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The term Russification refers to policies designed to spread Russian culture and language among non-Russians. These programs date from the late eighteenth century, but gained importance from the 1860s. Recent historiography has discredited earlier accounts that posited a consistent plan by the tsarist government to assimilate non-Russians. Still, St. Petersburg certainly viewed Russian as the empire's predominant language, considering it natural for non-Russians to learn Russian as a means of inter-ethnic communication. While the USSR officially rejected Russification, in fact the Soviet government was vastly more successful in spreading the Russian language than its tsarist predecessors. In the post-Soviet era, nationalities such as the Tatars and Chechens often complain bitterly that the pressure of Russification has not diminished since 1992.

types of russification

An American historian, Edward C. Thaden, proposed a useful distinction between three types of Russification: unplanned, administrative, and cultural. By unplanned Russification, Thaden meant natural processes of cultural assimilation by which certain individuals or groups took on the Russian language, and often the Russian Orthodox religion, as well. Administrative Russification refers to official policies such as those requiring the use of Russian throughout all branches of the government, and is often difficult to distinguish from centralization. Cultural Russification, finally, is the effort to assimilate entire populations, replacing their original culture with Russian. Cultural Russification was uncommon in the imperial period, though rather more frequent under the Soviets. Both unplanned and administrative Russification, however, played an important role in Russian nationality policy.

russification under the tsars

Unplanned Russification on an individual basis began early in the Muscovite period. As Muscovite power increased, in particular after the conquest of the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1552, the prestige of Russian culture grew and, with it, its attractiveness to non-Russians. Moscow encouraged its new subjects to adopt Russian Orthodoxy, but these efforts were neither particularly energetic nor consistent. Only in the mid-eighteenth century was a concerted program attempted, aimed at converting animists and Muslims in the Volga region. Under this program, many Tatars and nearly all Mordvins, Chuvash, and Votyaks converted.

Catherine the Great pressed forward with administrative Russification, particularly in the lands gained for Russia in the Polish partitions and by her wars against the Turks. Catherine did not, however, envision Russifying the population of this territory culturally. She aimed rather at rationalizing the administration of these newly acquired lands, tying them more closely to St. Petersburg. Even here her successes were rather modest.

Policies resembling cultural Russification appear for the first time during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. Of key importance here is the concept of official nationality. Nicholas's Minister of Education, Sergei Uvarov, formulated this ideology, easily encapsulated in the phrase "orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality." Uvarov aimed to create a modern Russian nation, united in its loyalty to the tsar, sharing the moral fundament of Russian Orthodoxy, and speaking the Russian language. Official nationalism would appear to be a blatant case of cultural Russification, aimed at the total assimilation of non-Russian cultures. Actually, Uvarov was primarily concerned with encouraging dynastic patriotism and morality: "Nationality" was, after all, the third and last element of his tripartite formula. Uvarov did hope that, over time, the tsar's German, Asian, and Baltic subjects would adopt Russian culture, but he did little on a practical level to affect such a change.

Two of the most problematic ethnic groups for Imperial Russia were the Poles and Jews. From 1815 to 1830, the Poles enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy in the Kingdom of Poland. After the Polish insurrection of 1831, this autonomy was considerably reduced, but only after a second uprising, in 1863, did St. Petersburg adopt policies of cultural Russification. Though Polish was not entirely banned from education, imported Russian teachers set the tone. In any case, private education in Polish was forbidden. Despite all prohibitions, Polish culture continued to flourish during these decades, though Russian policies contributed to the high illiteracy rate among Poles.

For official Russia, Jews appeared to be both religiously and culturally alien. Various programs throughout the nineteenth century aimed to modernize the Jewish community, in other words to make Jews more like educated Russians. These measures had little impact, partly because Jews widely regarded them as mere fronts for religious conversion. Only toward the end of the century did there arise a significant and rapidly growing group of Russian Jews. Indeed, the adoption of Russian culture by these Jews may be seen as one of Russification's few successes.

Few Russians considered Ukrainians and Belarusians to be separate national groups before the twentieth century. These two East Slavic groups, mainly Orthodox in religion, spoke languages that were generally seen as mere dialects of Russian. When Ukrainian nationalism gained strength from the 1860s, St. Petersburg responded with a prohibition on publishing in the Ukrainian language. Schools in Ukrainian and Belarusian areas taught in Russian, which the pupils could not always understand. Only after 1905 did Belarusians and Ukrainians gain the right to use their languages in publications and education.

During the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire acquired enormous lands in Central Asia. Administrative Russification was practiced here, and some schools for indigenous children were set up. Interest in the Russian language spread among the younger generation of educated Muslims, especially Tatars, toward the end of the century. On the whole, however, St. Petersburg lacked the funds and interest to target these groups for intensive cultural integration.

russification under the soviets

Officially, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir I. Ulyanov (Lenin), explicitly repudiated all forms of national chauvinism, including Russification. In practice, the situation was more complicated. Lenin's insistence on a highly centralized party had already led to clashes with Jewish socialists (the Bund). The Bolsheviks supported national self-determination and condemned repressive policies toward non-Russians. Yet, as Marxists, they were primarily interested in creating a proletarian socialist culture. They were therefore quick to denounce bourgeois nationalism. After 1917, despite various programs to encourage the development of national (that is, non-Russian) cultures, party centralization meant that anyone wishing to reach the top of the Soviet hierarchy needed to be fluent in Russian and adopt many aspects of Russian-Soviet culture. One example of this is the Russian-style patronymics and surnames adopted by communist activists in Muslim republics of Central Asia.

Upon seizing power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly issued a "Declaration to the Peoples of Russia," pledging an end to any national or religious discrimination, guaranteeing free cultural development, and even endorsing national self-determination. The actions of the Bolsheviks in the ensuing civil war years, however, made clear that while cultural development could be accepted and even encouraged, political autonomy, much less secession, would not be tolerated. The civil war brought Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Belarus back under Moscow's control. The Soviet Constitution of 1924 set down an ostensibly federal, but in fact highly centralized, state structure. The USSR, as its name implied, consisted of individual Soviet Socialist Republics (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian; later Kazakh, Georgian, and so on), all of which officially had the right to secede from the Union. This possibility remained a dead letter until the late 1980s when the Baltic republics, seized by Stalin in the early 1940s, dared to make real use of this hitherto only theoretical right.

During the Soviet period administrative Russification was nearly total; all official documents from stamps to passports to postal forms were printed in Russian or, in union republics, in Russian and the republic language, say, Latvian. Communications within the enormous bureaucracy took place in Russian, and even a Central Asian factory director or Armenian professor needed to know Russian fluently. The material and prestige value of Russian within the USSR meant that a considerable amount of unplanned Russification or simple cultural assimilation took place. Mixed marriages between Russians and members of other nationalities, for instance, most often produced Russian-speaking offspring. Many smaller nationalities, in particular within the Russian Republic (RSFSR), witnessed considerable rates of Russification, prompting national leaders in the post-Soviet period, for example in Tatarstan, to complain of the widespread de-nationalization of their people during Soviet rule.

Culturally, matters were more complicated. While non-Russian republics did have their own schools using local languages, everyone from Tallinn to Vladivostok studied Russian in school from an early age. Radio and television programs appeared in various languages but, to give only one example, even Estonian television broadcast the Russian-language Moscow news program "Vremia" every evening. Publications appeared in dozens and even hundreds of so-called Soviet languages, and students could study even at the university level in their union republic's language. However, all dissertations at the kandidat (roughly, Ph.D.) or doktor level were written in Russian, even by students in Vilnius, Baku, or Kiev. In the Belarusian and Ukrainian republics, even obtaining an elementary education in the local language was not always simple, and parents who insisted too much ran the risk of being branded as nationalist or anti-Soviet.

The legacy of Soviet Russification in the twenty-first century remains strong but highly differentiated. When Central Asian or Belarusian leaders speak at international fora, it is nearly always in Russian. Arguably, Russian will remain the lingua franca in that region for some time. In the Baltic region, however, one hears little Russian (except by native speakers) and the bilingual street signs of the Soviet era have entirely vanished. For the future, Russification will remain a problem for the Russian Federation, where 20 percent of the total population is not ethnically Russian. Some of these national groups, in particular Tatars and Chechens, seem particularly resistant to further measures of Russification. For its part, the Russian Federation has officially disavowed any desire to Russify its citizens; the future will tell just how seriously one should take this official stance.

See also: nationalism in the soviet union; nationalism in the tsarist empire; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; slavophiles


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Theodore R. Weeks