The Russian Language

Russia Table of Contents

The Russian language has dominated cultural and official life throughout the history of the nation, regardless of the presence of other ethnic groups. Linguistic groups in Russia run the gamut from Slavic (spoken by more than three-quarters of the population) to Turkic, Caucasian, Finno-Ugric, Eskimo, Yiddish, and Iranian. Russification campaigns during both the tsarist and communist eras suppressed the languages and cultures of all minority nationalities. Although the Soviet-era constitutions affirmed the equality of all languages with Russian for all purposes, in fact language was a powerful tool of Soviet nationality policy. The governments of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have used the Russian language as a means of promoting unity among the country's nationalities, as well as to provide access to literary and scientific materials not available in minority languages. According to the Brezhnev regime, all Soviet peoples "voluntarily" adopted Russian for use in international communication and to promote the unity of the Soviet Union.

Beginning in 1938, the Russian language was a compulsory subject in the primary and secondary schools of all regions. In schools where an indigenous language was used alongside Russian, courses in science and mathematics were taught in Russian. Many university courses were available only in Russian, and Russian was the language of public administration in all jurisdictions in all fifteen Soviet republics. Nevertheless, the minority peoples of the Russian Republic, as well as the peoples of the other fourteen Soviet republics, continued to consider their own language as primary, and the general level of Russian fluency was low (see The Post-Soviet Education Structure, ch. 5). In the mid-1990s, in every area of the federation, Russian remains the sole language of public administration, of the armed forces, and of the scientific and technical communities. Russian schools grant diplomas in only two minority languages, Bashkir and Tatar, and higher education is conducted almost entirely in Russian.

Although Russian is the lingua franca of the Russian Federation, Article 26 of the 1993 constitution stipulates that "each person has the right to use his native language and to the free choice of language of communication, education, instruction, and creativity." Article 68 affirms the right of all peoples in the Russian Federation "to retain their mother tongue and to create conditions for its study and development." Although such constitutional provisions often prove meaningless, the non-Slavic tongues of Russia have retained their vitality, and they even have grown more prevalent in some regions. This trend is especially visible as autonomy of language becomes an important symbol of the struggle to preserve distinct ethnic identities. In the 1990s, many non-Russian ethnic groups have issued laws or decrees giving their native languages equal status with Russian in their respective regions of the Russian Federation. In the mid-1990s, some 80 percent of the non-Slavic nationalities--or 12 percent of the population of the Russian Federation--did not speak Russian as their first language.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress