It's been more than a century since a member of the Mebagishvili family of Tbilisi, Georgia, grew up not speaking Russian. Like educated families all over the Russian Empire, the Mebagishvilis viewed the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy as essential for anyone who wanted to get ahead—or to be considered fully civilized. But 20-year-old Helen Mebagishvili, a philosophy and social-science student at Tbilisi's Ilia Chavchavadze University, has chosen English, not Russian, as her first foreign language. She's studying another, too: French. "I do not feel any attachment towards Russia," she says as she packs the shelves of a new university library with Penguin editions of Mark Twain, James Joyce and Charles Dickens. "Once, Russia introduced European ideas to Georgia—but now we have direct access to European ideas."
All across the former Soviet Union, thousands of students are making the same choice—turning away from the Russian language to embrace English, as well as the education standards of Western Europe and America. "Our students want to integrate into the European community rather than keep up with their Russian," says Anatoly Bourban at one of Ukraine's leading universities, Kiev's Mohyla Academy, where courses are taught in Ukrainian and English only. Azerbaijan's leading private university, the Khazar University in Baku, teaches primarily in English and offers U.S.-style M.B.A. courses. So do the Georgian American University and the Black Sea University in Tbilisi, and the American University of Central Asia, based in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, which also offer Western syllabi and Western standardized tests—in part in order to enable their students to pursue studies abroad. "I have been watching the Russian language disappear in Georgia since 1992," says Prof. Charles Fairbanks of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, who teaches a course on great books at Chavchavadze University six months a year. "Now only one third of my students can read Russian," he says. "The majority communicate and read fluently in English."
The implications extend far beyond the classroom. The language and culture in which people educate their young say a lot about the world they expect their kids to grow up in. For many members of the elite in Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic republics—and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—the cultural center of gravity is no longer Moscow. "Russia has lost the soft-power war," says the U.S.-educated president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. His government is funding scholarships for 1,000 local students to attend top Western universities, and has recruited 300 U.S. and European professors to teach part time at major Georgian universities. Even Georgian university exam papers are now graded in the United Kingdom, although that's more to prevent corruption in admissions standards.
Many in the West (and in Moscow) see Russia as a resurgent power, pumped up by oil money and flexing its muscles around the world. But as Saakashvili points out, this bravado masks a deeper weakness. Moscow has asserted itself mostly by picking fights with its neighbors—with Ukraine over gas prices, with Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial and with Georgia over two breakaway enclaves supported by Moscow. Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who came up with the term "soft power" to describe the attractiveness of a civilization and its culture, says those "bullying attitudes [are] destroying trust and undercutting [Russia's] soft power in other countries." Ukrainian kids might still listen to Russian pop and go see Russian movies, and an estimated 3 million Ukrainians still go to Russia for work. But a January poll showed that 64 percent of Ukrainians would vote to join the EU—and support for a pro-Russian political bloc has been steadily slipping.
For Russia, the slippage in its cultural pull is an intensely political issue. Many Russians see the changes as part of a culture war waged by Europe and the anti-Moscow leaders of former Soviet states. "We are being kicked out for political reasons. No matter what we try to do, neighboring states have anti-Russian agendas," says Aleksandr Khomenko, head of cultural programs at RosZarubezhCenter, a body set up by the Russian Foreign Ministry to promote the study of Russian abroad. According to Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based media expert, Russians have "drawn their own lessons from studying how U.S. NGOs like the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House are helping to project American soft power." Russia's new strategy is based on "building pro-Russian constituencies in post-Soviet societies," says Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. Last year the Kremlin founded Russki Mir, a grant-dispensing body that gives away $22 million a year to champion the Russian language. It is headed by veteran Kremlin adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov, who says that worldwide interest in the Russian language is far from dead: last September, for instance, Russki Mir participated in a symposium of 1,500 Russian-language teachers in Varna, Bulgaria. By the end of this year, the group plans to open as many as 15 Russian-language centers in ex-Soviet and Western countries.
Simply promoting the Russian language may not be enough to reverse hostile attitudes toward Moscow. A study last year by Lithuania's Civil Society Institute found that more than 60 percent of the country's population knew Russian (versus only 17 percent who spoke English), and many listened to Russian television and radio. Yet two out of three Lithuanians thought Russia was "the most hostile country" to their own. Russian is the EU's seventh most widely spoken language—yet, says a recent Swedish Defense Research Agency report, there has been a "backlash" against Russia even among ethnic Russian populations inside the EU. For the younger generation like Mebagishvili and her fellow student Tomuna Gamkredze, though, geopolitics are less important than their career prospects. "Our generation needs English; it is the universal language," says Gamkredze, 17, as she helps her friend stack books. "I would very much want to learn to speak Russian one day, as whether we want it or not, Russia will always be our big neighbor." At least, for the first time in generations, she has the choice.