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.


  1. Charles Perry says

    I have one book he probably hasn’t read: Yakhsi Ism-Insonga Khusn/Good Name Adorns People/El Nombre Adorna al Hombre, a guide to the orthography of traditional Uzbek names, which was being sold in Uzbekistan in the early Nineties. It spelled them in Cyrillic, Arabic and both English and Spanish romanizations.
    I took it as a reaction against the Russian claim that the Uzbeks should be grateful that they were being given the chance (forced) to learn a major language, viz. Russian. I think somebody looked in an atlas and discovered that Spanish and English were the most widely spoken western languages. When I was eagerly offered this book partly written in Spanish in a town in the remote Ferghana Valley, I felt a special linguistic frisson.

  2. You might also want to check out Francine Hirsch’s Empire of Nations. She seems to have decided that the only way to differentiate herself from Terry was to take random potshots at him in her footnotes, but he assigns her book anyway–it’s pretty good.
    Also, apropos of nothing in particular, you would probably greatly enjoy Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on my Mind. It’s one of the cutting-edge books in the field right now, and it’s a fantastic read.

  3. It’s interesting that only Latin and Arabic orthographies were subject to Cyrillicization: the use of the Greek (for Pontic), Hebrew (for Yiddish), Georgian, and Armenian scripts for both official and unofficial purposes remained absolutely untouched, though Pontic and Yiddish got sensible spelling reforms.
    An alt-historical speculation: if Stalin had decided to continue support for Esperanto after 1937 rather than persecuting it, perhaps it too would have been Cyrillicized, and we would have Soviet-era documents about Марксисмо кай ла интерна идео, and on the other hand социалисмо ин унуа нацио. Transliteration is trivial, the only issue being whether to write ĥ as х and h as г with a diacritic, or to use х for both h and ĥ.
    (There are only a few surviving instances of ĥ in Esperanto anyway, most having been replaced by k early on, like ĥemio > kemio, Ĥino > Ĉino. Wikipedia lists ĥaoso, ĥano, ĥoto < хота, Liĥtenŝtejno, eĥo, ĉeĥo, ĥoro, the last three of which cannot be replaced because eko ‘beginning’, ĉeko, koro also exist.)

  4. slawk: Thanks, I’ve added both to my wish list!

  5. in case the reference is lost to members present the mighty and powerful Russian language is from this poem in prose by Turgenev:
    In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou
    alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for
    thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who
    can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!
    _June 1882._
    “великий и могучий” has long become an idiom for ‘Russian language’, often in ironic sense.
    Does Martin explain that plans for latinization and subsequent abandoning of them were connected with the early bolshevik expectations of the world revolution, the debate on its inevitability/probability and the later development in Soviet marxism of the theory of the possibilty of the ‘victory of socialism in one separately taken country’? This was one basic difference between Lenin and Trotsky and later Stalin and Trotsky.
    I don’t quite understand the ‘over the head of TsIK’ phrase here. That’s exactly how party worked: lower party organs appealed to higher party organs on an issue of concern, not to Soviets.

  6. “..plans for latinization and subsequent abandoning of them were connected with the early bolshevik expectations of the world revolution, the debate on its inevitability/probability and the later development .. of the theory of the possibilty of the ‘victory of socialism in one separately taken country’?”
    Just like the early Christians and the Second Coming, then? But bloodier.

  7. sortof

  8. many thanks, Hat, for bringing Martin’s book here and reviewing it. It is an important work.
    re smychka: has anyone come across the word outside its use as a historism?

  9. Just to add that the Latin orthographies of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian weren’t cyrillicised either.

  10. re smychka: has anyone come across the word outside its use as a historism?
    It’s hard to search for because of the annoying identity (in writing) with the genitive of смычок (smychok) ‘bow’ (you wouldn’t believe how common the phrase удар смычка is), but by sifting the results in Национальный корпус русского языка I found:
    С. Н. Сергеев-Ценский. Печаль полей (1909)
    * Были два волкодава ― мудрый старик Целуй и молодой Приемыш, и смычка желтомордых заячьих гончих.
    Илья Ильф, Евгений Петров. Золотой теленок (1931)
    * Скоро они встретятся. Тогда будет торжественная смычка. Все это в пустыне, он пишет, верблюды…
    Андрей Битов. Как читали 30 лет назад (1989)
    * Поколения! Что за странная смычка… Нынче и мы ― поколение военное.
    Анатолий Найман. Славный конец бесславных поколений (1994)
    * Смычка правды с вымыслом осуществлена через изумление собственными озарениями: «Неужели же двадцать с лишним лет жила память о том сне? Два апреля, два мака — символа любви! Неужели же пятнадцать лет жила в памяти поэта эта ночь?»

  11. smychka – sorry, I meant in English.
    Ah, yes, the old hunting meaning of smychka! I wonder if it rang in the minds of those who developed the political meaning. Probably, not.

  12. sorry, I meant in English
    No, it’s not part of English at all, even as an exoticism. It’s purely an occasional transliteration of a Russian word used in discussions of early Soviet history, as you can see from a Google Books search.

  13. thanks!

  14. Okay, I’ve read the book, which I got for Christmas. I agree that it’s interesting and informative, but the writing style is a pain. Maybe it doesn’t bother Hat, who’s probably used to it, but the whole thing reads like a bad translation from Russian. There are the too-similar acronyms (TsIK, TsK, etc.), utterly unmnemonic to the English eye. There is the recurring use of publicist as if it were Russian, a habit denounced here. There are the fixed phrases like small peoples of the North, which to the anglophone understanding suggests pygmies rather than inhabitants of the Arctic. So I more slogged my way through it than actually enjoyed it.

    On another note, I’ve posted elsewhere in the blog about how Cyrillicization was done ad hoc and in a great hurry, rather than with an intention to rigidly separate nationalities, and Hat has replied (in short) “Not so; see Martin.” However, the book is only minimally concerned with developing Cyrillic orthographies, which is not surprising considering the period it covers: almost all of the new orthographies discussed are Latin. So I don’t see that it disproves my contention at all.

  15. marie-lucie says

    I don’t recall this thread from before, so it was all new to me. I don’t know very much about the language situation in those years (or even now), but on the question of why some languages were cyrillized or not, it seems to me that it may have had to do (at least partly)( with how much of a literacy tradition there was among the respective peoples. Many if not most of the “small peoples” (meaning ‘with small populations’) had never had a writing system for their own languages, and Latin alphabets had been created for them, but I would think that Armenian, Lithuanian, and some others had a long writing tradition of their own, sbared by a substantial portion of the population. Another aspect might have been how much of a Russian population there was in some of those republics: using Cyrillic for the native language would make the transition to Russian, and the lives of local Russian speakers, easier.

  16. There’s a lot more information on the earlier posts that are linked above.

  17. January First-of-May says

    re smychka: has anyone come across the word outside its use as a historism?

    IIRC, I was previously only familiar with this word in two contexts – as part of the phrase гортанная смычка “glottal stop”, and possibly also referring to a pair of people working together (or, at least, the Wiktionary example for that sense sounds familiar; as far as I can tell from the Wikt description, this is a metaphorical extension from “pair of draft dogs”, and I might well have encountered the word in that sense as well).
    [EDIT: in retrospect, I might also have known the word as part of the phrase смычка рельсов “rail joint”.]

    The deverbal origin from смыкаться “to close” is transparent, but doesn’t really explain the “pair of people” sense (or even the “pair of dogs” version).

    Before looking the word up in Wiktionary (it’s not in the English one, weirdly enough – the existing English interwiki is irrelevant), I wanted to translate it as “joining”, which seems appropriate for both of the senses I describe – and the historical one.
    It’s not that appropriate for the “[glottal] stop” sense, though, so choosing this particular word is another hint that I might have known the “pair” sense before as well.
    (On second thought, “joining” is a very literal translation of [part of] sense 2 in Russian Wiktionary, “rail joint, the gap between rails in a track”. So it’s more likely to be that one that I (subconsciously?) had in mind.)

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