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In most (all?) countries today, the official language for ATC communications is English.

Before the Soviet Union collapsed, what was the official language for ATC communications in Russia and other Warsaw Pact countries? Was it Russian?

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    $\begingroup$ In general ICAO standards are that either the local language or English should be acceptable for ATC useage. $\endgroup$ – Jim In Texas May 9 '14 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JimInTexas This question's about pre-Soviet, not present day. $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett May 10 '14 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ @DannyBeckett these ICAO standard are from long time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it was either Russian or English. I know where I'd place my bet. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Nov 4 '14 at 17:20
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There's surprisingly little information on this to be found via Google, at least in English, but according to this academic paper from Embry-Riddle titled Air Traffic Control in Russia, Soviet controllers operated entirely in Russian, at least within the Soviet Union itself:

Prior to 1991, Soviet air traffic controllers and pilots flying within Soviet airspace were not required to speak English and the majority of them spoke only Russian. After the KAL007 incident, translators were stationed at each of the three main control centers in order to assist with any controllers who encountered English-only pilots, though they weren’t used often (Taubman, 1987).

The cited source is a New York Times article which says that "80 percent of the civilian air controllers in the Soviet Far East speak some English" but translators (more correctly, interpreters) would be used "in an emergency", implying that the standard and/or availability of English was very limited.

If you consider the Warsaw Pact in general, then it looks like other languages may have been more common. This history of Hungarian ATC (you have to love the internet!) includes this information about the 1970s:

The regular international cooperation between Air Traffic Controls commenced in the seventies under the aegis of ICAO, since Hungary became one of its regular members. It is more than interesting that the Hungarian controllers had to be able to speak not less than three languages with the flight crews and use not more than three units of measurement, namely the Flight Levels and metric systems of ICAO and the Soviet metric system. [...] Then at last, in 1975, Hungary applied the full ICAO system, but the Russian language as a medium of telecommunication remained in constant use until 1991 when the Soviet military forces left our country, after the 1989 political changes in Hungary.

It also confirms that Russian was a requirement for ATC controllers:

Boys in their twenties with more than basic English and Russian language knowledge were the target as new trainee controllers.

There are also numerous aviation forum threads about Soviet and modern Russian ATC controllers, the overall picture seems to be that there was always some English spoken by ATC but it was often grudging, limited or just hard to understand. However most commenters (e.g. airline pilots) seem to agree that since the end of the Cold War, it's become much more widespread and the general level of ATC professionalism in Eastern Europe and Russia has improved significantly.

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There are suggestions that Soviet ATC was in Russian.

User Codeshare From Poland,
posted Thu Jan 1 2004

Back in the old days, as the old LOT pilots say, ATC transmissions were carried out only in Russian.

Plus there usually was some sort of agent when flying over the Soviet Union.

Also some of these 'agents' were surprised when the pilots had exact maps of the airspace from Jeppesen or other maps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Reply #7 on that link is quite interesting! $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett May 10 '14 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ can't confirm, but have heard similar. You'd get supplied with an "intepreter" who was really a KGB or GRU agent who was there to control you. He'd do all the talking with ATC, then tell you what to do. Pretty similar to a pilot being sent to a ship entering a busy harbour, plus the Soviet paranoia about anything foreign. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 4 '14 at 7:41

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