Book Review

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Feb 11 14:34:38 UTC 2004

Forwarded from Linguist-List: 15.536, Tue Feb 10 2004

AUTHOR: Grenoble, Lenore A.
TITLE: Language Policy in the Soviet Union
SERIES: Language Policy
PUBLISHER: Kluwer Academic Publishers
YEAR: 2003

Announced at

Reviewed by Katrin Hiietam, unaffiliated scholar

This monograph represents a thorough study of the application of the
Soviet language policy in the republics of the former USSR. It is based on
original research by the author and includes references to documents in
the Soviet press as well as to the reports of various party congresses
with regard to the language policy. This book serves as a good case study
for researchers and students interested in language planning, general
anthropology or Eastern European studies. The book looks at connections
between language, policy and the culture of the people of the different
republics of the Soviet Union, and thus it is a welcome addition to the
study of languages and language planning in the former USSR (e.g. Comrie
1981, Kirkwood (ed.)  2000, but also Grimes 2000). In addition, it also
looks at the creation of new languages, such as Soviet Yiddish (Estraik
1999, Tolts 1999) and the effects that the dominant language, i.e. Russian
in this area has had on the development of national languages of these
republics, namely the heavy rate of lexical borrowings from Russian.

In the author's words, the language policy in the Soviet Union was one of
the most 'deliberate' ones, since the Soviets regarded language as a part
of culture and identity (Grenoble 2003:VII). The author of the book has
succeeded in illustrating how a conscious language policy by the Communist
leadership, known as Russification, has affected both the ethnic identity
and national consciousness of the people of the former Soviet Union.

Through the course of the monograph, the reader is presented with case
studies that illustrate two paths of development of the Communist language
policy. On the one hand, there are ample examples of instances where the
Russification policy was extremely effective, as with small ethnic
communities in Siberia and on the territory of the present Russian
Federation. During only one generation, the national languages were
replaced with Russian in all spheres of communication (see also Weinreich
1953). On the other hand, there are also examples which show, from the
perspective of the USSR, how illogical and inconsistent, not to say
unproductive such a policy was in certain member states, e.g. in the
Baltic regions, where such a policy only strengthened the national
identity and resulted in relatively poor acquisition of Russian.

Although the author is pessimistic about the overall results of the Soviet
language policy in general, she admits that it managed to raise the
literacy levels of the people in the whole Soviet region by the time of
the collapse of the USSR. However, as mentioned earlier, the anticipated
Russification failed to take place in republics where the national
identify was well formed (e.g. the Baltics and the Caucasus region).

The book is made up of eight chapters, five of them describing the
different regions of the Soviet Union, their sociolinguistic make-up, and
relations between local languages and Russian both during Soviet rule and
after the collapse of the USSR. Each of the chapters is briefly summarised

The Introduction gives an overview of the formation and organisation
of the Soviet state and sees it through to the collapse of the
multilingual and multinational empire in 1991. It also gives account
of the linguistic and ethnic composition of the member states of the
USSR and introduces the language groups present: Indo-European, Altaic
(Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus), Uralic (Finno-Ugric, Samoyedic),
Caucasian and Paleosiberian.

Chapter 2 discussed the language policy of the Soviet leadership
throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, its literacy campaign
and the application of the policy under different leaders, culminating
in Perestroika (reorganisation of the Soviet Union). The chapter also
deals with nationality issues of the citizens of the USSR. The Soviet
policy was to classify people according to their ethnic group as
opposed to defining them in terms of religion or language. For that
purpose, the Soviet government needed to construct a sense of
nationality, something that had not existed earlier.

The author discusses how, in connection with the literacy policy, the
alphabets of different languages were intended to be based on
Cyrillic.  Formerly these languages, if they were written, had used
either the Arabic, Cyrillic or Roman alphabet. Chapter 2 also
describes the status of national languages at schools and concludes
that, although native language instruction was encouraged in the
beginning of the Soviet period, its role towards the end of the era
had diminished substantially. In some extreme cases the heritage
language was taught as a secondary subject altogether, and Russian was
seen as the language of education.

In the following six chapters the Soviet language policy is described
regionally. Chapter 3 concentrates on the Slavic republics, the
Ukrainian SSR, the Belorussian SSR and the Moldavian SSR. Chapter 4
focuses on the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and
Chapter 5 describes the Caucasus region including Georgia, Armenia,
Azerbaidjan and the North Caucasus area. Chapter 6 is about Central
Asia, featuring Turkestan and Uzbeck and Chapter 7 concentrates on the
Northern region of the Soviet Union and relates the Russification
policy to the endangerment of small tribal languages.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, summarises the overall effects of the
deliberate language policy in different republics and takes up topics
such as shifting demographics in the republics of the former USSR and
nativization movements which resulted in the creation of several
nation states' own language laws. Generally, these laws regulated and
restricted the use of Russian in member states and were set up to
promote the local language.

The author of the book labels the goals of the Soviet language policy
as 'problematic', because, according to her, they seem to have shifted
over time. This is also complemented by the fact the official goal did
not always coincide with the actions taken for achieving it, such as
working towards a unified Soviet superculture, while claiming to
support the 'diversity of national cultures' (Grenoble 2003:193).
However, as pointed out earlier, this policy succeeded in raising the
literacy levels of the Soviet citizens and in spreading Russian as the
second language for many nationalities (and as a first language for
some). In connection with the spread of Russian, the creation of new
senses of ethnic and nationalistic identities also took place, for
example in the Siberian regions. This in its turn had the impact of
heightening the need to preserve the heritage language and maintaining
a separate identity among established ethnic groups.

The monograph provides useful reference material. However, it does
prove slightly impenetrable in the beginning, with historical facts
and general overviews overshadowing the main topic of the book -
language planning. On the other hand, I believe, this historic
background provides an interested reader with ample grounds for
understanding the nature of the Soviet Union, its aims and objectives.

An advantage of this book is its excellent cross-referencing which
makes it easy for the reader to compare the facts and tendencies in
different member states to the overall picture. Similarly, I found the
language and subject index to be very helpful.

In addition, the book provides the reader with a helpful map of the
Soviet republics (p.237) and an appendix section where one can find
genetic trees of the languages of the former USSR. Some of the trees
give an overview of the entire language group (e.g. Balto-Slavic group
and the Caucasian languages), whereas others only inform the reader of
the languages spoken in the very territory of the Soviet Union and
omit the related languages spoken elsewhere
(e.g. Uralic). Nevertheless, while taking a closer look at the
language trees, one wonders on what grounds some of them have been
constructed, e.g. the Uralic one on p.  216. The author for example
divides (based on Grimes 2000) the Finno- Mordvinic branch into
Baltic-Finnic, Balto-Finnic and Lappic.  The Baltic-Finnic subgroup in
its turn is divided into Estonian, Ingrian, Karelian, Liv, Livvi,
Ludian, Veps and Vod on the one hand and into Finnic on the
other. However, considering the morpho-syntactic set-up, genetics and
areal distribution of these languages, it is difficult to see how it
is justified. Based on the literature, it seems that these two terms,
namely Balto-Finnic and Baltic-Finnic, are used interchangeably to
denote the same group of langauges (e.g. Erelt 2000; Comrie
1981, Austerlitz 1987).

Also, it was not clear to me what the difference between the
Baltic-Finnic and the Balto-Finnic language group is. Does the author
mean that the languages in the former group were spoken in the former
USSR whereas the Finnic, i.e. Finnish was not? This seems to be
implied also on page 13. Yet, at the beginning of p.14 one finds a
contradictory claim which could be read to mean that Finnish was
spoken within the USSR.

Page 15 casts more light on the language classification and explains
that the Balto-Finnic group includes two varieties of Finnish spoken
in Scandinavia (Grenoble 2003:15). The Baltic-Finnic group, on the
other hand, seems to consist of all the nine languages, i.e. Estonian,
Ingrian, Karelian, Liv, Livvi, Ludian, Veps, Vod and Finnic (Grenoble
2003:216). According to Grenoble, all these languages are spoken in
the former USSR, and for Finnish she gives the speaker count of 84,
750 in 1970 (Grenoble 2003:15).

First, it would be useful to specify which countries these two
varieties of Finnish belonging to the Balto-Finnic group are spoken in
(technically, Finland does not belong to Scandinavia). Second, where
would one want to classify Finnish spoken in Finland? Is Finland
considered a part of the former USSR? This would explain the
classification of Finnic under the Baltic- Finnic group spoken in the
former Soviet Union. Yet, historically, Finland has not been a part of
the USSR and hence such a classification would not be correct.

The main drawback of the monograph, in my opinion, is that it is
somehow repetitive. It starts with a good general introduction and
then looks in detail at each member state. Finally, it provides a
conclusive summary at the end. Therefore, some information is
presented twice, if not three times during the course of book.
Similarly, overlapping information occurs even within one chapter,
e.g. Chapter 2, where p. 14 repeats (on Finno-Ugric) what is already
said on p. 13 (on Uralic). Likewise, footnote 88 on p.198 is almost
identical to a sentence on p. 199 and that on p. 208 footnote 99 II
part repeats what is already said in footnote 96 on p.206. In
addition, there are a few typographical errors (e.g.  missing special
symbols on pp. 19, 51) and cut-and-paste type of lapses (such as
unfinished sentences and sentence fragments) and therefore, I believe
the monograph would have benefited from more thorough editing.


Austerlitz, R. 1987. Uralic. In B. Comrie (Ed.)The World's Major
Languages. Pp. 567-576.

Comrie, B. 1981. The Languages of the Soviet Union. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. 2000. Eesti Keele Ksiraamat.[The Handbook of Estonian]
Tein trkk. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus.

Estraikh, G. 1999. Soviet Yiddish. Language Planning and linguistic
Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grimes, B. 2000. Ethnologue. Languages of the World. 14th Edition. SIL

Kirkwood, M. (Ed.). 1990. Language Planning in the Soviet Union. New
York: St. Martin's

Tolts, M. 1999. Yiddish in the former Soviet Union since 1989: A
statistical-demographic analysis. In Gennady Estraikh and Mihail
Krutikov, (eds.) Yiddish in the Contemporary World. Papers of the
First Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, 133-146.
Oxford: Legenda.

Weinreich, U. 1953. The Russification of Soviet minority languages.
Problems of Communism 6/2:46-57.


Katrin Hiietam is currently an unaffiliated scholar. She recently
completed her PhD thesis (Definiteness and Grammatical Relations in
Estonian) at the University of Manchester. Her research interests
include Finno-Ugric morpho-syntax, transitivity and especially valency
reduction operations and her main research concentrates on Baltic-
Finnic languages, (Estonian, Izhorian and Votic). She has conducted
fieldwork in Western Russia (Izhorian and Votic), Estonia and Finland
(Izhorian and Romani).

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