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Russian as a Lingua Franca. Comparison of the Effects of Soviet Language Planning in the Transcaucasus and the Baltic States

Akademische Arbeit 2020 10 Seiten

Russistik / Slavistik



1 Introduction

2 The Transcaucasus and the Baltic States

3 Major ethnic and linguistic differences and differences to language situation, literacy, and written culture in the Soviet Union

4 Influence of the Soviet language policy and major similarities and dissimilarities

5 Status of the Russian language by the end of the Soviet Union and today

6 Conclusion


1 Introduction

„[...] le temps altère toutes choses; il n’y a pas de raison pour que la langue échappe â cette loi universelle“ - Ferdinand de Saussure made this statement in 1971 in his work Cours de linguistique générale, describing the constant change in which language finds itself. (Saussure, 1971) This statement applies to all languages - including the Russian language.

Being the official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as being widely spoken throughout the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia the Russian language is one of the top ten most widely used languages in Europe respectively Eurasia. According to the number of speakers - 260.000 worldwide in 2012 with 150.000 of them being native speakers - Russian can be considered a world language which plays an important role as a lingua franca throughout the post-Soviet region. It is one of the six official United Nations languages and also the second most widespread language on the internet. Large numbers of Russian speakers can also be found in Mongolia and Israel. Belonging to the family of East Slavic languages it is written in with the Cyrillic alphabet and being closely related to Belarusian and Ukrainian. The Russian language - or pyccKnn m3mk as it is written in the Cyrillic standard script - belongs to the branch of the Slavic languages and partly to the Balto- Slavic branch of the Indo-European language tree. The language was influenced and shaped by a number of factors of cultural and political nature such as reforms of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. (Grenoble, 2003)

This paper aims to examine and compare the impact of the effects of Soviet language planning in the Transcaucasus territory and the Baltic States by taking a closer look at the relation between culture, politics, and language. In order to achieve this, the points The Transcaucasus and the Baltic States, Major ethnicity and language differences, Differences to language situation and differences to literacy and written culture in the Soviet Union, Influence of the Soviet language policy and major similarities and dissimilarities, Status of the Russian language by the end of the Soviet Union and today are examined leading towards the conclusion of this term paper.

2 The Transcaucasus and the Baltic States

The Transcaucasian territory is located by the Caucasian mountains, adjacent to the Caspian and Black Sea. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the whole region was influenced by the Armenian Dashnaks, Georgian Mensheviks and the Azeri Musavets. Being initially united as one Transcaucasian Republic, the unity-policy ended in 1918 by the self-disbandment of the Republic’s Assembly. (Herzig, 1990)

The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed on May 26 of the same year - an event that was followed by the creation of the Georgian Soviet Democratic Republic. After the 1920-treaty between Georgia and the Soviet Union was broken by the invasion of the Red Army into Georgia in 1921, the three separate Republics again merged into one: The Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic - continuing until 1936 when the Federation was dissolved and replaced by the three constituent Soviet Republics: The Azerbaijan SSR, Georgian SSR and the Armenian SSR. The Transcaucasian nations are considered as the most diverse areas regarding ethnicity and language. (Grenoble, 2003)

Consisting of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Baltic States are adjacent to the Baltic Sea and located closer to Nordic countries such as Finland. They were part of the Russian territory during tsarist times - pro-Soviet Union. One year after the Russian Revolution each state became sovereign maintaining a certain degree of autonomy until 1944-45 when they become part of the USSR. (ibid) Post-Soviet Union, the three Baltic States developed the most interesting but also most controversial statutes concerning languages. Being very specific about language laws, they declare the official language of the State as well as usage regulations in various areas of life and citizenship requirement including the ability to speak the official state language. (Green, 1997)

3 Major ethnic and linguistic differences and differences to language situation, literacy, and written culture in the Soviet Union

Sharing the longest frontier with Russia as well as the Georgian Black Sea, Georgia is the only subtropical climate zone within the territory of the former USSR. (Grenoble, 2003) According to population data from 1989, the Azerbaijan SSR had the most inhabitants with a population of approximately seven million people, follows by the Georgian SSR with 5.4 million, and the Armenian SSR with 3.3 million. As Georgia’s population being constituted by only 70 percent of ethnic Georgians, this Republic can be considered the most divers of the Transcaucasian territory. The most homogeneous Republic regarding ethnicity is Armenia with a population consisting of 90 percent ethnic Armenians. (ibid.) In general the Caucasus is divided into northeastern Circassian or Adyghe tribes, indigenous Caucasian nations, the descendants of locals and the Turkic-speaking invaders and the Iranian-speakers like the Ossetians. In Addition, there are numerous smaller ethnic groups in the Transcaucasus. (ibid.)

Considering the linguistic development of the Transcaucasian area, every language derives from another linguistic family - Armenian derives from the Indo-European, Azerbaijan from the Turkic, and Georgian from the South Caucasian branch. (ibid.) The literary traditions of the Georgian and Armenian cultures can be traced back to the fourth to fifth centuries. Remarkable about the writings - each uses a distinct script of its own. Azerbaijani writers used the Arabic script until it changed in 1929 when the Latin script was introduced. Only ten years later - aligned with further writing reforms of the USSR - it was changed to Cyrillic. Another change took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Cyrillic script was reverted to Latin. (ibid.) As many minority languages were spoken throughout the Transcaucasian territory, the ethno- linguistic diversity posed certain challenges and difficulties. Soviet language planners needed to consider not only a multitude of different languages but also various literary traditions as well as varying levels of literacy. (ibid.)

Unlike the languages spoken in the Transcaucasian territory the titular languages of the Baltic States derive from only two different language families being Finno-Ugric - Estonian is derived from - and Baltic - Latvian and Lithuanian - come from. Finno- Ugric belongs to the Uralic languages while Baltic is of Indo-European descent. The script each of the Baltic languages is written in standard Latin. In literature a standardized language for Estonia was established in the 19th century even though publications can be traced back to the 16th century. Latvian and Lithuanian writings can be traced back to the same date in history. Latvia being the most Russianized republic, 30 percent of the population was Russian in 1989 - only 54 percent of the population was Latvian with the rest of the population consisting of other ethnic groups. In comparison with Estonia and Lithuania, where 30 respectively ten percent of the population was Russian, Latvia had the highest degree of “Russification”. (ibid) Compared to the Transcaucasian nations, the Baltic States had a remarkably high amount of native Russian speakers, while the Transcaucasus remained rather homogeneous regarding ethnicity. (ibid.)

The situation regarding language, literacy and written culture during Soviet times shifted toward an active language planning agenda shortly after the Russian Revolution. The linguistic system needed to be standardized in order to unify the rather chaotic linguistic and literary world formed by the former centuries and their reforms as well as European influences of German and French writings. (Rzhevsky, 1998)

4 Influence of the Soviet language policy and major similarities and dissimilarities

The Soviet Union placed several changed on the individual ethnic groups within the Transcaucasus with various effects.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 language changes and reforms were placed on the population by introducing a strong language polity. At this point in Russian history, 28,4 precent on the population at the age between nine and 49 years were not able to read or write - some regions had illiteracy rates approaching 100 percent. This led to the forming of the Bolshevik goal to eliminate illiteracy in order to modernize and industrialize the country. A program named LikBez - nnKBugapna 6e3rpaMOTHOCTH - or liquidation of illiteracy was introduced. In order for this campaign to be successful several issues needed to be faced, including the fact that 46 percent of the population were speaking other languages than Russian with many of them not having an established written script. The education rates of people from rural areas were low, so those people first needed to understand the educated state language. Also, standardization was needed in order to implement a universal understanding of things. (Indriöadottir, 2020)

Students in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were taught in their mother-language while other smaller linguistic groups had to adject to this policy with the Abkhazians - a minority withing the Georgian SSR - building an exception as their native language was taught during the four years of primary school. After primary school Russian was introduced as the language of instruction. The teaching paradigm shifted towards a separation of the Georgian and Abkhazian school subjects towards the end of the USSR. The policy eventually led to smaller ethnic groups losing their mother-tongue as it was only taught as secondary language at school or not at all. (ibid.)



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Institution / Hochschule
Háskóli Íslands – Humanities
russian lingua franca comparison effects soviet language planning transcaucasus baltic states

Titel: Russian as a Lingua Franca. Comparison of the Effects of Soviet Language Planning in the Transcaucasus and the Baltic States