Language Policy in Soviet Ukraine

“Son, join the school of officers of the Red Army, and the defence of soviet Ukraine will be ensured!” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

by Katie Harrison

Ukraine’s history has been undeniably tumultuous. The Ukrainian nation as we currently know it has, for centuries, been split territorially, and portioned off to different empires. Broadly speaking, the eastern regions of the country were part of the Russian Empire, and the western regions were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Poland.  These historical divisions have resulted in modern Ukraine being a nation of two almost distinct halves: historically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the fifteen which comprised the Soviet Union. Its borders shifted between the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and its collapse in 1991, with the western Ukrainian territories being annexed from Poland in 1939. As part of this annexation, the Soviet authorities implemented various language policies in an attempt to instil socialist consciousness in the populace and create the socialist union they desired. This had significant consequences on the use of Ukrainian.

The Early Soviet Years: ‘Nationalist in Form, Socialist in Content’

In the early years, as an attempt to unify all nations of the Soviet Union, the government implemented a policy on nationality called korenizatsiia (nativisation) – koren’ being the Russian for ‘root’. This policy gave all non-Russian speaking nationalities the right to use their native language in all aspects of their lives, for example in education or in publications. Stalin had conceived this idea almost ten years beforehand in Marxism and the National Question, in which he argued that all nations should have the right to samoopredelenie [self-determinism] (Stalin, 1913).

It was hoped that transmitting socialist ideology via an individual’s native tongue – rather than compelling them to use Russian – would make it easier to promote Soviet ideology in Ukraine. This policy appeared to have great success in reviving a language which had formerly been repressed by the Russian Empire. Ukrainian was allowed to develop, leading to a rise in the number of Ukrainian publications and theatre productions, as well as a steep increase in the number of children attending Ukrainian schools (Bilaniuk, 2005: 91).

The 1930s: Russification

This resurgence of Ukrainian did not last for very long. Stalin’s government made quite the U-turn at the start of the 1930s, enforcing Russian as the ‘national language’ throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to be instrumental in this, as with nativisation: in The National Question and Leninism, written in 1929, Stalin envisioned the dying out of national languages, which would be replaced by ‘one common language’ (Stalin, 1929).

Ukrainian was forced to become more like Russian: spelling conventions, grammatical forms, and lexicon were altered accordingly. In addition, in 1938 Russian language classes were made compulsory in all schools throughout the Soviet Union in the hope that every young Soviet citizen would possess at least some knowledge of Russian.

Ukrainian School, c.1930-33 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1958-9: A New Schools Policy

This schools policy changed at the end of the 1950s, allowing parents to choose the language of instruction for their children. However, this did not mean that more parents were opting for their children to be instructed in Ukrainian, though this option was available. Due to a combination of high levels of Russian immigration and the comparably high quality of Russian-language education in Soviet Ukraine, Russian schools were the more popular choice for parents. Russian was deemed the language of science and culture, and was ultimately granted higher prestige than Ukrainian.

The Late Soviet Years: Resistance to Russian?

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language continued to be manipulated so as to be more similar to Russian, while Russian maintained its status as the more prestigious of the two languages. Discrimination against Ukrainian-speakers persisted; something which appears to have provoked pro-Ukrainian feelings in those who had previously been apathetic (Bilaniuk, 2005: 9). The emergence of these feelings seemingly acted as a catalyst for the pro-Ukrainian language policies that were implemented even before the fall of the Iron Curtain: the 1989 Law on Languages made Ukrainian the single state language of the Ukrainian SSR.

Announcement in a Lviv school: “We speak Ukrainian here” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, further language laws have sustained attempts to cement Ukrainian’s status as the sole official language of the country. However, despite such efforts, the country remains largely bilingual and linguistically split, with those in the south and east typically using Russian, and those in the west using Ukrainian. This bilingualism appears to be relatively stable and unlikely to change drastically in the near future, as people are able to either switch to the most suitable language in a given situation, or even to conduct conversations in both languages due to their proximity.

Katie Harrison is currently in her first year of a Midlands3Cities DTP-funded PhD on the role of language in the Ukrainian diaspora of the United Kingdom. You can find her on Twitter @karrison27


Bilaniuk, Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine (Ithaca, 2005).

Stalin, Iosif V. 1913. ‘Marxism and the National Question’, [].

Stalin, Iosif V. 1929. ‘The National Question and Leninism’, [].


Letters to a dictator: ‘speaking Francoist’ in 1940s Spain


by Stephanie Wright

Those who have never had the (dis)pleasure of working with the remnants of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s monstrous state bureaucracy will be unfamiliar with the relentlessly formulaic nature of its documentation.

On my first encounter with Francoist bureaucracy while researching the experiences of disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War, I had hoped to find reams of letters detailing the personal experiences of wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, the longed-for letters seemed, initially, pretty dull. Confined to a bureaucratic straitjacket of rigid sentence constructions and set phrases, they appeared to tell me nothing at all about the individuality of my subjects.

It was, in fact, in the Francoist state’s interests to prescribe the way in which citizens communicated with it. By adopting the language of Francoism, letter writers acknowledged the regime’s legitimacy and values, and manifested their awareness of their place within the new order. Letters to Franco typically began with ‘His Excellency Generalísimo Franco’ and more often than not signed off with a ‘May God protect you many years’.

In his new compilation of letters written to Franco by ‘ordinary’ citizens, Antonio Sanchez Cazorla offers numerous examples of citizens ‘speaking Francoist’.[1] Ambrosio A., a soldier who accidentally shot his mother while cleaning his rifle, wrote to the

Francisco Franco ruled Spain until his death of natural causes in 1975

Caudillo in November 1938 asking to be sent back to work in his hometown in order to be close to his sister. In doing so, he took care to address Franco as ‘Generalísimo and saviour of our National Spain’ and to sign off with a ‘raised arm and an Arriba España.’[2]

Such highly politicised formulations were very common in letters to Franco and the state more generally, and the readiness with which individuals adopted these phrases is perhaps unsurprising given the repressive climate of Francoist Spain, particularly in its early years.[3]

However, such letters raise questions about the nature of the relationship between the state and its subjects. Although Ambrosio A. clearly adhered to the linguistic expectations of the regime, his insistence that his request be dealt with as quickly as possible, which was repeated in a follow-up letter (in which he also asked for a recommendation letter to include in his appeal to the Ministry of Defence), demonstrated the soldier’s underlying assertiveness.

Assertiveness was not uncommon in the letters sent to Franco or other representatives of the bureaucratic administration. One of the most striking examples of this I have encountered so far is the case of A.C., an ex-soldier whose duties during the war involved relaying messages between different military authorities on his motorbike.[4] In 1938, A.C. sustained an injury to his foot, which led him to apply to join the disabled veterans’ Corps, the succinctly-named ‘Honourable Corps of the Mutilated in the War for the Fatherland’.

The Francoist regime’s policy towards injured veterans aimed to reward those wounded heroically in battle. Therefore, veterans who had sustained wounds in other ways during their period of active service were placed in an uncertain position. This was particularly the case before 1940, after which a decree recognised those injured through accidents during the war (although the nominal distinction between them and the battle wounded was maintained).

The precise origins of A.C.’s foot injury in 1938 are unclear: according to his own testimony in his application to join the Honourable Corps, A.C. had been wounded by ‘enemy shrapnel’, while his superior officer insisted that the injury had in fact occurred as a result of a motorcycle accident.


There are clear motives as to why a soldier might try to obfuscate the true origins of his injury; entry into the Honourable Corps could guarantee the survival of a wounded veteran and his family in the difficult Francoist post-war years. The fact, however, that A.C. was willing to do so in writing is indicative of his awareness of both the state’s expectations of its citizens – most notably, bravery in battle –, and also his confidence in the space for negotiation within the regime’s bureaucratic processes, as long as one understood how to play the game.

In this sense, the dry, bureaucratic language of most citizens’ letters to the state are by no means evidence of a robotic obedience to the Francoist regime. Rather, such letters tell us of the pragmatism of many Spaniards who learnt how to engage with the system in order to meet their own individual needs.

Correspondences such as these also offer an insight into the practical realities of running a state based on rigid understandings of the ideal Francoist male. Both A.C.’s roadside wounding and Ambrosio A.’s tragically incompetent shooting of his own mother contravened the Francoist regime’s rhetorical emphasis on honour and brave sacrifice in battle. Yet that the state dealt with their cases regardless is indicative of a certain flexibility on the part of the regime to incorporate those who perhaps did not fully conform to its propagandistic ideals.

Indeed, from 1940 soldiers who had been injured through accidents during their time in the army were also granted entry into the Honourable Corps. In this way, although one must not forget the regime’s brutal repression of its Republican enemies, its somewhat flexible approach to its own supporters can perhaps offer a helpful perspective on the long-term survival of Francoism until the 1970s.

Stephanie Wright is currently in her second year of a WRoCAH-funded PhD looking at ‘Nationalist’ disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. Find her on twitter @Estefwright.

[1] Stephen Kotkin coined the term ‘Speaking Bolshevik’ in his work on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. This concept referred to the process by which Russian citizens learnt what the state expected of them as individuals, and suggested that it was the population’s willingness to meet such expectations that enabled the Soviet regime to maintain a degree of stability. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (London, 1995).

[2] Antonio Sanchez Cazorla, Cartas a Franco de los españoles de a pie (1936-1945) (Barcelona, 2016), p. 38.

[3] Michael Richards’ offers a valuable insight into the dark post-war years in Francoist Spain in his book A Time of Silence (Cambridge, 1998).

[4] Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara, 162-3758, A.C.

The header image is the author’s own.

Image of Franco:

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