Only resisting nations were able to avoid the negative consequences of russification
Despite being controversial and obscure, the “Russian World” concept has at least one clear feature: nations populating Russian territory, which the Russian leadership considers to be its own, have suffered systemic and total russification over the past few centuries. It was based on the russification of the language and culture, but this was just a means for changing the mindset, lifestyle and psychology of the conquered nations. The ultimate goal of russification was to use this well-prepared “biological material” to implement the ambitions of the Russian administration. However, the history of russification demonstrated its varied “efficiency” in the case of various nations. Those who managed to resist this phenomenon ended up in a better position as far as wellbeing and place in the world was concerned.
Devour and Dominate
Since its inception, Muscovy has been tirelessly swallowing up neighbouring Rus territories. Moscow depended on the Mongols for everything, and willingly followed the latters’ method of treating neighbours.
The Novgorod Republic was the first victim of assimilation. Once conquered by the feudal and absolutist Moscow in 1478, the republic turned from a thriving interregional trade and economic center into a depressed province of the Russian State. The subsequent victims of the assimilation policy were the people of Povolzhie and Siberia.
The Russian Empire (1721–1917) focused its forced assimilation policy on the nations with a far better developed culture than its own. Hetmanshchyna, Ukrainian Cossack state, was the first one to fall victim to these efforts. The Ukrainian language, traditions and lifestyle found themselves ousted into the peasantry deprived of any rights, while the socially legitimate part of the nation was turned into “normal Russians” by carrot or stick. In exchange for switching to the Russian culture, people got access to top public offices. One example was Prince Aleksandr Bezborodko, the Grand Chancellor of Russia in the 18th century, who claimed in his debate with Russians that “nobody could possibly be more Russian than malorosy - the Little Russians.”
The next victims of russification were Poland, Belarus and the rest of Ukraine annexed to the Russian territory after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Congress of Vienna of 1815. On 16 September 1831 a special Western Committee was set up. It was responsible for launching a wide-scale programme for the russification of Ukrainian and Belarusian territories which had previously been controlled by Poland, the purpose of which was to “make the Western land equal with internal provinces in all respects.” Piotr Valuev, the then Interior Minister, published a special Instruction on the “Means to Russify the Western Land”. On 25 June 1840, Nikolai I issued a decree ordering all public cases and court proceedings, including assemblies of the nobility and Polish members of parliament, as well as all acts regardless of their nature or title, to be written only in Russian. On 18 July Belarus and Lithuania were renamed the “North Western Land”. Also, the Tsar banned the Greek Catholic Church and closed down all Uniat and Basilian schools which had been struggling to preserve at least some Belarus and Ukrainian culture. Instead, the Russian Orthodox Church gained more control over education on their territories.
Since the 1860s, after yet another Polish uprising was defeated, Poland faced a second wave of russification - much stronger this time. The then Governor of the Vilna Governorate, a Lithuanian province of the Russian Empire, said, “The Russian school will finish what Russian swords started.” Ukrainians and Belarusians also underwent intensified russification. The Valuyev Decree of 1863 virtually banned any use of the Ukrainian language. The Russian Orthodox Church opened primary church schools in Belarusian and Ukrainian villages with a heavy focus on religion and russification. Their students were not allowed to speak their native language. In 1876, the Ems Decree was issued as a supplement to the Valuyev Decree, fully banning the use of the Ukrainian language.
Aleksandr III pointed the arrow of russification against the Polish language, since Ukrainian and Belarusian were already banned. It was pushed out of administration, the courts and school edulation, pupils were not even allowed to speak Polish in secondary school. History programs at school embraced the pro-Russian spirit. By 1885, Russian had also become the only language used in primary schools. Meanwhile, the number of education facilities was shrinking. This resulted in Poland lagging behind virtually all other provinces of the Russian Empire in terms of literacy by the late 19th century. In fact, Russia applied the same methods to Poland as those applied a century earlier against Ukrainian Hetmanshchyna.
In the late 1890s, as centralization gained momentum, russification took a new turn in the “national suburbs”. This was aimed at “eliminating the separatist expectations” of non-Russian nations and dissolving them in the “Russian cultural unity.” This time, the victim was to be Finland. It had experienced russification before, but only in the administrative and legislative spheres. Russification in Finland was limited to the renaming of cities and towns in the Russian manner, while leaving Finnish culture and education virtually untouched. The wave of systematic russification was blamed on Nikolai Bobrikov, Governor General of Finland appointed at the end of 1898. In 1900, a Language Manifest was issued declaring Russian as the third official language of the Finnish administration in addition to Swedish and Finnish. In the following year, a law was passed on military conscription, which eliminated certain Finnish armed forces and integrated them into the Russian army. Only the lack of time, of which there was less than two decades until the collapse of the empire, and the resistance to the russification policy with protesters gathering in the thousands for rallies, saved Finland from the impact of the policy experienced elsewhere in the empire including Ukraine.
Varied Effectiveness of Resistance
Russification was a common problem for all nations within the empire. Once swallowed by it, peoples in the Caucuses and Central Asia also faced it. However, resistance to assimilation in individual countries was different and brought qualitatively different results. The key protection mechanism in the Caucasus and Central Asia at this time was their huge difference from Russians both in terms of language, and religion, their closed lifestyle and the distance from the center of the empire. But even some of their elites who preferred to integrate into the Russian environment quickly lost their identity.
The efficiency of resistance in European nations was completely dependent on their determination and discipline. They had potential opportunities to do this, ranging from semi-legitimate to radical measures. In addition to the bloody uprisings against the empire in 1830 and 1863, during the 1880s and 1890s, in order to fight russification, Poland established many secret schools, where the Polish language, culture and history were taught. The country even had a secret University in Warsaw, which was always on the move and changing the location of its classes. Women played a huge role in the teaching of patriotic awareness to young Poles. To this day, the term matka Polka (Polish mother), means a strong and courageous woman ready to resist, should her husband be exiled or killed. By 1901, secret education facilities covered almost one third of the country’s population. Meanwhile, during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski negotiated Japanese funding for an uprising in Poland and the participation of Polish legions in the war against Russia. He also set up a military organization of the Polish Socialist Party, which killed 336 officials of the Russian occupational administration and servicemen.
Finland followed the policy of “passive resistance” in the form of mass strikes and demonstrations. In 1902, only half of Finnish conscripts turned up at the Russian army recruitment offices. Eventually, after a series of regrettable precedents, the Russian government came to a decision about “non-reliability of Finnish troops” and cut the conscription quota, replacing it with a tax for exemption from military service. On 16 June 1904, Governor General Bobrikov, who conducted the russification policy, was assassinated. After the war between Russia and Japan broke out, following Poland’s suit, the Finns negotiated financial aid from the Japanese government. All this forced the Russian Emperor to cancel russification laws and strip the new Governor General of his extraordinary powers with a manifest dated 17 October 1905.
Ultimately, the discrimination against non-Russian peoples was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Romanov Empire. Poland and Finland which had experienced all the “benefits” of co-existing with the Russian government within one state, immediately and categorically rejected the idea of becoming part of a federation, and established their own states. By the beginning of WWII they managed to almost completely eliminate the impact of the previous russification. By contrast, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Caucasians and Central Asians were forced to “enjoy all the benefits” of “equal” co-existence within the USSR.
The Soviet Era: a New Historical Community
The Bolshevik russification of the soviet era was on an industrial scale. It was implemented with panache and in depth, using the tools that are only typical to totalitarian regimes. Under the changed conditions, russification thrived on new ideological grounds. It was promoted as participation in the establishment of “a new historical community called the soviet nation,” supposedly one for all, not as the devouring of one nation by another. The Russian language became the platform for this merger, becoming an “international language”.
Assimilation was further reinforced by wide-scale migration from one end of the empire to another, from traditionally unique ethnic rural areas (not just villages, but also small towns, which played the role of administrative, cultural, educational and economic centers) to large cities whose lifestyle became uniform, during the process of the implementation of Communist economic experiments. By 1958–1959, only a minority of schoolchildren were educated in their native tongue in big cities, ranging from 39.4% in Ivano-Frankivsk, 26.8% in Kyiv to 17.4% in Dnipropertovsk, 8.1% in Odesa, 6.5% in Luhansk, 4.1% in Kharkiv and 1.2% in Donetsk. As a result, 30.6% of the urban population did not speak Ukrainian by 1970 compared to just 7.4% of those who did not speak Russian. The share of those who considered Russian to be their native tongue was 1.5 times higher than the number of ethnic Russians in the cities at 45.1% and 30.2% respectively.
Belarus was the only country to suffer russification at a greater level than Ukraine. Apparently, the former reached the point of no return after the 1995 referendum, when 83.3% of Belarusians voted for Russian to be the official state language. In fact, this was a vivid example of how a non-Russian country, closer to Moscow than any other, was russified - something that the Kremlin had sought for centuries. The passivity of Belarusians towards their statehood resulted in today’s economic crisis, which, in the view of many economists, will deepen.
In the rest of the former soviet republics, with the exception of Kazakhstan (which lost an estimated 1.5-2mn of its population during the 1932-1933 famine) and Kirghizia (where industrialization was accompanied by heavy russification, supported by some of the local elite), the share of Russian speakers was identical to that of ethnic Russians and migrants from other republics they assimilated. Moldova has the highest percentage of those who consider Russian to be their native language in the titular nation with 2.5%, while the share of such people in other countries does not exceed 1%. This data is important because it reflects people’s self-identification. Refusing to renounce their language and culture, they became less vulnerable to the russification of traditions, values and so on. Another important element of russification was the migration of the Russian population, as the agent of russification, to some USSR regions where they did not live in large numbers. Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas, and the Baltic States – first and foremist, Latvia – ended up with a distorted social structure which can be felt to this day.
After WWII, to a larger or lesser extent, russification was experienced in countries of the socialist camp, particularly those which were part of Kremlin-controlled integration projects, such as the Warsaw Pact Organization and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance. In most of these countries, Russian was introduced as a mandatory language to be learned at school. Government, party and economic management was trained in the USSR, especially in the first decades following WWII. Advisors and experts of all categories and the USSR military stationed there completed the task.
The process of “bringing socialist nations together” was most successful in Poland and Bulgaria. As a result, an estimated 5mn people speak Russian at some level in Bulgaria today while the number of those who learned Russian before the Communist bloc collapsed reached 1mn. According to Eurostat, Russian is the language that Poles speak better than any other foreign language in Poland, although the situation is changing among the younger generation. It should be noted, that Poland managed to preserve two more or less free institutions that withstood soviet occupation during Communist years. These were the Catholic Church and villagers whom it proved impossible to convert to the kolhosp (collective farming) system (only 21% of the land was owned by the government). Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania speak English and German much more than they do Russian.
The above-mentioned nations have faced a historical challenge when the creation of a “new historical community - the soviet nation” and “bringing socialist nations closer together” came to a halt once the USSR collapsed, however a substitute are being found for them today. In 1999, a special law was passed, setting forth forms for the support of Russian “compatriots” – means for the expansion of the “Russian World.” They ranged from interference in school history programmes in neighbouring countries to support for pro-Russian organizations. Today, the implementation of the “Russian World” project is aimed at its continuation taking current official political borders into account. Ukraine has experienced russification attempts for three centuries. Still, it has managed to preserve its national identity due to diversities in the structure and the psychology of society, the resistance of those who could not stay indifferent and armed uprisings against occupation. Current attempts at russification focus on eliminating the factors that made resistance effective in the past. Thus, Ukrainians must decisively protect their economic, informational and cultural space in order to avoid the sad Belarusian experience.