How its language, people changed Ishwardi

12 December, 2021, 10:40 pm

Last modified: 12 December, 2021, 11:06 pm

On a late evening in the last week of November, 32-year-old Liton Hossain was waiting for customers at his makeshift roadside vegetable shop in Natun Haat area of Ishwardi.

In shorts and T-shirts, two foreigners popped up at the shop in front of Green City with 14 nineteen-storey buildings. “Privet” – Liton welcomed his customers with a smile. “Privet”, the customers said in reply, which means “hi” or “hello” in Russian.

Liton said he picked up many Russian words over the past three years to communicate with the foreigners. The name of vegetables and their prices mainly dominate his Russian vocabulary.

A Russian national receives massage after a haircut at a saloon in Ishwardi of Pabna. Photo: TBS


A Russian national receives massage after a haircut at a saloon in Ishwardi of Pabna. Photo: TBS

Even Liton’s 8-year-old son Labib knows how to communicate with the Russians.

“Onion – it is called ‘luk’ in Russian, and beetroot is called ‘svekla’,” little Labib demonstrated his vocabulary.

The father and son learnt the foreign language by watching videos on YouTube and using the knowledge in day-to-day business conversations with the foreigners – around 5,000 Russian citizens who are now constructing the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant at Ishwardi, a small town 161km northeast of Dhaka.

Shops adjacent to Green City and at the upazila headquarters – from clothing stores to eateries to barber shops – all now display signboards in Russian language.

The Russians, who first came to the faraway Bangladesh in 2015, will work until Bangladesh officially takes over the power plant in 2025. But their strong presence has already spread the foreign language in the remote region, brought changes to the lifestyle of the locals and caused a boom to local businesses.

There are some shops on Green City premises but the prices are high there. So, the Russians go shopping for groceries, clothes and food outside of the compound as there are more varieties at much lower rates.

On a regular day, many Russians will be found roaming around at Ishwardi market – a 15-minute drive from their Green City residence. They would be found busy bargaining, walking by the roads, hanging out at the restaurants and browsing groceries at shops.

Businessmen have opened shops close to the housing complex, while chain-shops have started setting up outlets. Last August, retail chain-shop Shwapno opened its outlet at Natun Haat.

Learning a new language is all about business

“In the beginning, I used to face problems in telling them the prices. I would type the numbers on a calculator and show them,” said Liton, who left school when he was a ninth grader.

He said he found English difficult and he was not good at it in school, but now he can say the names of vegetables as well as their prices in Russian with his muscle memory.

Liton, one of the hundreds of shopkeepers and salesmen in Ishwardi, who had very little idea about Russia let alone its language, has picked up the Russian language by hearing from their customers.

“I had never imagined that one day I would have to deal with Russian people here, let alone learn their language,” he said.

He said one of the main benefits of learning Russian is that he can give his customers exactly what they want when they say the names out loud.

“I can also count from 1 to 100 in Russian,” said the vendor, who believes English and Russian languages are very different.

Mehedi Hasan, a salesman at a clothing store at Green City, said he has learnt Russian by speaking to the foreigners. First, he took notes on how Russians pronounce their words, and adjusted accordingly. It took him just three months.

“We are not fluent, yet we know enough to accommodate our customers when they shop,” said Mehedi.

“When they enter the shop, we welcome them in Russian. If they like a product, they will ask the price and say ‘Skolko?’, meaning ‘how much?’. We then say the price in their language like “dvesti” for Tk200 and “Trista” for Tk300,” he added.

“They will first choose the product and then check the labels. It seems they like Italian and Vietnamese products a lot,” Mehedi commented on his customers’ behaviour.

“Russians also like Bangladeshi products very much,” he added.

Learning and speaking the Russian language is not limited to the younger generation, rather older citizens in the area too have picked up the language for their businesses.

Sixty-year-old trader Nazrul Islam runs a superstore named ‘Zensim’ that sells clothing and shoes at the upazila headquarters.

“I learnt the Russian language from my salesmen. If you want to do business with Russians, you better speak their language,” said Nazrul.

‘In love with Bangladesh’

Alex, a tall and brown-haired young man, was browsing through jackets at a fashion outlet in front of the Green City buildings. Born and raised in a Siberian city some 1,000 kilometres from Moscow, the capital of Russia, Alex never thought he would one day come to Bangladesh.

Arriving in the country six months ago, he has already fallen in love with Bangladesh.

“I love the country, especially the people. They are good,” said Alex, in broken English. Alex said he loves Bangladeshi mangoes the most. What he dislikes are garbage dumped by the roads and dilapidated streets.

Though commonly referred to as Russians, people from East Europe and other Central Asian countries such as Ukraine and Belarus are also working in the Rooppur nuclear power project.

Their lifestyle is a matter of curiosity to neighbouring areas. They often visit the area to see and meet the foreigners.

In the afternoon of 28 November, this correspondent met Belarusian citizen Elizabet, her husband and a female colleague during their lunch at a restaurant in front of Green City. They were chatting and laughing while Russian popular singer Islam Itlyashev’s popular track “Sultan Lagachev” was being played in the background.

Elizabet and her husband have been working here for some time. She said she misses her child in Belarus the most.

Dr Mohammad Shawkat Akbar, the managing director of the Nuclear Power Plant Company Bangladesh Limited and project director of the Construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant Project, said, “After Bangladesh takes over the power plant in 2025, some Russians will still be working at the plant for operations and maintenance.”

A business boom

With the arrival of Russians at Ishwardi, business has picked up. Local entrepreneurs rushed to set up cafés and restaurants in the periphery of Green City with Russian dishes.

Around five high-end restaurants and cafés have been set up next to the residential compound where the Russian customers can have soup, salad, grilled chicken with nun and local biriyani. Modern restaurants and cafés targeting the Russians have also mushroomed at the upazila headquarters too.

A number of high-end clothing stores and superstores have also been set up.

With the arrival of the foreigners, vegetable sellers, who used to sell traditional items, switched to items preferable to the Russians.

For example, vegetable seller Liton said he does not sell bottle gourd as his Russian customers do not like it. He sells premium pitaya, which locally goes by dragon fruits, that has a high demand and good prices too.

Some locals said they are in a tight spot with the spiralled prices of essentials and other services due to the Russians.

For example, they said when the Russians get their hair cut or a massage, they pay around Tk200-300 where the regular price for the locals was Tk60.

“If you go to the fish market, you will see them buying big fishes no matter what the prices are. As a result, it has been hard for the locals to afford the same fishes,” said Rafiqul Islam, a local at Natun Haat.

Consequently, they have to go to neighbouring areas to buy those items at a reasonable price.

Sujan, a garment worker at Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, said, “If you want to buy a kilogram of aubergine, now you will have to spend Tk50 – as high as in Dhaka. The price is supposed to be Tk30 as people grow the vegetables right here.”

Before the arrival of Russian in Ishwardi, vegetable vendor Liton only heard the name “Russia” in the World Cup Football matches on TV. He said he knew nothing more about the country than that.

“But now I can negotiate the price with my customers. Often, speaking Russian is easier for me than Bangla now,” said Liton.