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The Battle for Language: Opposition to Khrushchev's Education Reform in the Soviet Republics, 1958–59

  • Jeremy Smith


Nikita Khrushchev's proposal to give parents of non-Russian children the choice of whether to send their children to a school with education in their own tongue, or to a Russian school, was first advanced at the end of 1958. It immediately provoked a furious response from leaders of the non-Russian republics of the multi-national Soviet Union, and was an issue contributing to political purges in Azerbaijan and Latvia in 1959. In this article, Jeremy Smith uses documents from archives in four Soviet republics to analyze the responses from the republics. Smith shows that republic leaders were mostly agreed on an alternative solution to the question of language of instruction, and pursued different strategies both to oppose the introduction of the reform and to obstruct its implementation once it was passed. The episode also underlines the uncertainty involved in center-periphery relations in the USSR.



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1. Pravda, November 14, 1958, 1, in Counts, George S., Khrushchev and the Central Committee Speak on Education, trans. Counts, George S. (Pittsburgh, 1962), 4546 .

2. Martin, Terry, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca, 2001); Slezkine, Yuri, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review 53 no. 2 (Summer 1994): 414–52; Cornell, Svante E., Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (Richmond, 2001).

3. Blauvelt., TimothyThe ‘Mingrelian Question’: Institutional Resources and the Limits of Soviet Nationality Policy,” Europe-Asia Studies 66, no. 6 (2014): 9931013 .

4. Jääts., Indrek‘The Permiak Question’: Bolshevik Central Authorities, Russian and non-Russian Provincial Elites Negotiating over Autonomy in the Early 1920s,” Nationalities Papers 40 no. 2 (2012):, 241–57.

5. See for example Counts, Khrushchev and the Central Committee.

6. Bilinsky, Yaroslav, “The Soviet Education Laws of 1958–9 and Soviet Nationality Policy,” in Soviet Studies 14, no. 2 (October 1962): 138–57.

7. Valery Vasiliev collected relevant materials in the Ukrainian archives. Daina Bleiere assisted the author in finding materials in the archives of Latvia and collected relevant newspaper reports. Vahur Made did the same for Estonia. I am extremely grateful to all of them.

8. Plokhy, Serhii, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (London, 2015), 53.

9. Saulius Grybkauskas, “Antisovietiniai protestai ir nomenklatūros partikuliarizmas. Sąveikos poveikis lietuviško nacionalizmo kaitai” (Anti-Soviet Protests and the Particularism of Nomenklatura in the Soviet Periphery: Interactive Effects of the Change in Lithuanian Nationalism), in: Laurinavičius, Č., ed., Epochas jungiantis nacionalizmas: tautos (de)konstravimas tarpukario, sovietmečio ir posovietmečio Lietuvoje (Vilnius, 2013): 227–68, 256–57.

10. Tishkov, Valery, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame (London, 1997).

11. Suny, Ronald Grigor, “Thinking about Feelings: Affective Dispositions and Emotional Ties in Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire,” in Steinberg, Mark D. and Sobol, Valeria eds., Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe (DeKalb, 2011), 103.

12. Smith, Jeremy, “Republican Authority and Khrushchev’s Education Reform in Estonia and Latvia, 1958–59,” in Mertelsmann, Olaf, ed., The Sovietization of the Baltic States, 1940–1956 (Tartu, 2003), 237–52.

13. Pikhoia, Rudolf, Moskva. Kreml΄. Vlast΄: Sorok let posle voyny 1945–1985 (Moscow, 2007), 241–46.

14. “Proekt postanovleniya plenuma TsK KPSS ‘O prestupnykh antipartiinykh i antigosudarstvennykh deistviiakh Beriia,’” July 4, 1953, in Naumov, V. and Sigachev, Iu., eds., Lavrentii Beriia. 1953. Stenogramma iiul΄skogo plenuma TsK KPSS i drugie dokumenty (Moscow, 1999), 361.

15. “Dokladnaya zapiska komissii TsK KPSS N.S. Khrushchevu o rezul΄takh proverki raboty uchebnykh zavedenii i gazet v Gruzinskoi SSR,” (unpublished report, September 30, 1953).

16. Kibita, Nataliya, “Moscow-Kiev relations and the Sovnarkhoz reform,” in Smith, Jeremy and Ilic, Melanie, eds., Khrushchev in the Kremlin: Policy and Government in the Soviet Union, 1953–1964 (Milton Park, 2011), 94111 ; Valery Vasiliev, “Failings of the Sovnarkhoz Reform: The Ukrainian Experience,” in Smith and Ilic, eds., Khrushchev in the Kremlin, 112–32.

17. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii, hereafter RGANI (Russian State Archive of Contemporary History), f. 5, op. 31, d. 59, ll. 158–63, 202–11.

18. See Blauvelt, Timothy K. and Smith, Jeremy, eds., Georgia after Stalin: Nationalism and Soviet Power (London, 2015).

19. E. I. Gromov and K. V. Lebedev, “Report on Ibragimov’s Language Law,” November 16, 1956, RGANI, f. 5, op. 31, d. 60, ll. 10–12.

20. M. Gavrilov, “Report on recent nationalist and anti-Soviet displays in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia,” November 27, 1956, RGANI, f. 5, op. 31, d. 59, ll. 203–12.

21. Blitstein, Peter A., “Nation-Building or Russification? Obligatory Russian Instruction in the Soviet Non-Russian School, 1938–1953,” in Suny, Ronald Grigor and Martin, Terry, eds., A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (Oxford, 2001), 253–74.

22. Coumel, Laurent, “L’appareil du parti et la réforme scolaire de 1958. Un cas d’opposition à Hruščev,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 47, no.1–2 (2006): 173–94.

23. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial΄no-politicheskoi istorii, hereafter RGASPI (Russian State Archive of Social and Political History), f. 556, op. 16, d. 35, l. 78.

24. Smith, Jeremy, “Popular Opinion under Khrushchev: A Case Study of Estonian Reactions to Khrushchev’s School Reform, 1958–59,” in Vihavainen, Timo, ed., Sovetskaia vlast΄—narodnaia vlast΄?: Ocherki istorii narodnogo vospriiatiia Sovetskoi vlasti v SSSR (St. Petersburg, 2003).

25. RGANI, f. 5, op. 35, d. 91, l. 159.

26. Ibid., ll. 39–43.

27. Ibid., ll. 57–60.

28. Ibid., ll. 122–28.

29. Ibid., ll. 63–67; ll.134–54.

30. RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 92, ll. 2–43.

31. RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 91, ll. 96, 197; RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 92, ll.114–44.

32. RGASPI f. 556, op. 16, d. 38, ll. 12–17.

33. RGASPI f. 556, op. 16, d. 44, ll. 172–74; RGASPI f. 556, op. 16, d. 46, ll.19–23, 27–30, 35–40, 56–63, 85–89.

34. RGASPI f. 556, op. 16, d. 38, ll. 37–39.

35. RGASPI f. 556, op. 16, d. 22.

36. RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 96, l. 23.

37. Ibid., ll. 60–77.

38. Ibid., ll. 100–36.

39. Ibid., ll. 41–42.

40. Ibid., l. 23; l. 129.

41. Bilinsky, “The Soviet Education Laws.”

42. Nahaylo, Bohdan and Swoboda, Victor, Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR (New York, 1990), 131–37; Simon, Gerhard, Nationalism and Policy toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union: From Totalitarian Dictatorship to Post-Stalinist Society, trans. Forster, Karen and Forster, Oswald (Boulder, 1991), 246–48. This analysis has been prevalent in more general histories, e.g. Service, Robert, A History of Modern Russia from Nicholas II to Putin (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 367.

43. Bilinsky states that the controversy over Article 19 prompted the Soviet leadership to follow an exceptional procedure in leaving each republic to pass its own separate law on education (a claim often repeated, for example by Bohdan and Swoboda). This is a misconception—the role of individual republics in passing their own legislation in certain areas had been greatly curtailed by Stalin, but this right had been recently restored by Khrushchev. Thus this was a normal procedure.

44. Speech by Leonid Lentsman, Branch of Estonian State Archives (Eesti Riigiarhiivi Filiaal—ERAF) 1–4-2151, 44–58; report in Sovetskaia Estoniia, November 28, 1958, 2; Skolotāju Avize, October 17, 1958; Latvian State Archives (Latvijas Valsts arhīvs – LVA) 290–1-5169, 54–5, 90.

45. LVA 101–22–51, 133.

46. Skolotāju Avīze, May 29, 1959.

47. Fursenko, A.A., ed., Prezidium TsK KPSS 1954–1964 tom 1, Chernovye protokol΄nye zapisi zasedanii, stenogrammy, postanovleniia (Moscow, 2003), 366.

48. Ibid., 357–87.

49. Prigge, William, “The Latvian Purges of 1959: A Revision Study,” Journal of Baltic Studies 35, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 211–30; The Strange Death of Latvian National Communism,” in Smith, David J., Galbreath, David J. and Swain, Geoffrey, eds., From Recognition to Restoration: Latvia’s History as a Nation-State (Amsterdam, 2010), 7798 ; Power, Popular Opinion, and the Latvian National Communists,” Journal of Baltic Studies 45, no. 3 (2014): 305–19; Bearslayers: The Rise and Fall of the Latvian National Communists (New York, 2015).

50. Such as Gavrilov’s report cited in footnote 7. For further examples, see Pyzhikov, Aleksandr, Khrushchevskaia “Ottepel” (Moscow, 2002), 190–95.

51. Prezidium TsK KPSS 1954–1964, tom 1, 355, 370–82. This source is not used by Prigge.

52. LVA 101–22–48a, 22, 237–39; Fursenko,ed., Prezidium TsK KPSS 1954–1964 , esp. 355, 366, 379.

53. ERAF 1–4-2151, 102–4.

54. Smith, “Popular Opinion.”

55. ERAF 1–196–31, 4–6.

56. Sovetskaia Estoniia, April 29, 1959, 1–2.

57. Raun, Toivo, Estonia and the Estonians, 2nd ed. (Stanford, 1991), 192, 211.

58. Tsentral΄nyi derzhavnyi arkhiv hromads΄kykh ob΄iednan΄ Ukrainy (Central State Archive of Public Organisations of Ukraine—TsDAHOU) 1–22–4694, 66–67.

59. Ibid., 68.

60. Ibid., 73–89.

61. TsDAHOU 1–22–4925, 108–11; also in RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 125, ll. 77–79.

62. TsDAHOU 1–22–4925, 102–4; TsDAHOU 1–46–6910, 3–5.

63. TsDAHOU 1–22–4925, 102–4; also in RGANI f. 5, op. 35, d. 125, ll. 84–86.

64. RGANI, f. 5, op. 35, d. 152, ll. 90–91.

65. Harry Lipset, “The Status of National Minority Languages in Soviet Education,” Soviet Studies, 19, no. 2 (October 1967): 181–89.

66. Xavier le Torrivellec, “Languages, Education, and Politics: Soviet Bashkiria in the 1950/1960s” (unpublished paper, 2007).

67. Pennar, Jaan, “Five Years after Khrushchev’s School Reform,” Comparative Education Review, 8, no. 1 (June 1964): 7377 , here 75.

68. Gorenburg, Dmitry, “Soviet Nationalities Policy and Assimilation,” in Arel, Dominique and Ruble, Blair A., eds., Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine (Washington DC, 2006), 273304 .

69. LVA 101–21–448, 70–88. Pages 99–113 and 120–25 of this file contain numerous similar accounts of meetings, as do other files in the Latvian and Estonian archives. Similar sentiments were expressed regularly in letters to Sovetskaia Estoniia, for example, a letter from Colonel I. Marechevskyi in the issue for November 25, 1958, 3.

70. Smith, Jeremy, “Khrushchev and the Path to Modernization through Education” in Kangaspuro, Markku and Smith, Jeremy, eds., Modernisation in Russia since 1900 (Helsinki, 2006), 221–36.

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The Battle for Language: Opposition to Khrushchev's Education Reform in the Soviet Republics, 1958–59

  • Jeremy Smith


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