The surprise of Soviet language policy

"Russian Schoolroom", Norman Rockwell (1967)

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 mattered.

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 provincials.

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.


4 thoughts on “The surprise of Soviet language policy

  1. Great post, Ian. That TLS passage is indeed surprising, but your explanation makes sense.

    Love the Rockwell painting also, especially the kid looking off in the background. Clearly kids can be bored to death in any language.

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