Friday, December 8, 2017

A Warning to the Kremlin: Soviet Denigration of National Languages Triggered End of USSR

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 8 – Today on the 26th anniversary of the Beloveshchaya accords that effectively ended the Soviet Union and at a time when Vladimir Putin is moving against the languages of the national minorities of the Russian Federation, it is useful to recall the role that Soviet attacks on non-Russian languages played in hastening the end of the USSR.

            That is what the CentrAsia portal has done today by reposting a recent article by Russian commentator Nikolay Syromyatnikov which appeared earlier this year on the Russian7 site (; the original article can be found at

            The Russian commentator points out that “many historians call the Georgian ‘language’ risings of 1978 the first serious foretaste of the disintegration of the USSR” because Moscow’s attack on the Georgian language in favor of Russian had the effect of giving “victory” in one Soviet republic to the nationalists, something that quickly inspired others.

            Indeed, Syromyatnikov continues, this was the political spark that ultimately led to the parade of sovereignties of 1988-1991 which had as its result the removal of “the Soviet Union from the map of the world.” Given what Moscow is doing in Tatarstan and other republics now, that represents a not-so-implicit warning to the Kremlin now.

            Here is how it all began, the commentator says. Georgia’s Russian-language newspaper Zarya Vostoka published the draft of a new constitution of the Georgian SSR which spoke about the primacy of Russian and only then mentioned “the equality of other languages used by the Georgian population.”

This was not only ambiguous in its meaning thus allowing for multiple interpretations but also a major change from the Georgian constitution then in effect which declared Georgian the state language of the republic and did not mention any particular “’concern’ about the Russian language.” 

After the draft appeared, the Tbilisi intelligentsia became agitated; but instead of explaining the real meaning of the draft and that it would not mark the end of Georgian as the dominant language in the republic, the media and the authorities remained silent, clearly expecting the population to simply accept what they had done.

Similar changes had been made in the constitutions of all the other Soviet republics, but nowhere else did people object so strenuously with thousands taking to the streets to demand a revision.  It is of course true, Syromyatnikov says, that the 1977 Soviet constitution promoted “the intensification of Russification of the USSR” and thus denigrated the non-Russians.

Georgians had long been unhappy with the reduction in the number of Georgian schools and hours of Georgian instruction in them, but the draft constitution in the views of many leading intellectuals, if adopted, would lead to the destruction of the Georgian language there and its replacement by Russian.

“The apogee of the controversy came on April 14 when, in the center of Tbilisi, a 100,000-strong crowd of protesters assembled – older school children, students, members of the intelligentsia and simply people who weren’t indifferent” to the fate of their language, the Russian commentator says.

The Georgian action was a brave one, he continues, because Georgians then could easily recall the harsh response of the Soviet authorities when Georgians went into the streets in 1956 to protest Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin, a native son of Georgia. In that clash, more than 20 were killed and dozens were wounded.

In April 1977, Eduard Shevardnadze, the head of the Georgian CPSU and thus of the republic, tried to calm the crowd and even reminded its participants about what had happened in 1956. But the protesters ignored his calls to disperse and stood up to the police and security forces arrayed against them.

While the crowd was in the street, the Georgian republic’s Supreme Soviet assembled and by a majority of votes approved the retention of the old version of the constitution and its stress on the primacy of Georgian. And only when Shevardnadze announced that did the protesters return to their homes.

No one was killed in the 1978 protests, although some were sent to prison.  But the most important consequences were political: Not only did Georgia retain the primacy of Georgian but other non-Russians took courage from what had happened in Tbilisi, began to organize, and took the steps that led inexorably to Beloveshchaya Pushcha.

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