Soviet soldiers are tongue-tied. Fewer soldiers speak Russian, Soviets admit

The Soviet armed forces are running into language problems. The bulk of the forces are made up of members of non-Russian ethnic groups, many of whom, the main military paper Red Star pointed out yesterday, speak little or no Russian.

The admission, a Central Asian source commented yesterday, was a recognition of ``a problem that everyone has known for years, but which no one has wanted to admit: the breakdown of [Russian] language training among minorities.''

With increasing frequency, Red Star writes, commanders run up against people like Uzbek Private Tashtemirov, whose Russian is very weak, or the Georgian Private Georgadze who has a Russian vocabulary of about 10 words. Language training in the average military unit seems largely limited to after-hours classes, organized by the detachment's political officer and staffed by native Russian-speaking soldiers.

The armed forces ethnic makeup faithfully reflects the Soviet Union's national diversity, Red Star says. Forty-three percent of those in the regiment highlighted in yesterday's article are ethnic Russians. Some military units have up to 30 nationalities in them, the paper says, and the number of conscripts from Soviet Central Asia is growing steadily.

Language problems are accompanied by a number of other woes. Conscripts from the same linguistic background or part of the country tend to group together, the paper says. This is something the armed forces try hard to avoid: The dangers of ethnic friction have received considerable attention since the riots in December 1986 in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. The violence followed the appointment of an ethnic Russian to head the republic's Communist Party organization.

Military commanders, therefore, try to spread the ethnic groups evenly throughout their units, Red Star says. In one 10-man squad cited in the article, two squad members were ethnic Russian, and the rest Uzbeks, Bashkirs, Kazakhs, and other minorities. Only six of the 10 were fluent in Russian - something that would seem to make technical maneuvers, not to mention combat, a difficult proposition.

The chances of finding a Russian fluent in another Soviet language are slender: Only 4.7 percent of all ethnic Russians fall into this category, according official statistics.

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