The Record of Communist Language Policy

Note: Repost from the old blog.
A commenter posting on a previous post critiques what he sees as a disconnect in my views:

That’s funny you support preserving small languages, because most communists do not and prefer centralization and one mass-language for everyone.
For instance, the communists in the USSR did much to stamp out local languages by forcing all people living within its boundaries to learn Russian first and foremost in state schools (which they were forced to attend).
They did somewhat try to preserve local languages in the so called “autonomous regions” within the Soviet empire, but still many local languages were lost in the forced shuffle from locally-based economies to the centralized/state-run economy where Russian reigned supreme.
In China a similar situation is taking place…many languages and dialects have been lost and are continuing to be lost as the communists there forcibly centralize everything in sight and institute Mandarin over all else.

I respond: First of all, I would like to point out that as a linguist, of course I support minority languages. Most linguists do. I would be hard-pressed to think of one that doesn’t. So my support for minority languages comes first from being a linguist, and then, if at all, from being a Leftist.
Also, most linguists are liberal to leftwing types – it’s just their nature, and most folks on the Left support language rights. I would gather that even Centrist to conservative (assuming they exist) linguists would still support minority tongues. So in a way this support by linguists is independent of politics.
This is not true at all. No one has supported the preservation of small languages and cultures better than the Left. 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. Grammars, texts, books and alphabets were developed for all sorts of small languages.
It’s true that Stalin pretty much turned a lot of this around in the 1930’s, but even by the 1950’s, the USSR was still very progressive on the language question. Also, all nationalities were given the right to secede.
China also gave all nationalities the right to use their language and cultural autonomy. They also had the right, similar to the USSR, to education in their native language. China’s language policy is very progressive by world standards. It’s true that they have not been so good with the Tibetans and especially the Uighurs, but the language policy for the Tibetans is still pretty good.
Eastern Europe had a great language policy for minority tongues. You must understand that as internationalists, no one opposes the nationalist oppression of minority tongues more than the Communists. It was only due to decades to internationalism that Czechoslovakia was able to split up with no bloodshed.
The USSR also broke up relatively painlessly. The only modern states that have allowed succession at all have typically been seeped in decades of Communist internationalism. Even Vietnam has an excellent language and nationalities policy.
There was a need for a national language in the USSR and that was Russian. Before, in most of the USSR, there were no schools period. The Soviets brought culture, written language, education, modern medicine and civilization to many backwards groups, and for this, nationalist boneheads condemn them.
You ignore that many of these groups were allowed instruction in their native tongues as a medium of instruction. It is true that everyone had to take Russian every year in school from K-12. This was necessary in order to have a national language.
Due to the progressive Soviet language policy, many minority languages in the USSR were still in superb shape even in 1990 with the breakup of the USSR. 70 years of capitalism in the USSR would have been devastating to minority tongues.
The line you are citing above is from fanatical anti-Communists, typically Baltics. These are Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, and most of them are fascists. That’s interesting because most of these Baltic Nazis support fascism, and no one has been harder on minority tongues than nationalist regimes, particularly the fascists.
With the fall of the USSR, nationalist regimes took over in most of the new states. In most cases, one nation and culture was promoted over all others (a national consolidation project) and minorities and minority tongues were attacked. This definitely occurred in the very Baltic states that were leading the charge against the horrors of Russification for minority tongues.
In Eastern Europe, a similar thing occurred with the fall of the Communist regimes. In general, nationalist regimes took their place and quickly began attacking minorities and minority tongues. This has been most pronounced in the former Yugoslavia, but has also been quite notable in Romania, Hungary and especially Czechoslovakia. We saw this even in Germany. The Sorbs fared well in East German, less well under unification.
The locally-based economies of the USSR were backwards and non-productive. There was a need to bring the state into the modern era and these small groups had to participate in the national economy. After all, they were getting so many benefits from the state, should they not have to contribute something to the economy rather than run around hunting reindeer all the time?
The language policy of China continues to be very progressive for an Asian nation. Sure Mandarin is emphasized, but you need a national tongue. Most minority languages in China are still in surprisingly good shape. The one area where they have been lax is in the Chinese “dialects”.
These are actually separate languages, but due to Chinese nationalism, Chinese nationalists refuse to admit this, and say they are all just Chinese. These are languages such as Min, Cantonese, etc. Actually though, most of them still have lots of speakers.
China and the USSR had shortcomings in language policy where they have deviated from internationalism. Stalin did institute Russification, and his successors were even worse. And the Chinese regime has not been immune to Chinese nationalism. It is nationalism, not Communism, that is deadly to small minority tongues. Anti-Communists, almost always nationalists, ought to put that in their pipes and smoke it.

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5 thoughts on “The Record of Communist Language Policy”

  1. I know you’re a big fan of the USSR, but can’t you see how the Baltic republics feel about their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. I’m reading Mark Mazower’s _Hitler’s Empire_ and just remembered a passage in the first section that traces the German dream of eastward expansion back to the 1848 revolutions. Writing about minority policies in interwar Eastern Europe he says:
    In some countries, Germans– and minorities
    generally– had few grounds for complaint.
    Estonia and Latvia in particular treated them
    well. . . .The Estonian constitution guaranteed their right to cultural autonomy and in 1925 passed a law by which individuals could choose to identify themselves with a given nationality. . . .
    Deputies could address parliament in German, Russian, Yiddish, or Swedish. (p 34)
    Some Baltic people did support the Nazis, but if Hitler and Stalin had left them alone, there would have been better policies in the region.

    1. Obviously the whole mess of the Baltics was a big problem. They always wanted to be independent. Stalin revoked that and forcibly incorporated them into the USSR against their wills. The USSR was never popular in those places and it was imposed at gunpoint. It’s hard to see how that’s right or fair.
      Stalin didn’t trust them. They had fascist-like rightwing authoritarian regimes during the interwar period and they welcomed the Nazis with open arms. Stalin was never going to trust them again after that.
      I’m glad that Gorby set them free and I am glad that they are happy now. All Stalin succeeded in doing was creating some fanatically anti-Communist, insanely pro-imperialist bastard states on the western frontier of Russia. Their record lately is simply horrible – defense of Georgia’s horrible treatment of its own internal Georgian colonies – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and rage and demands for attacks on Russia over Russia’s supporting the desire of these nations to be free from Georgian control. The Baltics have no principles at all anymore. They’re not against colonialism – only Russian colonialism. They’re not for the right of self-determination – only in nations dominated by Russia.
      At this point, I say fuck the Baltics.
      At the same time, the Baltics are continuously agitating to break up Russia. This while they defend Georgia’s “right to territorial integrity.” Baltics = scum of the Earth.

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