taught through Russian. This is partly because the outlook for Russian is good as it is still so widely used in literature, on street signs, and in government and parliament; but also because the teaching is of a higher standard.

Azam Abdurazakov, the headmaster at an Uzbek-language secondary school in Osh, regrets that he did not do the same.

“I admit that the quality of teaching at Russian schools is much higher than it is here. This [also] applies to all the Kyrgyz schools in our city,” he said.

“I regret not sending my own children to a Russian school. They’ve forgotten the grounding in the language that they received at kindergarten.”

According to Abdurazakov, the difference in the quality of education becomes apparent when inter-school competitions are held – the children from Kyrgyz-language schools invariably come last.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the Kyrgyz schools are so poorly equipped. “They don’t even have laboratory classes for chemistry, physics and other subjects,” he said. “The children only receive theoretical knowledge. And that’s true of all the natural sciences. If there are no lab classes, how will the poor children know what chemistry is?”

The Uzbek schools are especially under-resourced when it comes to teaching materials, according Abdurazakov. They are short of textbooks printed in Uzbek even though school headmasters have repeatedly asked parliamentary deputies to provide more.

“For every ten books published for the Russian schools, there is one for Uzbek schools,” he said.

One member of parliament, Kamchibek Tashiev, said that the failure to produce Uzbek-language books in Kyrgyzstan has meant teaching materials are imported from neighbouring Uzbekistan. The danger there, he said, is that the textbooks come with all the ideological baggage of a foreign country.

“We must not allow the ideology of another state to be disseminated in the schools. We must publish books containing the history and ideology of our own country,” he told journalists.

Paizylat Ikramova, a teacher at a school in the Naukat district of Osh region, said many parents were unhappy with the quality of the books that are published in Kyrgyzstan. They see them as inferior to the material used in Russian-language schools, which is imported.

“They leave a lot to be desired and contain numerous errors. Parents see this, and so many of them prefer to send their children to Russian schools,” she said.

Another factor that hampers Kyrgyz-language schools is the shortage of qualified staff, especially in rural areas.

Artykbaev said many of the students attending teacher-training college go off to work abroad once they graduate. Many will take blue-collar jobs rather than work as teachers in Russia, but they can still earn six times as much as a teacher in Kyrgyzstan.

Abdulhak Abdumalikov, a lecturer at the Batyrov University in Jalalabad, said that as a result, many schoolteachers were forced to give classes in subjects for which they never trained, simply because there is no one else to do it. “This doesn’t happen at the Russian-language schools, and that’s perhaps why everyone aspires to send their children there. They offer a high standard of education,” he said.

At the same time, Abdumalikov is concerned about the cultural values children from the Kyrgzy and Uzbek communities are exposed to when they attend Russian schools. They may end up with views and values that are not seen as appropriate in their own community’s culture, and Abdumalikov believes there is a risk of confused identities.

“After graduating from a Russian school, Kyrgyz and Uzbek boys end up as neither one thing nor the other,” he said. “Their level of knowledge may be much higher, but it’s hard to tell whether they are Russian, Kyrgyz or Uzbek.”

Kamil Satkanbaev is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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