The surprise of Soviet language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 11 12:40:38 UTC 2008

The surprise of Soviet language policy

September 10, 2008 by Ian Garrick Mason

It is almost always worth perusing the Times Literary Supplement's "In
Brief" section, which presents six or seven short reviews of books not
quite important enough to have warranted a full-length review, if only
because its very high message-to-text ratio means that interesting
books are easier to spot. Case in point: the TLS's April 11 (yes, I'm
behind in my reading) "In Brief" presented a review of a book on the
survival and nature of the Budukh language of Daghestan, which is
spoken today by only 5,000 people in the Caucasus Mountains. If that
comparatively tiny number has you scratching your head and wondering
where the "interesting" part of this is, first note that Budukh is a
sister-language to Kryts, which is spoken by 8,000 Daghestanis in
neighbouring valleys, and second, as the reviewer puts it:

That either of these two languages has survived is the result of the
former Soviet national language policy, as set down by Lenin, that
nourished all the multitudinous small cultures of the former Soviet
Union. This made sure that at least parts of primary education were in
the language of the home, and for languages with even as few as 10,000
speakers, that local bureaucratic paperwork was often available in
that language.

Frankly, this took me by complete surprise. Over the past few years,
everything I have encountered on the subject of languages and modern
states (by which I mean states in the revolutionary and
post-revolutionary eras, in other words between 1789 and our own time)
had told me that the process of the centralization of power in a
national government, particularly a revolutionary government, also
involved the suppression of the majority of the various languages
spoken in the national territory, and their replacement by a single
"standard" language.

Standard languages, by the way, are interesting in and of themselves,
because they're not simply a communication method, but also usually
become both mythologized as an ideal version of the language (a
version that therefore must not be tampered with) and associated with
the status of a dominant culture. The national example that gets the
most attention today is France, and the impacts of its own standard
language are well described by Adrian Battye, Marie-Anne Hintze, and
Paul Rowlett in The French Language Today: A Linguistic Introduction.
Thus in the eighteenth century, at the height of France's cultural and
political power, standard French (specifically, the French of the
literary seventeenth century) was considered to be the language both
of diplomacy and of the highest possible refinement and elegance.
Indeed, defenders of standard French, including Royalist writer
Antoine de Rivarol in Sur l'universalité de la langue française
(1784), went so far as to claim that its consistent use of l'ordre
direct, that is, of the classic subject-verb-object sentence
structure, meant that French uniquely reflects the natural workings of
the human mind, and that it is, therefore, the native language of
reason itself.

Once identified, a standard language tends to drive out its rivals.
Soon after the Revolution, the French language became associated with
citizenship itself, and linguistic assimilation thus became a
critically important component of the Revolutionary project to unify
the nation under a single system of laws and administrative processes.
As Battye, Hintze, and Rowlett point out, since national unity was
required for the new government to face the mounting external threats
to its existence, linguistic diversity inside France quickly became
identified as not merely a holdover from the feudal Ancien Régime but
as a threat to the nation. Standard French, therefore, found itself
not merely held out passively as a path to advancement for the
ambitious middle classes, but also actively imposed upon the regions
as part of government policy. Indeed, this was no small task, as a
survey conducted for the Revolutionary government by the Abbé Grégoire
proved: out of France's total population of 15 million, only 3 million
could speak French well, while 6 million had only limited ability with
the language and another 6 million spoke no French whatsoever. Yet
over the course of the long nineteenth century, the combined impact of
state education, military conscription, universal suffrage,
industrialization, road and railway construction, urbanization, and
the implementation of a postal service steadily reduced the use of
regional and local dialects, and replaced them with the standard
French we know today.

Given all this, the survival and encouragement of local languages in
the Soviet Union, which was ruled in the twentieth century by a
revolutionary government every bit as vulnerable and paranoid as
France's in the early nineteenth century, is indeed a surprise.

As the TLS reviewer pointed out, the Soviet Union's policy on
languages started with Lenin. Why such a policy began when the
fledgling state was at its weakest seems linked to the international
nature of the communist project. Lenin intended the Bolshevik
take-over of Russia to be merely the first step in the extension of
the Revolution to the rest of the world. This led him to pursue not
only the creation of a highly centralized state under Bolshevik
control, but also, in order to avoid unnecessary and potentially
costly fights, the toleration of the various nationalities and
cultures that existed within what was formerly the multi-national
Russian Empire.

At the same time, the long-term triumph of communism required a
literate population. The overall literacy rate for Tsarist Russia
(according to the 1897 census), however, was a bottom-of-the-rung
28.4%. Rather than taking on the immense challenge of trying to both
educate and Russify the Soviet Union's trans-Caucasus region, in the
1920s Bolshevik agents taught communist theory in classrooms using
local languages, not Russian, a policy known as korenizatsya
(literally, "putting down roots").

Such an approach was not merely prudent, but also ideological. If the
definition of "nation" includes the use of a single language, then the
transformation of France or Italy from a feudal patchwork of loyalties
into a nation-state indeed requires the dominance of a single national
language. But the Bolsheviks were not trying to build a nation; they
were trying to convert a multi-national monarchy into an egalitarian
worker's state — one which would serve as the launching-pad for an
even wider revolution. To them, it was class, not nation, that really

Indeed, in pre-revolutionary days Joseph Stalin saw nationality and
nationalism as little more than a distraction from
class-consciousness. As he wrote in "Marxism and the National
Question" in 1913: "The obligations of Social-Democracy, which defends
the interests of the proletariat, and the rights of a nation, which
consists of various classes, are two different things." But what
Stalin advocated was not the crushing of national identities, but
rather the use of tools like regional autonomy and cultural tolerance
to enable the workers to put national issues to one side and to focus
on their true interests. As he wrote:

Restriction of freedom of movement, disfranchisement, repression of
language, closing of schools, and other forms of persecution affect
the workers no less, if not more, than the bourgeoisie. Such a state
of affairs can only serve to retard the free development of the
intellectual forces of the proletariat of subject nations. One cannot
speak seriously of a full development of the intellectual faculties of
the Tatar or Jewish worker if he is not allowed to use his native
language at meetings and lectures, and if his schools are closed down.

[ . . . ]

What is it that particularly agitates a national minority?

A minority is discontented not because there is no national union but
because it does not enjoy the right to use its native language. Permit
it to use its native language and the discontent will pass of itself.

Where Bolsheviks — and Stalin — drew the line was at the development
of nationalist movements among the regions which threatened the
functioning and integrity of the Soviet state itself. It was a line
that ultimately would be drawn in blood: during and after World War
Two, Stalin brutally deported entire ethnicities, moving populations
from European Russia and the Caucasus to the Soviet Far East — a
policy that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of deportees —
based on the notion that such groups had been or were potentially
disloyal to the regime. Soviet minority policy, as a party official at
the time observed, had become a matter merely of making sure enough
boxcars were ready.

After Stalin's death, Soviet language policies returned to their
historical and non-genocidal pattern. But educational reforms,
urbanization, and the continued integration of the Soviet economies
meant that the number of non-Russian languages being used as the
primary language of instruction in local schools would gradually
decline from roughly 70 in the early 1930s to 45 by the 1970s.

This process was helped along by occasional outbursts of Russian
nationalism, which emerged not because of communism but in reaction
against it. Communism, whatever its other dire failings, sought to
raise human allegiances above the tribal and national, and to embrace
an international cause. The agent of this anticipated transformation,
the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thus demanded a direct
loyalty that outweighed all others. To Russian nationalists (including
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn), communism was a solvent that would ultimately
destroy any national culture it touched, including Russia's.

Government-sponsored Russification policies, however, sometimes met
with local resistance. When in 1987 Pravda criticized newspapers in
Kazakhstan for concentrating too much on the Kazakh culture and
language, a Kazakh poet responded defiantly in a local paper:

To take pride in one's native tongue, to show concern for its purity
and foster its development, is one of the chief duties of every
Kazakh, of every Kazakh family, of every person who considers himself
a Kazakh, of the entire population.

Likewise, in 1978 officials in Moscow attempted to impose new
constitutions on the republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan
which eliminated reference to their native tongues as the official
languages of those republics, but street protests soon forced the
authorities to back down.

In its final decades, the Sovet Union was a place in which Russian was
used almost universally as a language of administration, politics, and
non-local commerce, while numerous non-Russian languages continued to
be taught and to thrive as primary languages for their native
speakers. In this, the Soviet system was a mirror of today's
globalized world, where English is spoken as a second language by
hundreds of millions of people and yet has not replaced any of the
world's still-numerous national languages. Likewise, the Roman empire
did not force its subject peoples to learn Latin, letting it serve as
a common tongue for doing business and administering public affairs —
as such, it naturally became the default second language for ambitious

A similar phenomenon lies behind the concept of a lingua franca, a
term that does not as commonly thought refer to the standard French of
early modern European diplomacy, but rather to a hybrid language,
referred to in Italian as "the Frankish tongue" but also called Sabir,
that was used in commercial transactions across the eastern
Mediterranean in the Middle Ages. Quite the opposite of pure, it was a
mix of Italian, French, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish — an inspiration,
perhaps, for the urban language envisioned in Ridley Scott's Blade
Runner (1982), which Harrison Ford's character describes as
"city-speak, guttertalk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what
have you".

This kind of language diversity, in which a common commercial and
administrative tongue acts as natural overlay on a variety of primary
tongues, is something that post-national states like the European
Union (and to a lesser and more contentious extent, Canada) have grown
fairly comfortable with. By contrast, the fierce debates that have
erupted again and again in the United States over the role of Spanish
as a potential second language (and over the existence of Ebonics)
show that the U.S. remains wedded to a mono-cultural view of national
identity. To the extent that this is a healthy expression of the
principle of e pluribus unum, it cannot be greatly faulted; but one
cannot help but wonder to what extent it reflects the residual
paranoia of a revolutionary state, beset at its birth by enemies, and
still gripped by the fear that internal differences will expose it to
external danger.

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