Russia's Asia pivot spurs boom in Chinese classes

ChineseFirst language centre co-founder Wang Yinyu teaching a Chinese class for adults in the town of Reutov, outside Moscow. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW - Every Sunday, Chinese tutor Kirill Burobin begins work in the early morning and is kept busy until midnight.

As Russia seeks to tighten ties with China amid Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine, the number of his students has tripled over the past year.

“Sunday is the busiest,” Mr Burobin, 20, who makes a good living with his online lessons, told AFP.

“I have 16 hours of classes, virtually without a break.”

The boom in demand for Chinese lessons in Russia illustrates the country’s pivot towards Asia as tensions build between Moscow and the West.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Russia, which begins on Monday, aims to deepen what the two countries have called a “no-limits” relationship, which is increasingly important for Russia as its international isolation deepens.

Pummelled by multiple rounds of Western sanctions, Russia’s economic and technological development is becoming more dependent on China.

Ms Natalia Danina, a manager at HeadHunter, the country’s top online recruitment company, said that last year there were nearly 11,000 vacancies requiring knowledge of the Chinese language, a 44 per cent increase compared with 2021.

Over the same period, the number of jobs for Mandarin speakers in Russia has doubled in sales, transport and logistics, said Ms Danina, pointing to an “accelerated transition” to Chinese-made equipment and spare parts.

Demand for Mandarin speakers in energy jobs has tripled, she added.

‘Just the start’

Mr Burobin, who also studies Eastern civilisations at a top Moscow university, said he was happy to help his students learn more about “a whole new world”.

“Russians are taking up Chinese because Beijing has become our main partner for decades to come,” he said. “And this is just the beginning.”

Last August, Avito, Russia’s leading online classified ads platform, reported a 138 per cent increase in requests for Chinese lessons in Moscow in one year. The same figure stood at 350 per cent for the far eastern city of Vladivostok.

The popularity of Chinese classes might be starting to catch up with demand for English lessons in the country.

Ms Alina Khamlova, 26, who teaches both languages, said she had only three English language students this year, compared with 12 who are learning Chinese.

One of her students is Maria, a 22-year-old designer who dreams of travelling to China to make her clothes because it is “cheaper than in Russia”.

Another student is a 25-year-old gym coach, Ivan, who wants to work in China because Europeans “are paid very well” there.

Russian schoolboys attending a Chinese lesson at the ChineseFirst language centre, in the town of Reutov, outside Moscow, on March 17, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Khamlova also said many young people in Russia hope to study in Chinese universities now that many European establishments have become “inaccessible to them”.

While English still retains a dominant position, the number of high school students who chose Chinese as a foreign language during their final school exams has doubled in one year to 17,000, according to state education watchdog Rosobrnadzor.

‘No one will defeat us’

Russia’s growing isolation from the West has prompted many language schools to revise their curricula and invite teachers of the Chinese language.

Founded in 2017, the ChineseFirst language centre has seen twice as many registrations this year, said its co-founders, Mr Wang Yinyu, 38, and his Russian wife Natalia, a 33-year-old Mandarin speaker.

Mr Wang’s family business is booming, and he is planning to open two new branches and a kindergarten in Moscow.

In Russia, “many companies have rushed to Chinese factories to order goods that have become unavailable in Russia due to sanctions”, he told AFP in Russian.

And Chinese entrepreneurs, who are interested in exporting to Russia, are looking for bilingual employees.

Mr Wang is glad that China and Russia are becoming closer.

“China has powerful industry and Russia is rich in resources, which means that our two countries can build their own internal economy,” he said.

“If we stand back-to-back, no one will defeat us.” AFP

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