Language Rights in the USSR and Russia

James Schipper: On the other hand, it can’t be denied that there was some linguistic imperialism within the Soviet Union. There was no systematic attempt to Russify the entire country, but there was an encroachment of the Russian language on the others.

Yes, there were 14 that broke away. Those were republics. The Soviet Constitution was radically progressive in that it gave any republic the right to self-determination and independence if they so chose. That’s why they were allowed to break away, although the first to separate (Azerbaijan) were attacked. But the state soon gave up, and Gorbachev let them all go one by one when they voted to go out.

While the USSR initially started out as radically progressive in terms of mother tongue education and state support for all of the languages of the country (even some very small ones), that soon faded with Stalin’s paranoid crackdown on regional nationalism in the 1930’s, when state support was withdrawn from many of the smaller languages. Language rights retracted further under Khrushchev.

The main areas where there was an attempt at linguistic imperialism were in the Baltics, and even there, they failed pretty badly. The native languages in the Baltics are doing very well. I’m not aware of much linguistic imperialism anywhere else.

Keep in mind that every one of those republics had their non-Russian language as an official language. Government documents, books, newspapers, magazines, and journals were published and radio and TV was broadcasted in those languages.

You could elect to send your kid to school from K-12 in the non-Russian language, and in quite a few of those republics, there was university education in the native language also. Of course you had to learn Russian too, and everyone had to take Russian in grades 1-12.

Look around the world. Look at the US. Who are we to talk about linguistic imperialism? Would we ever allow any non-English language the same extreme rights here in the US? You see any public schools in the US where you get to go to school from K-12 in your non-English language? I don’t see any.

Even with some linguistic imperialism under Khrushchev, the USSR was still radically progressive compared to the rest of the world as far as language rights go.

And to this day, all throughout Russia, there are many official languages other than Russia in titular republics. In fact, almost all titular republics where another language is spoken widely have that language as an official language. In many of those republics, you can still get K-12 education in your native language. There are non-Russian language schools all over Russia.

The only exception is Karelia where for some reason, the Karelian Republic has refused to make Karelian an official language, though there are still ~50,000 speakers of the various Karelian tongues.

And many of the republics that split away to form their own nations have kept their Soviet-era policies, even savage Soviet/Russia-haters like Ukraine, where you can get an education in 5-10 different languages depending on what you speak at home.

7 thoughts on “Language Rights in the USSR and Russia”

  1. Dear Robert,
    Taking Advantage of your free comment period. Yes I must commend the old USSR for being progressive on the preservation of regional and local languages front. I am amazed that they took the pains and resources to research Dungan, a Mandarin dialect spoken by Chinese Muslim descendants from Ningxia Province living along the borders of Kyrgizsan -Kazakhstan and devised a writing system for it based on the Cylliric alphabet. There must be only about ten or twenty thousands speakers today and even fewer half a century ago. Today these Dunganians could go to school and learn a modern version of Dungan. Mandarin speakers from Peking can understand the dialect if they are conversing daily mundane stuff. P.S. these Dungan speakers were descendants of Qing Dynasty border guards who found themselves in the Russian empire when their emperor agree to moved the lines.

    1. Thx for the comment! The free comment period is probably going to be around for some time, sadly. It goes away at 3,000 visitors/day and right now, we are at 200/day, so looks like people will be commenting for free for some time. It’s great for you guys but not so great for me. Oh well, maybe I will get a lot of new commenters and more people will learn about the site.

      I don’t know much about Dungan, but I should. I wrote a huge piece on the Chinese language, but I am not sure if I wrote about Dungan! I hope I did! It was only discovered to be a Chinese language just recently. I know a Sinologist who was part of a team that affirmed that it was a Sinitic language. And Ethnologue has listed as their 14th Sinitic language, though really there are far more than that. I am up to over 600 by now, and people tell me that there are 1,000-2,000 Sinitic languages.

      1. Thx for the comment! The free comment period is probably going to be around for some time, sadly. It goes away at 3,000 visitors/day and right now, we are at 200/day, so looks like people will be commenting for free for some time.

        At 3,000 visitors a day – you have a middle class job!

          1. 90,000/mo in targeted traffic from the U.S., U.K. etc..has got to lead to cash via ads or selling a product. Also, maybe donations would work.

    1. Hi, what do you mean? I am not sure if I understand your statement. I mean I went to Wikipedia today but I forgot why I went there, I think of someone’s name but forgot it and fish around to find it, I think of a word and know what the word is but I can’t recall it’s exact form. All of these forms of forgetfulness or uncertainty affect me, but this thing you are talking about doesn’t exactly make sense to me. Of course the way you phrase this question means you won’t be able to answer this comment of mine either, so I am not quite sure why I even wrote this!

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