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Nationalities Policy under Brezhnev

The death of Stalin and the rise of Nikita S. Khrushchev to power eliminated some of the harshest measures against nationalities. Among the non-Russian nationalities, interest in their culture, history, and literature revived. Khrushchev, however, pursued a policy of merger of nationalities ( sliianie). In 1958 he implemented educational laws that further favored the Russian language over native languages and aroused resentment among Soviet nationalities.

Although demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s whittled down the Russian majority overall, they also led to two nationalities (the Kazaks and Kirgiz in the 1979 census) becoming minorities in their own republics and decreased considerably the majority of the titular nationalities in other republics. This situation led Leonid I. Brezhnev to declare at the Twenty-Fourth Party Congress in 1971 that the process of creating a unified Soviet people had been completed, and proposals were made to abolish the federative system and replace it with a single state.

The regime's optimism was soon shattered, however. In the 1970s, a broad national dissent movement began to spread throughout the Soviet Union. Its manifestations were many and diverse. The Jews insisted on their right to emigrate to Israel; the Crimean Tatars demanded to be allowed to return to Crimea; the Lithuanians called for the restoration of the rights of the Catholic Church; and Helsinki watch groups were established in the Georgian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian republics. Petitions, samizdat (see Glossary) literature, and occasional public demonstrations voiced public demands for the rights of nationalities within the human rights context. By the end of the 1970s, however, massive and concerted efforts by the KGB had largely suppressed the national dissent movement. Nevertheless, Brezhnev had learned his lesson. Proposals to dismantle the federative system were abandoned, and a policy of further drawing of nationalities together (sblizhenie) was pursued.

Language was often used as an important tool of the nationality policy. According to the Constitution, the Soviet Union has no official language, and all languages are equal and may be used in all circumstances. Every citizen has the right to be educated in his own language or any language chosen by him or his parents. Nevertheless, demography and Soviet policies have made Russian the dominant language. Under Brezhnev, Soviet officials emphasized in countless pronouncements that the Russian language has been "voluntarily adopted" by the Soviet people as the language of international communication, has promoted the "social, political, and ideological unity" of Soviet nationalities, has enriched the cultures of all other nationalities in the Soviet Union, and has given "each Soviet people access to the treasure of world civilization."

Russian was a compulsory subject in all elementary and secondary schools since 1938. In the schools of all the republics, where both a national language and Russian were used, science and technical courses were mainly taught in Russian. Some higher education courses were available only in Russian. Russian was the common language of public administration in every republic. It was used exclusively in the armed forces, in scientific research, and in high technology.

Yet despite these measures to create a single Russian language in the Soviet Union, the great majority of non-Russians considered their own native language their first language. Fluency in Russian varied from one non-Russian nationality to another but was generally low, especially among the nationalities of Soviet Central Asia. A proposal in the 1978 Georgian Republic's constitution to give the Russian language equal status with the Georgian language provoked large demonstrations in Tbilisi and was quickly withdrawn.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:15:23 ZULU