MOSCOW — Muscovite Polina Pevneva first flew to London to study English nine years ago — a long-ago era when ambitious young Russians packed planes in the summertime to practice language skills and build a future with the West.
When Pevneva repeats the trip later this summer, it will be a far lonelier journey, because the number of Russians studying English abroad has dropped dramatically. So too have hopes for Russia’s Western path. Summers studying English in Britain’s quaint villages had become rites of passage for young middle-class Russians. But summertime enrollments of Russians at many British schools are as little as half what they were a year ago.
For many Russians, the weakened ruble has made studies abroad impossible. Some parents fear their children will face anti-Russian harassment. Others — including Russia’s culture minister — say that Russians have neglected their own language in their quest to learn another.
The diminished numbers could have long-term ramifications, even after the current tensions simmer down. For more than two decades, study-abroad programs have allowed Russians to soak up a Western way of life and bring it home. But the newest generation will have fewer opportunities to build their language skills. In an era when Russian media offers a sharply anti-Western take on world news, the ability to speak English gives Russians another perspective.
“Maybe not all people need to know it very well,” said Pevneva, 20. “But Russian people and people all over the world need to understand the English language to communicate.”
Pevneva, who is studying international relations at Russia’s state university for aspiring diplomats, said one of her best friends had wanted to study in Britain in the summer. The friend couldn’t afford it after the ruble lost a third of its value against the British pound in the past year. Over the winter, when many Russians were making their summer plans, the ruble was even weaker than it is now.
When Pevneva studied for two weeks in London last summer, she encountered few Russians. This year they will be even rarer. The trend is good for concentrating on English, with fewer Russians with whom to lapse back into her native tongue, but she said that last year “I missed Russia and Russian people.”
The school where Pevneva plans to study, International House London, says that its enrollment of adults aged 18 to 35 is down by a quarter this year but that the number of younger students has increased.
Pevneva’s own path has altered as Russia has shifted its ambitions. Her foreign studies have been enough to give her the rounded vowels of a plummy English accent, and she planned to focus on English when she started university classes last fall. But with Russia touting its pivot to Asia in a rejection of the West, her advisers persuaded her to focus on Chinese in her courses instead. She now packs English studies into her free time.
“English of course is important, but China is a great country now, and our countries have really good relations,” she said.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Britain has been a top destination for wealthy Russians. A torrent of Russian wealth has driven up property prices in London’s toniest neighborhoods. Even among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western inner circle, many have sent their children to British boarding schools. Most parents prefer Britain to the United States because Moscow is just a 3
But Putin has pushed Russians to repatriate their wealth, and as the conflict with the West has worsened, ties to Europe and the United States have come to be seen as almost subversive. School trips that might once have been to Paris or London are now to Sochi or Crimea, encouraged by Russian leaders to give those economies a boost. In the fall, Russia cut its participation in a long-running State-Department-funded high school exchange program that gave teenagers the chance to study for a year in American schools.
And some of Russia’s top leaders have been urging a reduction in the amount of time spent on foreign languages, bolstering Russian instruction instead.
“We increasingly learn foreign languages now, and this is of course fine,” Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said last year. “But it should not be to the detriment of learning the Russian language, our literature and, I stress, our common history.”
British language schools have scrambled to respond to the drop in enrollments, since they have benefited from the flow of Russian students, who saw an aristocratic accent as a marker of privilege. One large chain, Skola, announced this winter that it was freezing many of its fees at old exchange rates, in effect cutting its prices in pounds. Others are simply hoping the change is temporary. And some agencies within Russia that arranged study abroad programs say they are shifting to promote Russian language studies at home for migrant workers. The number of Russians applying for short-term student visas to Britain was down 70 percent in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, according to British government statistics.
“Every school is seeing an impact. Everything boils down to the ruble,” said Matthew Tighe, the managing director of Bucksmore Education, which offers English lessons to summer students in the ancient college classrooms of Cambridge and Oxford. Russians had always been the top nationality at the school, he said, but this year they have slipped to third or fourth place.
“Most schools are experiencing a fall of about 30 to 40 percent,” he said.
Some Russian students say that the experience of studying abroad has opened new worlds to them — and that they regret that fewer of their peers are taking part.
When Elizaveta Kuzmina, 18, spent her first summer in Britain studying English two years ago, she said she tried to find Russians to socialize with in her off-hours.
“I was afraid. I was alone without my friends,” she said. But she soon realized that speaking English with people from other countries was the best way to learn quickly. When back in Russia, she loaded up her playlist with English-language music. She binge-watched “Gossip Girl” and “Breaking Bad.”
Kuzmina just spent the school year studying in the city of Oxford at an institute that prepares people for the exams to qualify for entrance to a British university. Every evening before dinner she would open Skype to talk to her family, giving her a window back to her frigid hometown of Chelyabinsk, a central Russian city that is known as the gateway to Siberia.
“They’re two different worlds. Oxford is very posh, English, a very ancient city,” she said. “Chelyabinsk is newer, a lot of tall buildings.”
Over the winter, her mother sent her photos of the Siberian snow, snowmen and snow hills, just to remind her of home. The one time it snowed in Oxford it melted within two hours, but she sent photos right back.
“I wanted to teach her the possibility to open up to the world,” said Kuzmina’s mother, Natalia Kuzmina, 39, a notary in Chelyabinsk. Kuzmina’s mother said she worried that geopolitical tensions might spill over into anti-Russian sentiment toward her daughter.
“But she said there was nothing, and that attitudes were great,” Natalia Kuzmina said.