Languages of the Soviet Union

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The languages of the Soviet Union are hundreds of different languages and dialects from several different language groups.

In 1918, it was decreed that all nationalities in the Soviet Union had the right to education in their own language. The new orthography used the Cyrillic, Latin, or Arabic alphabet, depending on geography and culture. After 1937, all languages that had received new alphabets after 1917 began using the Cyrillic alphabet. This way, it would be easier for linguistic minorities to learn to write both Russian and their native language. In 1960, the school educational laws were changed and teaching became more dominated by Russian.[citation needed]

In 1975, Brezhnev said "under developed socialism, when the economies in our country have melted together in a coherent economic complex; when there is a new historical concept—the Soviet people—it is an objective growth in the Russian language's role as the language of international communications when one builds Communism, in the education of the new man! Together with one's own mother tongue one will speak fluent Russian, which the Soviet people have voluntarily accepted as a common historical heritage and contributes to a further stabilization of the political, economic and spiritual unity of the Soviet people."

Distribution and status

A 1947 (1957 issue) one-rouble bill, with the denomination marked in 15 languages: Один рубль (Russian), Один карбованець (Ukrainian), Адзін рубель (Belarusian), Бир сўм/Bir so‘m (Uzbek), Бiр сом (Kazakh), ერთი მანეთი /Erti maneti/ (Georgian), Бир Манат/Bir Manat (Azeri), Vienas rublis (Lithuanian), О рублэ/O rublă (Moldovan), Viens rublis (Latvian), Бир Сом (Kyrgyz), Як сўм (Tajik), Մեկ ռուբլի/Mek rrubli/ (Armenian), Бир Манат/Bir Manat (Turkmen), Üks rubla (Estonian)

East Slavic languages (Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian) dominated in the European part of the Soviet Union, the Baltic languages Lithuanian and Latvian, and the Finnic language Estonian were used next to Russian in the Baltic region, while Moldovan (the only Romance language in the union) was used in the southeast region. In the Caucasus alongside Russian there were Armenian, Azeri and Georgian. In the Russian far north, there were several minority groups who spoke different Uralic languages; most of the languages in Central Asia were Turkic with the exception of Tajik, which is an Iranian language.

The USSR was a multilingual state, with over 123 languages spoken natively.[citation needed] Although discrimination on the basis of language was illegal under the Soviet Constitution, the de facto status of these languages differed.

Although the USSR did not have de jure an official language over most of its history, until 1990,[1] and Russian was merely defined as the language of interethnic communication (Russian: язык межнационального общения), it assumed de facto the role of official language.[2] For its role and influence in the USSR, see Russification.

On a second level were the languages of the other 14 Union Republics. In line with their de jure status in a federal state, they had a small formal role at the Union level (being e.g. present in the Coat of arms of the USSR and its banknotes) and as the main language of its republic. Their effective weight, however, varied with the republic (from strong in places like in Armenia to weak in places like in Byelorussia), or even inside it.[citation needed]

Of these fourteen languages, two are often considered varieties of other languages: Tajik of Persian, and Moldovan of Romanian. Strongly promoted use of Cyrillic in many republics however, combined with lack of contact, led to the separate development of the literary languages. Some of the former Soviet republics, now independent states, continue to use the Cyrillic alphabet at present (such as Kyrgyzstan), while others have opted to use the Latin alphabet instead (such as Turkmenistan and Moldova – although the unrecognized Transnistria officially uses the Cyrillic alphabet).

The Autonomous republics of the Soviet Union and other subdivision of the USSR lacked even this de jure autonomy, and their languages had virtually no presence at the national level (and often, not even in the urban areas of the republic itself). They were, however, present in education (although often only at lower grades).[citation needed]

Some smaller languages with very dwindling small communities, like Livonian, were neglected, and weren't present either in education or in publishing.[citation needed]

Several languages of non-titular nations, like German, Korean or Polish, although having sizable communities in the USSR, and in some cases being present in education and in publishing, were not considered to be Soviet languages. On the other hand, Finnish, although not generally considered a language of the USSR, was an official language of the Karelia and its predecessor as a Soviet republic.[citation needed] Also Yiddish and Romany were considered Soviet languages.[citation needed]

Distribution of Russian in 1989

The Russian language by ethnic group in the USSR in 1989[3]
Ethnic group Total
(in thousands)
Speakers (in thousands) Percentage
L1 L2 Total L1 L2 Total
Russians 145,155 144,836 219 145,155 99.8 0.2 100
Non-Russian 140,587 18,743 68,791 87,533 13.3 48.9 62.3
Ukrainians 44,186 8,309 24,820 33,128 18.8 56.2 75.0
Uzbeks 16,698 120 3,981 4,100 0.7 23.8 24.6
Belarusians 10,036 2,862 5,487 8,349 28.5 54.7 83.2
Kazakhs 8,136 183 4,917 5,100 2.2 60.4 62.7
Azerbaijanis 6,770 113 2,325 2,439 1.7 34.3 36.0
Tatars 6,649 1,068 4,706 5,774 16.1 70.8 86.8
Armenians 4,623 352 2,178 2,530 7.6 47.1 54.7
Tajiks 4,215 35 1,166 1,200 0.8 27.7 28.5
Georgians 3,981 66 1,316 1,382 1.7 33.1 34.7
Moldovans 3,352 249 1,805 2,054 7.4 53.8 61.3
Lithuanians 3,067 55 1,163 1,218 1.8 37.9 39.7
Turkmens 2,729 27 757 783 1.0 27.7 28.7
Kyrgyz 2,529 15 890 905 0.6 35.2 35.8
Germans 2,039 1,035 918 1,953 50.8 45.0 95.8
Chuvash 1,842 429 1,199 1,628 23.3 65.1 88.4
Latvians 1,459 73 940 1,013 5.0 64.4 69.4
Bashkirs 1,449 162 1,041 1,203 11.2 71.8 83.0
Jews 1,378 1,194 140 1,334 86.6 10.1 96.7
Mordvins 1,154 377 722 1,099 32.7 62.5 95.2
Poles 1,126 323 495 817 28.6 43.9 72.6
Estonians 1,027 45 348 393 4.4 33.9 38.2
Others 12,140 1,651 7,479 9,130 13.6 61.6 75.2
Total 285,743 163,898 68,791 232,689 57.4 24.1 81.4

See also


  1. ^ In early 20th century, there had been a discussion over the need to introduce Russian as the official language of Russian Empire. The dominant view among Bolsheviks at that time was that there is no need for state language. See: "Нужен ли обязательный государственный язык?" by Lenin (1914). Staying with the Lenin's view, not state language was declared in the Soviet state.
    In 1990 the Russian language was declared as the official language of USSR and the constituent republics had rights to declare additional state languages within their jurisdictions. See Article 4 of the Law on Languages of Nations of USSR. ‹See Tfd›(in Russian)
  2. ^ Bernard Comrie, The Languages of the Soviet Union, page 31, the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1981. ISBN 0-521-23230-9
  3. ^ "All-Soviet Census 1989. Population by ethnic group and language". Demoscope Weekly (in Russian).


External links

  • Soviet Language Policy in Central Asia by Mark Dickens
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