Speaking the Same Language: Syrians Learn Russian
Syrians seem to be laying the groundwork for an enduring Russian presence in the country with an increase in Russian language education.
December 15, 2016In Damascus, children sing the Russian alphabet along with animated television characters. In Latakia, Cyrillic letters welcome customers to newly opened bars. Outside Homs, regime forces diligently memorize Russian military vocabulary to communicate with Russian sponsors. In Idlib, opposition groups follow suit so that they can eavesdrop. Two generations ago, Syrian exchange students returned from the Soviet Union with Russian under their belt. Now, many are learning Russian without leaving the country.
Last year, Syrian government schools gave students the option to fulfill their foreign language requirement with Russian instead of French. Officials are scrambling to recruit enough staff for the popular program. Twice as many schools offer Russian this year compared to last year, and some teachers report that class sizes in Russian programs are twice as large as intended. Many teachers are Syrian alumni of Soviet-era university programs or Russian women married to Syrians.
Opportunities for older students are also emerging. Russian news agencies have trumpeted the establishment of the Russian Language and Literature Department at the University of Damascus, which welcomed 75 new students this year. Russian media has also flaunted plans for a private Russian language institute outside the capital.
Moscow, which is habitually chilly toward Syrian asylum seekers, has taken a different approach to Syrian students of Russian. The Russian government will award 278 scholarships for Syrians to study in Russia in the 2016-2017 school year, almost triple the number awarded the previous year.
While Russia’s future strategy in Syria remains uncertain, the country seems to be laying the groundwork for an enduring Russian presence.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.