The economic logic of the state language policy in Russia: a historical overview
Denis Kadochnikov (St. Petersburg State University, International Centre for Social
and Economic Research – Leontief Centre (Russia))
When analyzing the history of language policies in Russia from the perspective of social
sciences (and of Economics in particular) it is very tempting to view it as an outcome of
more or less rational decisions aimed at achieving specific political, social and economic
goals. It is however important to remember that actual policies carried out by any
government are always shaped by a great variety of motives and interests, not only by
the considerations of state or public benefit, but also by interests and beliefs (not
necessarily rational) of individual decision-makers as well as of those people who are
supposed to implement these policies. This definitely applies to the Russian historical
experience – the decisions taken by the rulers of Russia or the Soviet Union have not
always been rational or well calculated, not always made with a clear view of a desired
outcome. At the same time the element of irrationality should not be assumed to be
absent when interpreting the opposition to state policies – objections to and criticism of
the language policies of the Russian state throughout centuries have not always been
motivated by rational considerations, let alone by those of socio-economic nature.
Having this in mind it is still feasible in this overview to assume the rational (from the
socio-economic and political standpoint) nature of both the state language policies and
the opposition to them so as to be able to discuss the (hypothesized) economic
rationale and implications of these policies in Russia. This assumption may not be
appropriate when interpreting each and every specific policy step or a conflict
throughout Russian history, but it is justified when long-term patterns and trend in the
state language policy are concerned.
Ever since the 16th century when the centralized Russian state emerged after the long
period of feudal fragmentation the state played the leading role in the development and
standardization of Russian language and in its spreading among various ethnic groups
on its territory.
Dialectical and linguistic diversity was only seen by Russian and later Soviet state as a
problem insofar as it complicated the task of governing and controlling such a huge
nation. At the same time the official ideological vision of what this nation should be and
thus how it should be governed changed several times over centuries. Thus the
authorities’ view of whether the dialectical and linguistic diversity actually complicates or
rather helps keeping the nation together (or expanding it) also changed often and
caused corresponding changes in the language policy. Specific tasks and tools of the
state policy with regard to Russian and other languages varied greatly over time.
Nevertheless the vision of the Russian language as the key unifying factor fundamental
to the functioning of the Russian state persisted throughout most of Russia’s history.
Starting from the late 19th century and on through the Soviet period the state language
policy has been increasingly aimed at achieving not just political and ideological but
socio-economic goals such as the formation of national market or the ensuring of
deeper socio-economic integration within the country.
This historical overview aims to cover socio-economic implications of the language
policy in Russia over the last several centuries – from the late medieval Moscow state to
Russian Empire to the Soviet Union and finally to modern-day Russian Federation.
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