Language, Language Policy, and Citizenship

Ethnicity vs. nationality: Soviet Views

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Ethnicity vs. nationality: Soviet Views

Though the Soviet Union has collapsed, the language policy that evolved there was an important one, and one that influenced other policies in other parts of the world, and not just within the Soviet bloc.7 As for connections between citizenship and language, however, one looks in Soviet documents in vain for references to concepts of citizenship. Graždanstvo is the Russian term for ‘citizenship’, and therefore Soviet parlance. But unless one is referring to becoming a Soviet citizen, other terms are more important. In fact this highlights the salience of citizenship as a 'state' and not as a process or activity, and emphasizes the dichotomy between acquiring citizenship and being born into it.

The Soviet Census, for example, distinguished primarily between narodnost' (ethnicity) and natsional'nost' (nationality). The former was determined by what language was spoken; the second, by what ethnic group one declared oneself to be a member of, even if the corresponding ethnic language was not spoken. Thus, a Ukrainian living in Soviet Russia might declare her natsional'nost' to be Ukrainian, but if she didn't speak Ukrainian, would declare her narodnost' to be Russian. Over time, a comparison of data, especially percentages of declarations of narodnost' and natsional'nost' in various censuses shows different totals, which indicated that some groups were losing their ethnicity (i.e. language) while still declaring themselves members of the nationality in question. That is, Georgians or Armenians living in Russia tended to assimilate to Russian (and were thus Russian by narodnost’), but they would still declare themselves to be Georgians or Armenians by natsional’nost’. Russian speakers tended to be most retentive of language, while other groups varied; Ukrainians scored low on Ukrainian language retention; Jews scored even lower than other groups because of the loss of Yiddish language (by switching to Russian) and because there was no territory on which Yiddish was ‘official’, but they were still classified as Jewish in `nationality'. The latter category was determined by the natsional’nost’ of the father.

In the USSR, therefore, language was the main criterion of nationality, but loss of language did not necessarily mean loss of nationality. There were two main thrusts of Soviet policy regarding language and language ‘rights’.

1. Early policy involved developing various languages that did not have literary traditions, or had not been used for ‘modern’ purposes, and using them for mass schooling, communications, public and professional life. The covert goal was to sovietize the population. This was particularly true during the NEP, the New Economic Plan (1917-28).

2. From 1938 on, the policy became one of universalizing the knowledge of Russian. With this came forced cyrillicization of former roman or Arabic scripts. Covertly this is a policy of ‘russification’ but overtly it was used to glorify and unify, and prepare for the impending war with Germany.

‘[T]he logical ground of Bolshevik policy towards nationalities after the Revolution—the korenizatsiia8 constituted a formula according to which those nations whose collective rights had been denied and repressed during the Tsarist period should have access to the free exercise of these rights within the general framework of the building of socialism in order to reach by themselves the conclusion that national sovereignty was not by itself a solution to all the national, cultural, social, political and economic problems of development. The final goal was therefore the merger of all nations into a single socialist community, once all national cultures had had the opportunity to bloom during the period of construction of socialism. All this was stressed by Stalin at the 16th Congress of the CPSU (b) in 1930. (Leprêtre 2003; emphasis mine, hfs)
Marrist ideology and Soviet (Marxist) Policy:

From 1930 until 1950, Soviet linguistics, and therefore all ideas about language, were dominated by a theory developed by the ‘linguist’ N.Y. Marr. This involved certain relationships between language and the ‘basis’ and ‘superstucture’ of society, which Marxist ideology defined as follows:

  • The basis is the economic structure of society at the given stage of its development.

  • The superstructure is the political, legal, religious, artistic, and philosophical views of society and the political, legal and other institutions corresponding to them. According to Marrism, language belonged to the superstructure of society:

Language, Marr held, is of the same type of superstructural social value as painting or art in general [and therefore can be manipulated by humans, and changed to fit the exigencies of theory.]

Marr9 believed all languages in the world to be descended from one proto-linguistic megafamily, divided into three sub-families: the Hamitic, the Semitic, and the Japhetic (from which the Kartvelian and/or Caucasian languages descended, as well as many others). Eventually, however ‘Japhetic’ elements began to ‘appear’ (or be discovered by Marr) in the most diverse languages; the Japhetic languages turned out to be ‘related’ to (or perhaps were in fact the antecedent of) all languages; hence relationship by origin, or genetic relationship, lost all meaning. In the end, Marr rejected the whole notion of genetic affiliations, attempting to closely link Marrism with Marxism. He held that since all languages were essentially Japhetic, linguistic differences could be eliminated, and all languages would eventually merge, in the same way that the State would ‘wither away’ and all peoples would merge, under Soviet sponsorship, of course. Which language would all languages merge into, and what would that language look like, i.e. which one would emerge as the universal one? Simple: rather than be a blend of all the world’s languages, it would resemble…Russian (of course).

So early Soviet language policy allowed the development of individual linguistic groups, which were supposed to pass through the stage of bourgeois development (‘bourgeois nationalism’) only to then realize the futility of the bourgeois nationalist stage, and finally throw it all off. Citizenship did not require any particular language adherence or knowledge, at first. But gradually it became clear that Russian was going to be important for citizens of the Soviet Union. And Russian was indeed the language that was made available to all, since Russian had the ‘personal’ right status that the other languages lacked, and because Russian was the ‘Big Brother’ language from which other languages were supposed to borrow, especially terminology (for science and technology) that they lacked.

The fact that there were contradictions between Marrism and the findings of linguistic science could then be countered by the assertion that Marrism was 'Marxist linguistics' and so naturally must be engaged in ideological struggle with ‘bourgeois linguistics', which was ‘incompatible with Marxism':
"When Marr's hypothesis on linguistic kinship led to a contradiction of the facts of linguistic scholarship, he attempted to eliminate this contradiction by declaring all 'traditional' . . . linguistics antiquated and incompatible with Marxism (Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (15),1977:492).
In 1950, however, Stalin abruptly repudiated Marrist theory, saying that:
“(a) A Marxist cannot regard language as a superstructure on the basis. (b) To confuse language and superstructure is to commit a serious error. N. Y. Marr introduced into linguistics the incorrect, non-Marxist formula that language is a superstructure, and got himself into a muddle and put linguistics into a muddle. Soviet linguistics cannot be advanced on the basis of an incorrect formula.” (Stalin 1950:196-9, 203, 229).
Early Soviet Policy was thus tolerant and promotive of linguistic differences, and Soviet citizenship was thus not contingent on a knowledge of Russian. Later, however, the old (pre-revolutionary, and post-revolutionary covert) russifying tendency reasserted itself, partly justified by the Marrist idea, partly just plain old russification under the paternalist Big Brother leadership of the Russian people, who were thus primus inter pares. It is no wonder this idea crashed and burned in 1991, and that the Soviet Union collapsed so easily, and that all the old hostilities and tensions between various national groups reemerged in all their old virulence. Soviet ideology about bourgeois nationalism and how it would wither away under socialism had totally masked and suppressed all the hostilities between various groups, rather than eliminate them. When the suppression was lifted, the old tensions reemerged.

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