Language was one of the Soviet government’s most powerful political tools. It used Russian as the language in which “Soviet nationalism” would be based. But the party eventually used Russian to create racial inequality, as well as to sow fear and panic among the people.
Language, Information and the Soviet State
The Soviet government deliberately used a language policy in order to further its political goals. Soviet leaders were aware that because language was a crucial part of both an individual’s and a nation’s identity, it could be manipulated to serve as a powerful tool for the State. With Russian serving all the functions of a state language in its official use in government, law and education, it would be easier for the State to exert influence over information. Control over information, in turn, would strengthen the position of the Soviet government (Grenoble, 2003).
Language: The Foundation of Soviet Nationalism
Soviet leaders cannot ignore the multilingual nature of the territory over which they ruled. At the height of its expansion, the Soviet Union encompassed an estimated 8,649,490 square miles with a total population of only less than 286,000,000. About 130 ethnic groups, including indigenous and immigrant people, were cited in the 1989 Soviet census. The census also had an official language count of about 150 languages, although a varying percentage of each of the aforementioned groups spoke their respective heritage language (Grenoble, 2003).
The Soviet Literacy Program
Consequently, language policy was one of the key agenda of the Soviet government from the moment of its foundation. In the early years of its regime, Party leaders created an aggressive literacy campaign. The goal of this program was to raise educational levels rapidly, so as to enable the Soviet Union to catch up with Western Europe in terms of industrialization. It was not without accomplishment – the Communist government succeeded in transforming a largely illiterate population to a highly-literate one in its first twenty years of existence. From 25.2% at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, literacy rate in the Soviet Union rose to 81.1% in 1939 (Grenoble, 2003).
A Four-Tiered Language Hierarchy.
The above-mentioned achievement, however, is mired in controversy. In the process of its literacy campaign, the Soviet government created a four-tiered language hierarchy. This language hierarchy allowed state financing of the development of certain languages, depending on their official status. Having official status therefore became crucial to language vitality (Grenoble, 2003).
The fourth tier – the bottom level – was comprised of languages that were not developed due to practical limitations, as well as for political reasons. The third tier was occupied by languages with written forms and some government support but lacking official status, such as Kazakh. In the second tier were titular languages that enjoyed official status in the Soviet Union but were rarely used outside the country. Russian alone occupied the first, uppermost tier – it was developed as both “the sole lingua franca (and) the ‘Soviet’ language of a new, specifically Soviet nation” (Grenoble, 2003). Russian eventually became the sole official language of all legal, administrative and educational practice (Grenoble, 2003).
Because of this language hierarchy, publications were written in some languages based on their political status rather than actual population size, number of speakers or educational or cultural needs. In the 1970s, for instance, some books in the Soviet Union were published in Azerbaijani, Kazakh and Tartar. During this decade, Tartar was the most widely-spoken language among the three – 6 million Tartars and an additional 400,000 Bashkirs considered Tartar as their native tongue, in sharp contrast to 4,380,000 Azerbaijani and 5,300,000 Kazakhs. But because Azerbaijani and Kazakh were titular languages and Tartar was just the language of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), fewer books were published in Tartar than in the other two languages. In 1971, about 302 books and booklets (with 4,538,000 copies) were published in Tartar, as opposed to 817 books and booklets (with 9,922,000 copies) in Azerbaijani or 657 (with 13,189,000 copies) in Kazakh (Grenoble, 2003).
Language and the Process of “Russification”
Another effect of the language hierarchy in the Soviet Union is the process of “Russification,” or the unification of all Russians through the Russian language. But “Russification” was more than just the mastery of the Russian tongue – people should also swear their allegiance to the Soviet regime. Simply put, they must be a Russian-speaking Communist first before a Cossack, Kazakh, Tartar, etc. “Russification” was hostile to ethnic groups who valued their culture over the Soviet regime.
“Russian Citizens”: Russians, Russianized Ukrainians and Belorussians
“Russification,” in turn, resulted in the emergence of the Russians, Russianized Ukrainians and Belorussians as dominant nationalities. Being native Russian speakers, the Soviet government regarded them as the ideal “Russian citizens.” In addition, they received more privileges than the country’s other ethnic groups. It would be fair to say, therefore, that the Russians, Russianized Ukrainians and Belorussians were the inspirations behind Homo sovieticus.
The Soviet regime defined Homo sovieticus as a “state-dependent worker” (Grancelli, 1995), the embodiment of the State’s ability to provide for its constituents (Hoffmann, 2003). This identity was largely a result of the Soviet policies of collectivization and forced industrialization that were implemented since the 1920s. These regulations, in turn, promoted urbanization. Deprived of their former status as free producers, many peasants migrated to the cities in order to avail of economic opportunities in industrial centers (Grancelli, 1995).
However, the Party’s objective of attaining high levels of industrialization failed miserably. Over-emphasis on the achievement of high rates of accumulation and the construction of heavy industry resulted in the underdevelopment of social infrastructures in the urban centers. In the process, the civilizing effects of urban life were replaced with a “barrack subculture,” which was a combination of the community culture of the village and the emerging values of urban civilization. Workers ended up “(being tied) by a set of coercive and extra-economic means which had already been used in Tsarist Russia” (Grancelli, 1995).
The aforementioned situation eventually reduced Homo sovieticus into a caricature that described the usage of human nature as an extension of the State. One of the main characteristics of Homo sovieticus is its prioritization of social values and institutions over the individual and its needs (O’Boyle, 1998). Consequently, Homo sovieticus has little or no initiative at all – it would rather exercise passivity and obedience to authority than assume personal responsibility for anything (Grancelli, 1995). This submissiveness manifests itself in the belief of Homo sovieticus that “the (State) would and should provide” (Hoffmann, 2003).
Another noteworthy feature of Homo sovieticus is its cultural background. Although Homo sovieticus was supposedly an individual that was “at home anywhere in the (Soviet Union)” (Neimanis, 1997), the language that it spoke was to be Russian. Thus, among all the ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, only the Russians, the Russianized Ukrainians and the Byelorussians would fit the description of the Homo sovieticus. Their status as Homo sovieticus allowed them privileges such as jobs and apartments in non-Russian lands. The country’s more than 100 other nationalities, as a result, bitterly resented this – they regarded the three aforementioned ethnic groups as “privileged vagabonds,” if not “alien invaders” (Neimanis, 1997).
Homo sovieticus can be interpreted as the Soviet regime’s means of promoting “Russification” to its constituents. The total subservience of Homo sovieticus to society and to authority signified the Party’s emphasis on conformity and absolutist thinking. The Russian-speaking trait of Homo sovieticus reflected the Soviet government’s usage of Russian as the “national language.” Indeed, Homo sovieticus reflected everything that the Party wanted to do with the Soviet Union and not what the people wanted to do with their country (Neimanis, 1997).
“Russification” and Information Manipulation
“Russification” was expected to produce a Soviet Union where people lived in peace, unity and prosperity. But aside from racial inequality, “Russification” also resulted in State manipulation of information. As most information in the Soviet Union was in Russian, the Soviet regime was able to easily manipulate it to its favor. The manipulation of information is crucial for the survival of the Party – censorship would somehow establish order within the constituency by concealing information that could provoke dissent. Furthermore, the Party could also manipulate information in order to sow fear and panic among the people – doing so could divert public attention from anomalies hounding it (Bialer, 1980).
The Politics of Fear
Despite its brutal and repressive nature, “the Soviet social and political system…has displayed a high level of stability and governability” (Bialer, 1980). In addition, it has been able to contain the political repercussions of pervasive opposition. This is because the Soviet regime in itself is based on fear. It is very much afraid of the chaos that might ensue should the people find out about what is really happening in their country. Thus, the Soviet regime will do anything to keep its constituents ignorant and afraid (Bialer, 1980).
Stirring Up Discontent.
In the West, organizations such as Western communist parties have been fostering an idealized image of the Soviet Union as a flourishing society. Members of these groups often use this picture to strengthen their claim that communism is the best alternative to the social problems associated with capitalism. Back in the Soviet Union, the Party’s propaganda machine often compared the country to the “doomed West” (Zemtsov, 1990). The Soviet social and political system was made to appear tolerable despite its profound political and economic problems, absence of civil rights and exploitation of labor (Zemtsov, 1990).
Praises for most of the “accomplishments” of the Soviet regime were actually based on half-truths. For instance, the Soviet regime prides itself on providing free education and health care to its citizens. But the truth is that these social services cost the people 40% of their wages. On the other hand, those living in the West only have to pay less than 10% to 12% of their wages in order to avail of the same social services. Therefore, education and health care in the Soviet Union cost about 3 to 4 times more than in the West (Zemtsov, 1990).
To mask these realities, Soviet officials would argue that the workings of their government cannot be easily comprehended by outsiders. Thus, they resort to demagogy and half-truths in order to “explain” their “accomplishments.” What they are really trying to do, however, is just to hide their failures. Attention is diverted from major events or issues to less important ones (Zemtsov, 1990).
Stereotyping of Consciousness.
Soviet officials also create an automatic mental reaction to classes of events for people to evaluate different types of information using the same evaluative criteria. In the process, interpretation and evaluation are reduced to mechanical operations. People are easily influenced by crude ideological equations (e.g., socialism = freedom, capitalism = slavery, socialism = work, capitalism = unemployment) that do not necessarily affect their deeper assumptions about the world (Zemtsov, 1990).
The Brezhnev Era
The Brezhnev Era is a classic example of how the Soviet government resorted to information manipulation in order to cover up its inadequacies. By 1964, the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev was already notorious for ill-conceived reforms, policy errors and dictatorial pretensions. Above all, his regime proved to be detrimental to the interests of the Soviet oligarchy. Consequently, Khrushchev was ousted in October 1964 by a new leadership team headed by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev also succeeded him as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Kort, 2001).
Brezhnev’s regime immediately discredited all of the reforms that Khrushchev initiated. Textbooks were banned from criticizing former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and his numerous crimes were largely minimized as “violations of Leninist norms” (Strayer, 1998). Lenin’s role as an industrializer and wartime leader, meanwhile, were constantly glossed upon. Narrower limits of acceptable expression were imposed upon artists, writers and scholars (Strayer, 1998).
Khrushchev’s regional economic councils were replaced with industrial ministries in Moscow that centralized economic planning. The local party apparatus also returned to its earlier, unified form after being divided into industrial and agricultural branches during Khrushchev’s regime. Furthermore, their terms of office were no longer fixed (Strayer, 1998).
A regime that was much more conservative in style and tone replaced Khrushchev’s populist and overly-reformist policies. Furthermore, Brezhnev’s administration was not inclined towards bold schemes or abrupt departures from established practice. The latter won the support of the nomenklatura elite, many of whom had begun their political careers in the 1930s. They viewed Brezhnev’s regime as the source of stability that have been yearning for since the Stalinist era (Strayer, 1998).
The Brezhnev era emphasized meshchanstvo, or the acquisitive, pretentious, materialistic and social-climbing way of life. Dissenters were punished in less severe but equally effective ways. Instead of executions, political opponents were exiled, dismissed from their jobs, denied degrees or promotions and even confined in mental hospitals. This led the people to believe that Brezhnev was more tolerant of political opposition than Khrushchev (Strayer, 1998).
Public expressions of unorthodox views were met with sharp restrictions. Academic specialists, for instance, had “oases of open thinking,” where they could freely discuss and debate about their own journals. Some original work was encouraged, but creative intellectuals constantly faced resistance from more conservative contenders (Strayer, 1998).
Language as a Form of Opposition
Some progressive thinkers used language to protest against the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime. Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem (1961), for instance, lamented the injustice that was brought about by the very concept of Homo sovieticus:
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings –
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were. (p. 384)
For Akhmatova, the specific injustice that the very idea of Homo sovieticus caused was the displacement of people from their native lands simply because they were not Russians, Russianized Ukrainians or Byelorussians. People from these three ethnic groups received privileges from the government simply because of their ethnicity. The real inhabitants of the lands that they encroached, meanwhile, had to migrate to the cities to avail of the little economic opportunities that were present there. Instead of helping the Soviet Union live up to the real principles of Marxism-Leninism, Homo sovieticus plunged the country back to Tsarist Russia.
In Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon (1940), meanwhile, Ivanov is appalled over Communism’s replacement of Satan:
Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads
Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him…to strip himself of every scruple in the name of higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it. (p. 149)
Based from this sentiment, it would be fair to say that Communism was indeed the incarnation of Satan. The latter lured people to sin and Hell with the promise of Heaven, while the former attracted followers to poverty and injustice with the promises of a “classless society” and a “worker’s heaven.” In the end, the only difference between Communism and Satan was that the former was based on the teachings of Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel.
Teresa Toranska’s expose Them: Stalin’s Polish Puppets (1987) described the lack of initiative among members of a Communist society due to state interference in every aspect of their lives:
Rubbish. We don’t have any hidden unemployment; all we have is a perfectly visible reluctance to work. If everyone pulled their socks up and got down to it, things would be better. But they don’t want to. There’s nothing I can do about that. They’ve got guaranteed employment, everyone in Poland has: that’s a lot. (p. 75)
For the Soviet regime, language was not just a means of communication – it was a very powerful political tool. It used Russian to “unify” the entire Soviet Union. The Party used then overly simplistic language to brainwash the people into thinking that Marxism-Leninism was the solution to all the ills of Soviet society. But in the end, the oppressive status quo under the Tsars was merely revived, but in a different form.
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