Review of Language Policy in the Soviet Union
|Date: Mon, 09 Feb 2004 17:41:24 +0000
From: Katrin Hiietam
Subject: Language Policy in the Soviet Union
AUTHOR: Grenoble, Lenore A.
TITLE: Language Policy in the Soviet Union
SERIES: Language Policy
PUBLISHER: Kluwer Academic Publishers
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
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
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 below:
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 et.al
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.
Erelt.et.al. 2000. Eesti Keele Käsiraamat.[The Handbook of Estonian] Teine
trükk. 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.
Weinreich, U. 1953. The Russification of Soviet minority languages.
Problems of Communism 6/2:46-57.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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).