I’m still reading Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (see the previous post), and I want to quote some material from the start of Chapter 3, “Linguistic Ukrainization, 1923–1932.” Martin is explaining the policy of korenizatsiia, which he translates “indigenization” (it’s derived from the adjective korennoi, as used in the term korennoi narod ‘indigenous people’; I myself would prefer to transliterate it korenizatsiya, but it’s his book):
Korenizatsiia, as definitively formulated at party congresses in March 1921 and April 1923, consisted of two major tasks: the creation of national elites (Affirmative Action) and the promotion of local national languages to a dominant position in the non-Russian territories (linguistic korenizatsiia). Linguistic korenizatsiia would prove much more difficult to achieve. Between April 1923 and December 1932, central party and soviet organs issued dozens of resolutions urging the immediate implementation of linguistic korenizatsiia. Local republican and oblast authorities issued hundreds, if not thousands, of similar decrees. Nevertheless, linguistic korenizatsiia failed almost everywhere. Why?
Martin says he “initially assumed that central authorities must have been sending mixed signals, publicly trumpeting the need for immediate korenizatsiia while privately letting it be known that this public rhetoric was largely for show,” but this turned out not to be the case: not only the “soft-line bureaucracies” were urging it, but the hard-line organs “frequently rebuked local party organizations for failing to implement korenizatsiia.[…] Stalin publicly and privately defended korenizatsiia and silenced its critics. Despite this sustained central support, linguistic korenizatsiia failed. Why?”
Although the Soviet leadership did consistently and sincerely support korenizatsiia, it nevertheless also viewed its implementation as a secondary task, an auxiliary rather than a core Bolshevik project, and therefore its support was soft. Failure to implement korenizatsiia was censured, but unlike failure to meet grain requisition quotas or industrialization targets, it rarely led to demotion and never resulted in arrest or execution. Interestingly, this meant that local conditions proved decisive. If a republic’s leadership aggressively supported korenizatsiia and could overcome local resistance without soliciting punitive measures from the center, linguistic korenizatsiia could be and was achieved. If not, it would fail. The center would not tolerate an open and demonstrative repudiation of korenizatsiia, but it would likewise not intervene decisively to correct a lackluster performance.
In terms of linguistic korenizatsiia, the Soviet Union’s non-Russian territories can be divided into three categories. For the vast majority, most of the regions that the Soviets called their “culturally backward eastern national territories,” complete linguistic korenizatsiia was never seriously attempted. The national languages were promoted vigorously in the press and general education but made little progress in government, industry, and higher education. There were simply too few educated titular nationals. As a result, all efforts were devoted to the Affirmative Action component of korenizatsiia: the training and promotion of natives into positions of authority.[…]
The opposing category, where local conditions were so favorable that linguistic korenizatsiia was achieved rapidly and with little difficulty, consisted of only two republics: Georgia and Armenia. The Georgian Menshevik and Armenian Dashnaktsutiun governments had already established their respective languages as state languages prior to the Soviet conquest.[…]
Most interesting was the third category, those republics where the local forces backing and opposing linguistic korenizatsiia were in near equilibrium. This was most true of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Tatarstan. In Ukraine, there was both exceptionally strong support for and resistance to linguistic Ukrainization. Moreover, both support and resistance came from within the party.[…] Tatarstan resembled Ukraine, with a very strong national movement encountering an even stronger and more entrenched Russian presence. The large and politically influential Russian population ultimately confined linguistic Tatarization to majority Tatar regions, where it was nevertheless pursued with great vigor.
So we see that even a powerful and brutal state apparatus has to set priorities, and the lower-priority stuff has to take its chances with local conditions. (As Martin points out, this was not the case with a top-priority policy like collectivization, which was pushed through regardless of local objections and massive economic losses, not to mention loss of life.)