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The Bilingualism Campaign: On Soviet Linguistic Policy and Examples of its Practical Application in the 1970’s and 1980’s

The nationalities programme of the bolsheviks was rather contradictory and this carried over into the theory and practice of linguistic policy as well, the pervading idea of which was the assumption that all inhabitants of the USSR would master Russian alongside their mother tongue without coercion and by mutual agreement. Thus there was no reference to any official state language in the constitution of Soviet Russia and later in that of the Soviet Union. Thenceforth language issues were determined by changes of course in the party in terms of nationalities policy.

As was the case with most Soviet theoretical assumptions, bilingualism also did not work particularly well in practice. The onslaught of the coercive introduction of Russian to the entire population of the Union republics was to a great extent merely propagandistic (with the possible exception of the Slavic republics, so to speak). Admittedly, the bureaucracy was gradually russified. This was not so much associated with urgent local administrative needs, rather it followed from centralisation. Alongside the duplicate bilingual bureaucratic procedures, the changes in the ethnic structure of the Union republics as a consequence of immigration policy should also be mentioned as an administrative measure, but this is another story.

By the 1970’s, it was clear that the peaceful unification of the peoples of the Soviet Union into a unified “Soviet people” was a failure from its very outset and the desired bilingualism existed only in propaganda. Finally, it was found that it was impossible to achieve homogeneity without coercive measures. The bilingualism campaign differed from one Union republic to another. This article focuses on the practical side of the campaign in Estonia in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even though the pressure of russification extended throughout society, it did not even come close to achieving the desired result because it was nevertheless not considered expedient to implement very direct administrative measures. The main thrust of the russification campaign was directed at the younger generation, which was administratively easiest to influence through the educational system.

Regardless of the compulsory increase in the hours of instruction in Russian, and the promotion of bilingual learning environments, working collectives and mixed marriages, accompanied by aggressive propaganda and international cultural imperialism that filled public spaces, it can be said that, at least in Estonia, the campaign was a failure. In the ideological sense, the result was the worst possible because the unilateral bilingualism campaign brought with it diglossia, in other words two linguistic societies that existed apart from one another and this artificially created gulf acutely makes its presence felt even nowadays.