Speaking Soviet – The Marriage of Soviet Linguistics and Literacy in the Early Soviet Period

By Kate Martin

With the advent of the early Soviet period, the idea of literacy and language was one which was at the forefront of the minds of the Bolshevik leadership. Although work had begun in the late 19th and early 20th century by the previous regime to make education and literacy more available to the population, it had moved at a very slow pace: in 1914, only 41% of the population was literate[1]. To combat this, the Soviets mobilised a variety of new literacy schemes, including the successful Obshchestvo doloi negramotnost’ – The Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

‘We are not slaves’ – Soviet Illiteracy Eradication Campaign Poster


Parallel to this, in the upper echelons of Soviet sciences, work was being undertaken at a lightning pace as linguists raced to find a ‘true’ theory of Marxist Linguistics. One such individual was Boris Larin, who argued that language users could move between several metalanguages in their own mother tongue. He focussed on the language of the state, language of the family group and language of the workplace. Per his theory, the same word might have different connotations depending on the metalanguage being used at the time.

While he did not suggest that his theory could be used in terms of language planning, a study of literacy campaigns shows how they can be used to influence language use by interlinking and homogenising the metalanguages of each language user. The campaigns were quickly put into action by an army of teachers and volunteers. Figures from the Central Moscow State Archive, TsGaMo, show the scope of the Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

Numbers of Illiterates Educated                                 Numbers of Semi Literates Educated

Year In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region Total
1920/21 12000 21000 33000 3300
1922/23 3155 4500 7655 2400 1500 3900 11555
1923/24 5000 10000 15000 3710 3500 7210 22210
1924/25 5399 22953 28352 5945 7756 13701 42053
1925/26 6095 29435 35530 4746 8931 13675 49205
Total 31649 87888 119537 16801 21687 38486 158025

Figure 2: Numbers of Literate and Semi-Literate Citizens Educated in the Moscow Region between 1920-26[2]

However, literacy, to the Soviets meant more than the ability to read books and newspapers. As one early literacy scheme curriculum stated on its sign-up sheet, as a way of repaying the debt that they owed to the freedom afforded to them by the Great October Revolution all citizens “Can learn and must study the national economy”[3]. This focus on national economy greatly influenced the curricula of the literacy classes.

As well as learning about grammatical structures and reading skills, students in these schemes also learned about the different industries of the USSR. Indeed, the curriculum above stated that. “The economy is made up of production, for example that of textiles, metallurgy, mining industries and farming.”[4]

So how does the linguistic theory link to the literacy campaign, and how does it teach citizens to speak Soviet? Interestingly, the answer to this lies in newspapers. One of the main skills in the literacy curriculum was the ability to read and understand newspapers. This appears to be a rare case of the Soviet powers successfully joining the dots between their different schemes: newspaper articles often focussed heavily on the efforts and ‘successes’ (to be taken with a large grain of salt) of the various industries in the USSR.

Thus, Larin’s ‘the political’ and ‘the workplace’ metalanguages became much more closely connected. The extended definition of literacy created an impetus for more people to learn to read. The design of the curriculum meant that learners were exposed to a wide variety of topics relating to industry, and were instructed in how to read about these subjects in the newspapers. As the topics in the curricula were broad in range, people could access a much wider variety of information, and indeed compelled to read on more topics than they would have previously.

The state, as controllers of the content of the media, was able to control the ideological content of the newspapers. Words from the work metalanguage could be imbued with ideological colourations from the political.

While this is just one small part of the language planning operation which was put in place by the Soviet government during the early period of the USSR, the use of this theory demonstrates the ways that they were able to implement state goals through a trickledown effect.

Kate Martin is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her doctoral research is a multidisciplinary project which brings together Soviet linguistics, censorship and translation theory. Her research interests include the development of the Russian language and Soviet linguistics in the 1917-34 period and the translation of anti-utopian novels from this period.


[1] Ben Ecklof, ‘The Myth of the Zemstvo School: The Sources of the Expansion of Rural Education in Imperial Russia: 1864-1914’, History of Education Quarterly, 24 (1984), 561-84. p.142

[2] TsGaMO (Central State Archive of the Moscow Region) f.966, o.4 d.2408 l.6

[3] TsGaMO f.966 o.4 d.945 l.7

[4] Ibid.



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