The Record of Communist Language Policy

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Oct 8 15:02:27 UTC 2008

It shouldn't be assumed that Soviet language policy, with its recognition of
language rights for
small linguistic minorities as well as larger ones, was instituted out of
the goodness of Lenin's (or Stalin's ) heart.  Here's what I said about this
in a forthcoming paper:


1. Early policy involved developing various languages that did not have
literary traditions, or had not been used for 'modern' purposes, and using
them for mass schooling, communications, public and professional life. The
covert goal was to sovietize the population. This was particularly true
during the NEP, the New Economic Plan (1917-28).

2. From 1938 on, the policy became one of universalizing the knowledge of
Russian. With this came forced cyrillicization of former roman or Arabic
scripts. Covertly this is a policy of 'russification' but overtly it was
used to glorify and unify, and prepare for the impending war with Germany.

 '[T]he logical ground of Bolshevik policy towards nationalities after the
Revolution—the *korenizatsiia[1]<>
*constituted a formula according to which those nations whose collective
rights had been denied and repressed during the Tsarist period should have
access to the free exercise of these rights within the general framework of
the building of socialism in order to reach by themselves the conclusion
that national sovereignty was not by itself a solution to all the national,
cultural, social, political and economic problems of development. The final
goal was therefore* the merger of all nations into a single socialist
community*, once all national cultures had had the opportunity to bloom
during the period of construction of socialism. All this was stressed by
Stalin at the 16th Congress of the CPSU (b) in 1930. (Leprêtre 2003;
emphasis mine, hfs)


*korenizatsiia* meant the 'taking root' of language, the 'indigenization'
which would allow a bourgeois society to form. Marxist ideology held that
this had to happen, and that it then had to be repudiated after it was
realized what an impediment it was. But subcultures could not go from the
'feudal' stage (where they were subservient to some other group) to the
socialist stage without going through the bourgeois stage.

and further:

"So early Soviet language policy allowed the development of individual
linguistic groups, which were supposed to pass through the stage of
bourgeois development ('bourgeois nationalism') only to then realize the
futility of the bourgeois nationalist stage, and finally throw it all
off.  Citizenship
did not require any particular language adherence or knowledge, at first.
But gradually it became clear that Russian was going to be important for
citizens of the Soviet Union.  And Russian was indeed the language that was
made available to all, since Russian had the 'personal' right status that
the other languages lacked, and because Russian was the 'Big Brother'
language from which other languages were supposed to borrow, especially
terminology (for science and technology) that they lacked."

So language rights for linguistic minorities was a temporary phrase, which
all groups had to pass through, after which they would reject this
"bourgeois nationalism" and then merge their
language with some other (guess which one?)

Soviet policy, after Stalin, was covertly assimilationist, and involved
covert and overt russification; Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet
Union, so it's no surprise that the South Ossetians and Abkhazians (as well
as other linguistic minorities in Georgia) knew Russian, and didn't (and
still don't) know Georgian.

My paper on this subject is available on the web at:

See also:

Leprêtre, Marc. (2002) 'Language Policies in the Soviet Successor States: a
brief Assessment  on Language, Linguistic Rights and National
Identity.' *Papeles
del Este*, No. 3.

I think it should also be noted that before the USSR set a "standard" for
nationalities policy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a similar policy (as
Joshua Fishman
has pointed out.)

Hal Schiffman

On Tue, Oct 7, 2008 at 7:44 PM, Ronald Kephart <rkephart at> wrote:

> On 10/7/08 2:07 PM, "Harold Schiffman" <hfsclpp at> wrote:
> > First of all, the USSR was the first country on Earth to set a standard
> for a
> > nationalities policy. The policy called for linguistic and cultural
> autonomy
> > for all USSR nationalities.
> I studied Russian in the late 1960s and I remember learning about this. As
> I
> recall, Russian was taught to everyone, but actual education, especially at
> the primary level, was carried out in the local languages. When I traveled
> to Europe in the summer of 1968 I managed to communicate with people from
> Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia using Russian, which they had all
> studied. The response I usually got was something like "nobody would expect
> you to study Czech, but at least you have the gumption to study a Salvic
> language; good for you!"
> Ron


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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