Robert Lindsay: The Record of Communist Language Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Nov 2 14:04:42 UTC 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008
Robert Lindsay: The Record of Communist Language Policy

In this article Robert Lindsay compares communist linguistic policy
with the hostility to minority languages that is often found outside
of communist states especially as more nationalist regimes have taken
power. The situation is rather more complex that he suggests. The
pre-WWI German Empire supported non-German language school systems
although Germanization was generally the goal especially in Polish
regions, but Germany had only been unified in 1870, and creating a
German national identity among speakers of German dialects was a work
in progress.

The pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were if anything more
supportive of multilingualism. The bulk of the Austro-Hungarian
population did not speak any German dialects while the leaders of the
Russian Empire were highly ambivalent about non-Russians that became
Russianized. Soviet policy may have in part been a continuation of
Czarist policy, but in some ways the Soviets may have been more
intolerant than the Czarists.

During the early Soviet communist period, Turkic speakers often
switched from writing their languages with Arabic-derivative scripts
to using variants of Roman scripts. Later the Soviet authorities
forced the use of Cyrillic-derived scripts on these languages.

As a matter of state policy, the Soviet government distrusted
nationalities that had a considerable population outside Soviet
territory. It put the Soviet leadership, both Jewish and non-Jewish,
into a tricky position vis-a-vis ethnic Ashkenazim, who were critical
to the consolidation of the Soviet state. As a consequence the Soviet
Union and especially the Jewish section of the Soviet communist party
tended to reject granting Jews or more specifically ethnic Ashkenazim
full national status, and the Soviet Ashkenazi leadership chose to
suppress Yiddish in order to act as the quintessential Soviet class or

When Yiddish cultural activity was permitted, the Jewish section
invariably pushed for differentiation between Soviet and non-Soviet
Yiddish in terms of vocabulary and orthography.

A similar sort of linguistic intolerance has characterized Zionist
Jews, and it seems to be increasing. (See Knesset Hawks Move To Strip
Arabic of Official Status in Israel ...)

Language is probably another area where the mentality of Zionist and
Soviet Ashkenazim overlaps. (See The Pattern of Ethnic Ashkenazi
Genocidalism: The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine.)

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