Righting the Writing. The Power Dynamic of Soviet Ukraine Language Policies and Reforms in the 1920s-1930s
- Language Reform,
The first post-revolutionary decades became decisive for the development of the Ukrainian language, national culture and identity. The Ukrainian language, previously subject to a number of bans, finally entered the stage of intensive status and corpus planning. Thanks to this, it became a decisive factor in the rivalry between different forms of statehood vying on the Ukrainian territory after 1917. At the same time, the status upgrade and broader public use called for the standardisation of the language. The first practical steps towards the unification of different orthographic traditions were undertaken from 1918 to 1921. The turbulence of civil war, however, determined the failure of comprehensive language reform. Calls for linguistic unification gained new force in the second half of the 1920s: with the introduction of Ukrainizacija, the local variant of the all-Union nationalities policy of korenizacija introduced in 1923, the Ukrainian language was acknowledged as the means to the republic’s Sovietisation. This was part and parcel of the Soviet “affirmative action empire” (Terry Martin) which had to contain the 1917-1921 rise of nationalism of the empire’s minorities. Locally, the elites had to negotiate their own interests and the centre’s demands. How exactly do the debates on the “correct” codification of the language and the actual steps towards different ideals reflect the changing power dynamic between the centre and the republics in the interbellum USSR? This is the problem this study sets out to tackle using the example of Soviet Ukraine.
The paper explores the link between language and politics in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s. While examining the political preconditions for the language policies in Ukraine, significant attention will also be devoted to the specifics of the 1928 spelling reform and its reception by the general public in Ukraine and abroad. In general, it will be argued that in the Soviet Union language was often used as a tool of political consolidation, and the power struggle between different visions of the future of the republics can be seen in debates and reforms of language. Hence, the correlation between Soviet language policies and the subsequent Sovietisation (or Russification) will be highlighted.
The subsequent debates around the status of the Ukrainian language, its orthography and vocabulary, exposed the unbridgeable differences between the political elites in the republic and central powers in Moscow. The draft of the new orthography was thoroughly discussed by academics and linguists, representing different parts of Ukraine and the final draft was publicly discussed republic-wide. The spelling reform, adopted in 1929, can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest achievements of Ukrainizatsiia. This newly-acquired status was significantly challenged by the centralisation drive of the Moscow party leadership. This orthography, widely known as ‘skrypnykivka’ (after the then Commissar for Education Mykola Skrypnyk) or ‘Charkiv orthography’ was attacked for its attempts to dissociate the Ukrainian language from Russian and ‘westernise’ the language. After 1933, the main principles of the spelling reform were labelled ‘nationalistic’. The reform was quickly abandoned. Furthermore, after 1937, all the corpus planning attempts were geared towards ‘purifying’ the Ukrainian language from foreign influence, when Russian equivalents and cognates were introduced or prioritised.