Language Laws

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The issue of language question has been the subject of recurring political, social, and ideological controversy in Russia since the fifteenth century. Both the intellectual elite and the state were involved in discussions of the issue. Until the 1820s they were primarily concerned with the formation and functions of the Russian literary language.

eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Peter the Great's educational and cultural reforms were the first direct state involvement in the language question in Russia. During the early eighteenth century, governmental orders systematically regulated and resolved the language system, which at this time was characterized by the progressive penetration of original Russian elements into the established Church Slavonic literary norm and by a significant increase in the influence of foreign languages. Peter's program envisioned the creation of a civil idiom based on various genres of the spoken language, and the modernization and secularization of elevated Church Slavonic, whose resources were insufficient for adequate description of the vast new areas of knowledge. At the same time, the language of the epoch was oriented toward Western European languages as sources of novel information and terminology, and thus there were many foreign borrowings. The tsar tackled this problem personally, requiring that official documents were to be written in plain Russian that avoided the use of obscure foreign words and terms. Peter's nationalization of language culminated in the 1707 orthography reform. He decreed the creation of the so-called civil alphabet and removed eight obsolete letters from Church Slavonic script. However, in 1710, partly in response to criticism from the church, Peter reintroduced certain letters and diacritic signs into the civil alphabet. In spite of its limitations, Peter's orthographic reform was a first step toward the creation of a truly secular, civil Russian writing system. It paved the way for three consecutive reforms by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1735, 1738, and 1758 that further simplified the alphabet.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the language question dominated intellectual debate in Russia. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, linguistic polemics intensified with the emergence of Nikolai Karamzin's modernizing program aimed at creating an ideal literary norm for Russian on the basis of the refined language of high society. Karamzin's plan met with a heated response from conservatives who wanted to retain Church Slavonic as a literary language. His opponents were led by Admiral Alexander Shishkov. In December 1812, Emperor Alexander I encouraged the Imperial Russian Bible Society to translate and publish the scriptures in the empire's many languages to promote morality and religious peace between its peoples. The society distributed tens of thousands of Bibles in Church Slavonic, French, German, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Kalmyk, and Tatar in the first year of its existence. The publication of the scriptures in Russian, however, aroused strong opposition from the conventional Orthodox clergy, who eventually persuaded Alexander to change his position. In 1824 he appointed Admiral Shishkov to head the Ministry of Education. Shishkov terminated the publication of the Russian Bible and reestablished Church Slavonic as the sole language of scripture for Russians.

1860s to 1917

Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, imperial policy promoted Russian national values among the non-Russian population of the empire and established Russian as the official language of the state. The government exercised administrative control over the empire's non-Russian languages through a series of laws that considerably, if not completely, restricted their functions and spheres of usage.

These laws primarily concerned the Polish and Ukrainian languages, which were feared as sources and instruments of nationalism. Russification had been adopted as the government's official policy in Poland in response to the first Polish uprising. After the second uprising, in 1863, Polish was banished from education and official usage. Russian became the language of instruction. Harsh censorship ensured that most of the classics of Polish literature could be published only abroad; thus, for instance, the dramas of the national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, were not staged in Warsaw.

The suppression of Ukrainian culture and language was also a consequence of the 1863 uprising. Ukrainian cultural organizations were accused of promoting separatism and Polish propaganda, and in July 1863 Peter Valuev, the minister of internal affairs, banned the publication of scholarly, religious, and pedagogical materials in Ukrainian. Only belleslettres were to be published in the "Little Russian" dialect. In 1875, renewed Ukrainophile activity again aroused official suspicion. An imperial special commission recommended that the government punish Ukrainian activists and ban the publication and importation of Ukrainian books, the use of Ukrainian in the theater and as a language of instruction in elementary schools, and the publication of Ukrainian newspapers. Alexander II accepted these ruthless recommendations and encoded them in the Ems Decree, signed in the German town of Ems on May 18, 1876.

Belorusian was also regarded as a dialect of Russian, but was not officially prohibited because of the limited scope of its literature. Georgian was subjected to a number of severe restrictions. Imperial language policy was not liberalized until after the Revolution of 1905, and then only under enormous public pressure. From 1904 there had also been democratic projects for alphabet reform, championed by such famous scholars as Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and Filipp Fortunatov. In 1912 the orthography commission submitted its propositions to the government, but they were never approved, due to strong opposition in intellectual and clerical circles. The implementation of the orthography reform, which again removed certain superfluous letters from the alphabet, came only in October 1918, when the Bolshevik government adopted the commission's recommendations.

revolutionary and soviet language policy

The language question had always been high on the Bolshevik political and cultural agenda. Soon after the Revolution, the Bolshevik government declared a new language policy guaranteeing the complete equality of nationalities and their languages. Formulated in a resolution of the Tenth Communist Party Congress in March 1921, this policy emphasized that the Soviet state had no official language: everyone was granted the right to use a mother tongue in private and public affairs, and non-Russian peoples were encouraged to develop educational, administrative, cultural, and other institutions in their own languages. In practice, this meant that the more than one hundred languages of the non-Russian population, of which only twenty had a written form, had to be made as complete and functional as possible. The revolutionary language policy was indisputably democratic in stance, but some observers argue that its real driving force was the new government's need to establish its power and ideology in ethnically and linguistically diverse parts of the country. In any case, the language reform of the 1920s and early 1930s was unprecedented in scale. More than forty unlettered languages received a writing system, and about fortyfive had their writing systems entirely transformed. During the 1920s a Latinization campaign created new alphabets and transformed old ones onto a Latin (as opposed to a Cyrillic or Arabic) basis. In February 1926 the First Turcological Congress in Baku adopted the Latin alphabet as a basis for the Turkic languages. Despite a few instances of resistance, the language reform was remarkably successful, and during the early 1930s education and publishing were available in all the national languages of the USSR. Between 1936 and 1937 a sharp change in Soviet nationalities policy led to a sudden decision to transform all of the country's alphabets onto a Cyrillic basis. Complete Cyrillization was implemented much faster than the previous alphabet reforms. From the late 1930s until the late 1980s, Soviet language policy increasingly promoted russification. National languages remained equal in declarations, but in practice Russian became the dominant language of the state, culture, and education for all the peoples of the USSR. It was only at the end of the 1980s, when a measure of political and cultural selfdetermination was restored, that the various Soviet nations and their languages acquired a higher status.

the russian federation

Article 68 of the 1993 constitution of the Russian Federation declares that Russian is the state language. Federal subunits of Russia have the constitutional right to establish their own state languages along with Russian. The state guarantees protection and support to all the national languages, with emphasis on the vernaculars of small ethnic groups. On December 11, 2002, however, President Vladimir Putin introduced amendments to the Law on Languages of the Russian Federation that established the Cyrillic alphabet as a compulsory norm for all of the country's state languages. Supported by both chambers of the Russian parliament, this amendment was strongly opposed by local officials in Karelia and Tatarstan. Russian lawmakers are also concerned about the purity of the Russian language. In February 2003 a draft law prohibiting the use of jargon, slang, and vulgar words, as well as the use of foreign borrowings instead of existing Russian equivalents, was adopted by the lower chamber of the Duma but was rejected by the Senate. The language issue clearly remains as topical as ever in Russia, and state language policy may be entering a new phase.

See also: cyrillic alphabet; education; karamzin, nikolai mikailovich; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Vladislava Reznik

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Language Laws

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