Among the small library of books on Russian history I’m weaving between like a bee among blossoms is Orlando Figes’s massive A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution : 1891-1924, where on page 81 I found the following passage in a section on enforced Russianization:

But if forbidding [Polish] high-school students to speak in Polish was merely harsh (at least they had learned to speak in Russian), to do the same to railway porters (most of whom had never learned Russian, which as ‘public officials’ they were ordered to speak) was to enter into the cruelly surreal. This was not the only act of bureaucratic madness. In 1907 the medical committee in Kiev Province refused to allow cholera epidemic notices to be published in Ukrainian with the result that many of the peasants, who could not read Russian, died from drinking infected water.

And there are people who want to enforce similar English-only policies in the United States. Forward into the cruelly surreal, comrades!


  1. 1) I bet those peasants could not read any language, as well as majority Russian peasants.
    2) I bet that if they could read Ukrainian, they would easily understand the notice in Russian.
    Do you think the basic words such as “water”, “drink”, “cholera” are any different in Ukrainian?
    3) Look at the Baltic states with their policy of deRussianization, mister!

  2. ‘Agree with the previous speaker’, absolutely.
    Even in Soviet times, when officially Ukraine achieved universal literacy, the cholera posters (sad reality as recent as 2000, last I heard from relatives living on Azov coast)featured more pictorial messages than text (bucket with water placed near well, crossed with thick red line), just in case.
    What was the vocabulary required of the railway porters? I bet 4-5 phrases necessary for performing their job didn’t include terms in Old Church or academic slang.
    Do you think all 114 nationalities (or more, I’m not sure if exact figure) who used to form Soviet Union spoke only Russian? If Uzbeks or Georgians whose language is radically different from Slavs, could learn state language at least in the minimum required for their job, Ukranians could do it much easier, be it in Tsarist times or in 1930.
    As to de-Russification of Baltic states: 2 weeks ago I had a long conversation with prodessor of semiotics from Tartu, ethnic Russian fluent in German and English (at least;those are languages I personally heard her speak), who lives in Estonia for more than 20 years. She is afraid of the exam in Estonian, since it’s a prerequisite for citizenship. “2 orthographic mistakes in dictation and you’re out”, she told me. Americans are unbelievably lax in their citizenship English requirements.

  3. I’ll agree with Jack as well. How could Figes fall for what appears to be pure Ukrainian nationalist propaganda? I mean, I actually do sympathize with the Ukrainian desire to speak and write Ukrainian but this is just silly. I can’t see how forbidding the printing of cholera notices in Ukrainian would have had any significant effect in 1907, especially in Kiev province where Russian was widely spoken even then, and most literate Ukrainians were perfectly capable of reading Russian. Maybe Figes meant to write “would not allow notices to be published in Polish”, I think there was still a significant Polish minority in Kiev in those days.

  4. Melissa Spore says

    A similar mess occurred in Quebec in the 19thc. Of course, language issues get mixed up with power, and superstition (in this case anti-vaccination) and cowardly public officials.The whole thing is nicely told in historian Michael Bliss’s book , Plague: A story of Smallpox in Montreal, HarperCollins 1991.
    This book has me agree with Language Hat.

  5. I don’t know whether Figes’ examples are good — the one involving porters sounds plausible because this is how bureaucracy often works in Russia, while the cholera notices may be a folk tale — yet the imperial government did encourage Russification in the Ukraine (not sure about Poland.) I can’t agree with your comparison, LH: Poles and Ukrainians had lived on their land for centuries, and did not choose to submit to the Russian empire or move to Russia. On the contrary, most non-English speakers in the US are recent immigrants who chose to move there (unless one believes most are true refugees) and should have expected having to adjust to their new predicament.
    The Russophones of the Baltics are somewhere in-between these two extremes.

  6. First off, let me give Figes’s references for the paragraph (I deplore this modern habit of only footnoting paragraphs as a whole, leaving the reader to track down the source of individual statements):
    Pares, B., The Fall of the Russian Monarchy, London, 1939
    Krawchenko, B., Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth-Century Ukraine, New York, 1985.
    Lehovich, D., White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, New York, 1974.
    Since there’s an anecdote from Denikin’s life earlier in the paragraph (as a Russian in a Warsaw district high school during the mid-1880s he “was obliged to monitor the conversations of his Polish classmates, thought that the policy was ‘unrealistically harsh’ and always wrote down ‘nothing to report'”), I’m assuming the Polish anecdote comes from Pares (an Englishman who knew Russia well — in 1907 he founded the first School of Russian Studies at a British university) and the Ukrainian one from Krawchenko.
    Now, to those who are expressing patriotic indignation: I’m not quite sure what your position is. Yes, of course it’s possible the cholera example could turn out to be exaggerated or wrong if you traced it back to the source (though I point out that it doesn’t refer to the city of Kiev, which would certainly make it unlikely, but to Kiev Province, which included a large rural region in which many people certainly did not speak Russian — and I’m pretty sure tsarist posters didn’t feature the kind of graphics we take for granted today), but really, so what? The point is not this particular instance (which could obviously be multiplied many times over) but the general principle, and are you guys really defending the laws forbidding people to use their own language? I’m not promulgating anti-Russian propaganda here (if you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you know that I’m absurdly pro-Russian), I’m supporting the basic human right to use your own language for public purposes.
    And Alexei, Texas and the Southwest were Spanish-speaking for centuries before the US appropriated those regions — they did not “choose” to become Americans any more than Latvians chose to become Russians.

  7. LH,
    I’m not expressing patriotic indignation. Rather rebelling against an attack on common sense. I suppose some us have been exposed to far too much overwrought Ukrainian indignation and tend to discount it. There was a fairly harsh Russification policy in Ukraine, I’m not denying that. My problem with Figes’ example is that the consequences of the language policy are obviously ridiculously exagerrated. Was it stupid to refuse to allow the publishing of cholera notices in Ukrainian? Certainly. Is it at all plausible that this decision led to an increased death rate among the peasants of Kiev province? No, for the reasons published above (i.e. most peasants illiterate anyway, literate peasants perfectly capable of deciphering the Russian which would have been very similar). As an example of “bureaucratic madness” this one is fairly lame, you could easily find far worse examples of linguistic suppression in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Provence, Catalunya, the Basque regions, etc.
    Also I’m not sure it’s really fair to the indigenous peoples of Texas and the Southwest to claim that those regions were Spanish-speaking for “centuries” before the US conquered them. Yes, those lands were an integral part of Mexico but I’m not sure the local population had been heavily hispanicized even by the early 19th century.

  8. Who argues, LH: of course everybody have a right to speak their own language. But how you propose to run a vast country with more than a hundred drastically different languages without having one “lingua franca” for mutual communication?
    Once you have this official common language established, it is logical to enforce it’s use in public/official situations.
    It’s been the case in all empires of the world, from Roman to Ottoman to Austro-Hungarian to British. A citizen always has a choice – to sit in his small rural neck of the woods and speak a local dialect all his life or learn 2-3-4 languages of the wider world and to have his survival chances multiplied. State/official language simplified the task for the latter: you only have to learn one foreign language instead of 2-3-4.
    Excesses of the Tsarism’s forced Russification nonwithstanding (and there are plenty), the practice of having a state language is a sound practice; as usual, there shoud be a golden middle ground.
    As to the Spanish of US SouthWest, why don’t we continue your logic and get back to the native American languages of the area which were suppressed by Spain (and later Mexico)? Or, as some propose, assume Arabic as rightful language in California, since as they claim the name came from “Calif” and proves Arab merchants were the first explorers.
    Again, I don’t think anybody should restrict use of Spanish as a first language in private situations, but the official language of this country is English and English only.

  9. Um. The United States has no official language. There are states within the US that have official languages; New Mexico comes to mind, which has English and Spanish as its joint official languages, which are enshrined in its constitution.
    This thread somehow reminds me of the conversation a friend from New Mexico had with his now-wife from Ukraine, about how the US didn’t have ‘nationalities’ in the post-Soviet sense. Two very intelligent people working from very different premises.

  10. Vanya and Tatyana: Excellent points, and of course I’m not arguing against the value of a common language — just the excesses of tsarist practice.
    Carlos: I’m not saying the US has an official language, I’m saying there are people who want one and want it enforced with the same kind of rigor practiced by tsarist Russia, and I’m saying they’re idiots.

  11. Yes. My response was more to Tatyana and Vanya.
    Can’t stand the idea of an official language here myself. Even though some people of good will do sponsor it, it’s often the wedge for anti-immigrant and anti-minority hate-mongering. A common language happens anyway; and if anything, the process is occurring faster today than it did in the heyday of mass immigration to the US, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  12. LH, you don’t know the 1/100 of this topic, and excesses from both sides.

  13. Interesting, Carlos, would you care to elaborate, how insistence on official language of the country is “anti-minority hate-mongering”?
    Are you setting a straw-man to pursue your own political agenda? To answer you in your own language: I can’t stand the idea of 2-language states, people who advocate it are US-haters, don’t care for identity or integrity of this country, their only wish is to suffocate us with freeloading parasites from south of the border and who basically want to transform US into one of shit-states of the South America.
    How do you like this speech?
    As to the anti-immigration – yes, I’m against illegals, and my reasons economics as much as national security-related. Note, before you start foaming, that I am pro legal, controlled and selective immigration.

  14. Tatyana, please read what I wrote. “Even though some people of good will do sponsor it, it’s often the wedge for anti-immigrant and anti-minority hate-mongering.”
    That’s a simple statement of fact, and can be corroborated in any good history of immigrant America.
    Now, if I didn’t know better, I might think that you’ve lost your good judgment, and are reading things into a straw man named ‘Carlos’ of your own creation. Note that I have not said anything about what language policy or immigration I do prefer, and certainly nothing about the “two-language” agenda that you impart to me.
    Finally, your assumption that I am somehow South American is dead wrong. I’m from Wisconsin, which happily had German as its de facto second language for nearly a century, and has a more stable and civilized government for longer than pretty much anywhere in the world you care to name.
    Perhaps you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.
    Carlos (who usually likes Russians)

  15. Well, this thread seems to be heading in the wrong direction. I agree with Carlos that the idea of an official language is wrong-headed, counter-productive, and indeed profoundly Un-American. The sucess of a language is dependent on its economic and cultural stature, you can’t succesfully mandate its superiority(How’s La langue francaise doing these days?). You can see this in the former Soviet Union where Russian remains very much alive in the former Soviet states despite the efforts of nationalist governments to stamp it out. The movies, pop songs, magazines, books and web-sites in Russian are just a lot more interesting than most of what’s available in Ukrainian, Kazakh, Latvian, etc. Unless it’s eventually displaced by English, Russian will be the lingua franca of Eurasia for a while yet. The same is true in the US – English is a prestige language, Spanish generally is not. I don’t suppose anyone has yet read Ostler’s new book “Empires of the Word”? He apparently discusses these issues in some detail.
    And for the record, at least in Boston, the “freeloading parasites” from Latin America appear to be doing the bulk of the hard physical labor while our native born teenagers are happy to loaf around and sponge off their parents.

  16. Languagehat:
    The vast majority of Spanish-speaking people in Texas and the Southwest are in fact immigrants, not descendents of people who were living there before the region became part of the US.

  17. Carlos,
    didn’t you sited an example of New-Mexico as a state with two official languages?
    If you know examples of immediate connection between advocating official language and anti-minority hate-mongering, please enlighten me, I’d be greatful. I’m, personally, an example of defending the former but feel insulted being associated with the latter. I don’t have an impression you were talking from American history point of view.
    As to my own supposed strawman setting: am I the one connecting in same paragraph official country language with anti-immigration and anti-minority hate-mongering? Where do you find me assuming you’re South American? You raised immigration issue, as far as I know biggest illegal immigration in this country is from South of the border, and I talked about that. Simple logic, or it is for me.
    I don’t think I did any jumping, sorry. Judging from Vanya’s response, since he agrees with you in exactly what you think I imagined, I’m not mistaken.(And I’ve been to WI, wonderful state – everybody speak flawless English and my host served excellent German sausage breakfast.)
    Vanya, I don’t find direction this thread is going “wrong”, on the contrary, quite interesting. Or the thread is wrong because I express different opinion? You can’t compare bilingual situation in post-Soviet states to English/Spanish in America, if only because majority of Spanish-speaking residents of this country are as much newcomers as everybody else, if not more recent. WI is not Germany, in other words. Ukrainian as full-fledged language existed in Ukraine long before Russian, same story with Kyrgiz, Mari, or Latvian, and I never heard of Kyrgiz, Mari or Latvians trying to impose the use of their national languages in Russia.
    There is a reason Spanish isn’t a prestige language, may be because economic model of South American countries don’t have any prestige?
    As to the limuzine-liberal city of Boston, please consider these two points:
    a) what if there were 1/10 or less of the illegal menual laborers, who do you think their chunk of the job market will collapse? Of course, to make tax-paying Americans to assume their jobs, you’d have to dissolve blackmailing unions with their dirty price-fixing practices, and I doubt this will ever happen in MA.
    b)teenagers sponging on their parents is not a reason to steal more of my tax money to provide benefits for illegal immigrants. I tend to think it’s an issue for their parents and doesn’t concern me. I have my own teenager and believe me, not he nor I sponging on anybody.
    When I linked the articles to support my position, I hoped they’ll be read, it’s much more efficient than shorthanding the argument. Regretfully, I see it’s not the case.

  18. Tatyana, while I find Samuelson much more credible than the bizarre, marginal, militia fellow that you linked to, I’ve also studied the economics of the situation, and ultimately I don’t find his arguments plausible. Wages are soft because current economic policy has shifted earnings to capital’s share. (This isn’t Marxism, unless you think a Cobb-Douglas production function is Marxism.)
    For examples of how English-language legislation has been used by racists and hate-mongers in the United States’ history, you might start with the Know-Nothings, work your way through the various movements of the late 19th century — “Rum, Romanism, and rebellion” is my favorite motto from that time period — move to the anti-Asian legislation of the early 20th — it took a Supreme Court ruling to determine that while Armenians came from Asia, they were not Asiatics as such, sigh — and then to the various justifications used to shut the Golden Door in the 1920s. Also, you might want to read how literacy tests were used to disenfranchise people in the old South, within the lifetime of half of the US’s population. South Texas as well as Mississippi.
    As for Spanish not being a prestige language, 1.6 continents disagree with you. And Spanish has been the traditional second language taught in US high schools since World War II.

  19. Vanya, I have to admit I was worried about the thread getting nasty, but so far it’s filled with vigorous but civil discussion (barring the occasional innuendo), and I’m enjoying it.

  20. Carlos,
    Spanish is popular in the US because it is useful for talking to your maid or your gardener, or for going on spring break. I wouldn’t equate that with economic power. If you want to get ahead economically you have to learn English. As far as foreign languages, Americans (very generally speaking) look at Chinese, Russian, German, French as languages that provide access to a rich cultural heritage and/or increase your earning potential by allowing you to work in other dynamic economies. Those I would consider prestige languages. I would agree that Spanish has an incredibly rich literary heritage and probably should be a prestige language, but my impression is that most Americans who study Spanish don’t view it that way.
    You have been not so subtly implying that immigrants from Latin America are lazy and freeboaters. That doesn’t really help your argument. It’s also patently ridiculous. I can only think you have had very limited exposure to Latin Americans. I’d be very careful about making those kinds of generalizations – many native-born Americans have very negative preconceived notions about immigrants from the former Soviet Union which you probably wouldn’t think fair. And your “blackmailing unions” comment just makes no sense at all – who has unionized landscaping? To make “tax-paying Americans” assume those jobs you would have to pay much higher wages and provide benefits, which would seriously inconvenience most of the leaders of the Republican party.

  21. Vanya, really and truly, Spanish was taught in US high schools in the postwar era in places where encountering a native speaker of Spanish (other than, possibly, the Spanish teacher) was an exceedingly rare event. Permanent mass Hispanophone immigration to the US was a localized thing until very recently: the cities of the Northeast, the immediate border areas with Mexico, and south Florida. Even in areas that used migrant or bracero labor, contact with the workers was very limited.
    I think Spanish was usually chosen in part because the recent war had put the German language into further disrepute — there are many examples of this happening after World War One — and Latin had too much cultural baggage for many postwar educators. But at the expense of French? It’s something of a mystery; but I suspect Spanish was regarded as easier to teach.

  22. So, Carlos, was I imagining things as you claimed, or not? No admittance and no apologies; fine.
    Looks like you assumed “mine is bigger than yours” tactic, what’s with all the name dropping and no links to back you up. (Hattie, I heard audience asking for innuendoes; happy to oblige)
    Are you saying the history of immigration laws in US leads to your ideal where there is no barriers for anybody’s entry? No more questions of illegality since it’s free-for-all? What exactly is the goal in the policy, in your opinion?
    Border situation: if bizarre, marginal and what else? fellow has enough common sense to see the danger clearly and theoreticians haven’t, I think they should try to adjust. You have your data, I have mine. So far I haven’t seen catastrophic predictions coming from the liberal naysayers turn true; in fact I have seen the opposite; so I’ll continue to trust my sources, with your permission.
    As to softening of the wages due to capital’s share (how the H we get there from official language question?) who do you think creates jobs? if entrepreneurs of this country wouldn’t be rewarded for their risk taking, our economy will resemble one of the Latin American hellholes you admire so much. And I say hellholes because current immigration rates FROM these countries TO US seems to prove me right. Strangely, there is no mass exodus towards Chavez’ Venezuela, the flow go’s in the opposite direction, isn’t it? That’s regarding prestige, btw.
    I suspect the reason Americans study Spanish is because Spanish-speaking countries are our closest neighbours whose language is different from English (as opposed to Canada); it’s just more pragmatic than to study Greek, f.ex. Still, as somebody who came from the country with multilingual neighbors but typical foreign language choices in school being limited to English, German (in lesser degree) and French (very rare), I’m impressed of assortment of foreign languages offered for study in American high schools – Spanish not being the only choice. But I digress.
    Oh, one more thing, Carlos – please don’t call me Russian, it’s not my nationality. Speaking Russian doesn’t makes me an ethnic Slav.
    Vanya, may I offer a primitive hiring problem for you?
    You’re a property owner who needs to fix sidewalk in front of the building. You collect bids from 2 general contractors. First, a licensed and insured local guy, gives you $30,000 figure and second – a Costa-Rican, $5000. For simplicity let’s assume quality of their job is the same, as is the time frame. The difference come from unionized labor the first G.C. uses – wages, coffee breaks, required rent of portable toilet, etc – and all the fees and taxes he has to pass along. The Costa-Rican, needless to say, employs illegal Mexicans (who, btw, could disappear from the job without a trace at any moment), pays them peanuts in cash and doesn’t share a penny with the government. Whom would you hire? Why, do you think, American Unions have to secure their share of the market by lobbying and setting legal obligations for property owners in Manhattan, f.ex. to hire only unionized contractors? They can’t compete with the second “business model” on a free market. You can’t possibly know Americans aren’t willing to do the job illegals do – they aren’t in equal competing situation. Dissolve unions, limit immigration into the country, so as to create equal opportunity for everyone, and we’ll see.
    Freeloading: let me refer you to S. Sailer at Vdare for statistics how much each illegal family, however hard they work for $3/hr cash, cost you and me as taxpayers.
    Thank you for your advice, Vanya, to be careful with my views, but I think I’ll pass. I stopped being afraid long time ago, while leaving our mutual motherland. As to the negative opinion Americans have of former SU residents, they are probably have their reasons; I try to change it with my work – and arguing rationally, without threats and condescension.
    It’s been real fun talking to you, gentlemen. Good night.

  23. Michael Farris says

    “please don’t call me Russian, it’s not my nationality. Speaking Russian doesn’t makes me an ethnic Slav.”
    This is one of those things where my version of reality and that of central/east european natives definitely clash in irreconcileble(sp?) ways.
    To me, ethnic identification is primarily linguistic and cultural (in the socio-anthropological sense). While to many in Europe, it’s based on … bloodlines? Something else?
    I’m willing to respect your wishes and accept that you’re not Russian, but I’m very curious about why you’re not. That is, linguistically and culturally, if you’re not Russian, then what are you? And how does that meaningfully differ from those who are Russian?

  24. Uh-oh. Now I am worried about the thread getting nasty. Shall we stick to the subject of language-learning (if not the policies of tsarist Russia)? Commenters’ natsional’nost’ is not relevant.

  25. Michael Farris says

    Well, in general my opinions on language policy are very unpopular (as witnessed here before and why I haven’t commented on this topic earlier), but I hope you and Tatyana know that nothing nasty was meant on my part. It’s something that I’ve never understood and I’m genuinely curious (though I realize this is a potentially difficult topic).
    Tatyana (and others) is of course free to ignore me entirely (an often sensible option) or answer privately (my real address does not have any double letters).

  26. Michael,
    I won’t presume to speak for Tatyana, who, as you have probably noticed is quite capable of speaking for herself. But is it quite easy to be a native Russian speaker and not be Russian. For example Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian or Kazakh spring to mind. Beyond that there are dozens of small nationalities in Russia who have culturally assimilated for the most part but still retain a sense of a separate identity – Tatars, Komi, etc. This is not just a Central European thing, it is probably true anywhere people were forcibly incorporated and assimiliated into an alien nation state. Most of the Welsh population only speaks English, and culturally resembles the English in many ways – at least to an outsider. But don’t try to call a Welshman an Englishman. Same goes for Irish or Scots.

  27. Michael, please.
    I thought we’ve already discussed it at leangth, in previous private conversations.
    In any case, you can call me American whose first language is Russian.
    If you want to ask further questions, my address is below.

  28. Michael Farris says

    “Most of the Welsh population only speaks English, and culturally resembles the English in many ways – at least to an outsider. But don’t try to call a Welshman an Englishman. Same goes for Irish or Scots.”
    But I don’t think Welsh people would deny being British (the relevant linguistic cultural level to me). That is, to me the equivalent of “Russian” isn’t Welsh or Scot, but “British”. I can understand that many people might not see it that way though and so I will promptly shut up with apologies before senyor hat becomes to upset with me.

  29. Tatyana, I’m bowing out. You’ve got issues that aren’t going to be resolved in this conversation, and perhaps not in any. But here’s a helpful hint to getting along in this country: don’t ascribe motives to people you don’t know that are the exact opposite of the ones they have.

  30. Carlos, here’s a helpful hint to you – read your comment in front of the mirror.

  31. I think the equivalent of “British” was “Soviet” which no longer exists. You could use the “Rosiiskii” vs “Ruskii” distinction for people actually living in the Russian Federation but that no longer has any relevance to Russian-speaking Jews in Latvia, Russian-speaking Poles in Kazakhstan, Ukrainians whose first language is Russian, etc. Similarly Irish from Dublin are not “British”.

  32. Michael, English does not distinguish between rossijskij and russkij (does Polish?), and one may be a native speaker of Russian without fitting into either group. Pretty much anyone in the fair city of Odessa, for instance, speaks Russian (perhaps a curious dialect thereof) as the first language or one of the two first ones, but most of these people are, or consider themselves to be, Ukrainian, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, etc. And they are Ukrainian citizens, too.
    LH: I’m still not convinced by your argument — how many descendants of Spanish colonists in the formerly Mexican states don’t speak English?

  33. how many descendants of Spanish colonists in the formerly Mexican states don’t speak English?
    I don’t know, and it’s not really relevant. My point was that those areas were incorporated into the US much as the Baltic and other outlying regions were incorporated into the Russian Empire/USSR, so your original distinction doesn’t really work.

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