Another book I’ve just finished (it’s good to have some time off from editing!) is Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. I’ve posted enthusiastically about it several times already (1, 2, 3), and I will reiterate that it’s one of the best works of historical scholarship I’ve ever read, exhaustive without being exhausting, lively and constantly illuminating (this sentence from page 334 memorably sums up the psychology of the purges: “In other words, we have injured some Koreans, therefore we can assume all Koreans are now our enemies”). If you have any interest in the topic, you must read this book. I’ll just add some language-related bits from the last section. On the beginning of the change from Latin alphabets to Cyrillic for minority languages (p. 421):
The attack on latinization came from local party leaders, who appealed to central party organs over the head of TsIK [the Central Executive Committee, the Soviet legislature] and the Soviet of Nationalities. The test case for the reversal of latinization proved to be the Kabardinian alphabet. VTsK NA [the All-Union Central Committee of the New Alphabet] was aware of the Kabardinians’ desire to shift to Russian already in 1933 but successfully stalled action on it for three years…. The Soviet of Nationalities … endorsed the shift on June 5, 1936, making Kabardinian the first Soviet language to be officially delatinized.
This decisive intervention of TsK on behalf of the Kabardinians might have been expected to start a stampede to Cyrillic. In fact, by mid-1937 only the small peoples of the north (in February 1937) had been shifted to Cyrillic, although the process had begun for the other North Caucasus peoples and for the small Siberian ethnicities: the Oirot, Khakassy, and Shortsy. The reversal of latinization, then, had been confined to the small ethnicities of the RSFSR, those whose native languages had in fact already failed to establish themselves as viable. As one Karachai delegate told the Soviet of Nationalities, “The Karachai people are not only for the Russian alphabet, but for the Russian language.” Thus, the explanation for shifting the Kabardinians was to make the Russian language and Russian culture more accessible to them. This, of course, had originally been the principal symbolic reason not to give them the Russian alphabet.
And on the final outcome (p. 429):
This atmosphere [of emphasis on “the great and mighty Russian language” and “the great culture of the Russian people” as the core of Soviet culture] naturally led to an acceleration of the delatinization program. VTsK NA was abolished in December 1937, ending its meager resistance. By April 1939, thirty-five languages had been shifted to Cyrillic. The principal concern in this process was to unify the new alphabets as closely with Russian as linguistically possible. As Michael Smith nicely put it, the goal now was “the vertical unification of the non-Russian scripts under a Russian standard, not the horizontal unification between the scripts of the Turkic peoples.” Russophilia rather than pan-Turkism was the new norm. The final alphabets shifted to Cyrillic in 1940 were those of the union republics of Central Asia. This was done with little fanfare. Latinization ended with a whimper.
On a telling shift in the use of the term смычка (smychka), literally ‘union, linking’ but in early Soviet use specialized to mean the integration of peasants into the socialist/proletarian economy (p. 435):
These events [a series of heavily publicized “fraternal visits” by non-Russian delegations to Moscow to meet with Stalin and share their culture with Muscovites in 1929-31] were said to strengthen “the links between the fraternal union republics,” promote “fraternal solidarity,” and further the “consolidation of the national ranks of the Soviet proletariat.” Most interestingly, they helped build an “alliance (smychka) between the Soviet peoples.” This was a new usage of the word smychka. In the 1920s, this term had been reserved, in nationalities policy discussions, for the alliance between the primarily native peasantry and primarily Russian proletariat within each national republic. This made it part of the larger peasant–proletarian smychka. Now smychka was being detached from its class referent and applied instead to an above-class alliance between entire nations. This was an important innovation that would eventually form the core of the doctrine of the Friendship of the Peoples in the late 1930s.
And here, in discussing the Russification program, he emphasizes a crucial distinction (p. 459):
Zhdanov also reported that Stalin emphasized “that there should be absolutely no repression or reduction of the use of the native language, that teachers should be warned that the Russian language is not to be used for instruction, but only as a subject of study.” Stalin’s comments here might seem cynical, but in fact largely were not. With few exceptions, throughout Stalin’s rule, native-language education remained mandatory in non-Russian schools and Russian remained only a subject of study. The March 1938 decree did not begin cultural russification. Its goal was only bilingualism or, at the very most, biculturalism. The friendship paradigm continued to insist on the cultivation of the non-Russians’ distinct national identities.
Martin seems to have read absolutely everything that has any bearing on the subject; in fact, he seems to have read every official document produced in the Soviet Union between the Revolution and World War II. I am in awe of both his scholarship and his ability to digest it, present it effectively, and draw conclusions from it, and I eagerly await his future books.