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Why some Cambodians speak Russian

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Julie Masis

(Read caption) Cambodian Saing Soenthrith shows photos of friends from his Russian university days . He still speaks Russian, which he learned in the 1980's while on a scholarship from the Soviet government.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

A visitor to this small country might be surprised to hear some locals speaking Russian.

This is because the former USSR established a scholarship program in 1982 to send Cambodian students to study in Soviet universities free of charge. Since then, more than 8,000 Cambodians received their degrees in Russia and in the republics of the Soviet Union, according to the Russian Embassy in Cambodia.

Free college education is no longer available to all Russians, but the Russian government still provides funds to send a group of Cambodians to Russian universities every year. It covers full tuition, health insurance, and a stipend for living expenses. There are currently 110 Cambodians studying in Russian post-secondary schools, according to the embassy, a decline from the 1980s, when as many as 500 Cambodians attended Soviet colleges annually, says Sergei Kolesov, the director of the Russian Center of Science and Culture in Cambodia’s capital.

The center, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in February, caters to Russian-speaking Cambodians with a collection of Russian books and movies. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many such centers closed – particularly the centers in Africa, Mr. Kolesov says – but the center in Cambodia still operates in the same building.

One of the people who benefited from an education in the USSR is Saing Soenthrith, an associate editor at a newspaper in Phnom Penh. Had it not been for a Russian scholarship he received in 1983, he never would have gone to university, he says.

Mr. Soenthrith, who still speaks Russian, says his parents were killed during the “Khmer Rouge times” and as a child he found shelter in a Buddhist monastery. After returning to Cambodia from Russia, however, Soenthrith became a teacher and later an editor.

“Sweet memories,” he says, as he looks through heaps of black-and-white photographs, naming his Russian friends and teachers. “I always remember.”

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