Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Putin’s Role Model: 80 Years Ago, Stalin Made Study of Russian Obligatory in Soviet Schools

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 14 – For the first 20 years of Soviet power, Moscow required that its citizens be literate but allowed them to become so in schools where the language of instruction was that of their respective nationalities.  But on March 13, 1938, the Communist Party and Soviet government required that Russian be a required subject in all the schools in the republics.

            After the revolution, Lenin said that everyone in Soviet Russia should have the opportunity to learn “the great Russian language,” but he insisted that there must not be any force involved, Natalya Zamorskaya writes in Gazeta. “We don’t want to drive people into paradise with a club,” the Soviet leader said (

            Stalin even wrote as late as 1929 that “millions of people can succeed in the task of cultural, political and economic development only in their native, national language.”  Trying to force them to use another would thus be counterproductive to Soviet goals. In 1932, instruction in Soviet schools was conducted in 104 different languages.

            But by the end of the 1930s, the Soviet government changed its policy because ire recognized that there was a need for a single language that all citizens of the USSR must know.  According to Zamorskaya, Moscow reached that conclusion not only because of the increased mobility of the population but also for three specific reasons.

            First, the existence of a single language in its view promoted economic growth. Second, it raised the educational level of the non-Russians. And third – and this was “the most important” reason, the Gazeta journalist says – a common language was needed for ensuring that all Soviet citizens could perform military service.

                Russian was presented by the state and party as “the ‘elder brother’ language in the family of Soviet peoples” and it was stressed that “knowledge of Russian opened many doors from rising in the party to the chance to study in an institute.” That led to a decline in interest in study of non-Russian languages.

            Indeed, Zamorskaya continues, many came to view their own languages as “rural” relicts that they should escape from. Such attitudes also were behind the shift from Latin script to the Cyrillic in those languages, except for the Baltic republics and Karelia in the RSFSR because those regions had “ancient traditions of Latin script.”

            Initially, the journalist recalls, these changes were introduced among the numerically smaller people and then among the larger, union republic nationalities.  The level of knowledge of Russian required for graduation rose with each level of the educational system until there was little time left for non-Russian languages or their cultures.

            “The russification of schools in the national republics,” Zamorskaya continues, “led to the rise of mass bilingualism. Already after the death of Stalin in many union republics took place a shift in instruction in the native language to full-fledged Russian-language schools, and the percent of national schools significantly declined.”

            Indeed, she says, things got to the point that textbooks in native languages of the republics almost didn’t exist, and instruction [in such languages] was based on Russian-language training materials.”

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