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Is a Compulsory Official Language Needed?

V. I. Lenin

The liberals differ from the reactionaries in that they recognise the right to have instruction conducted in the native language, at least in the elementary schools. But they are completely at one with the reactionaries on the point that a compulsory official language is necessary.

What does a compulsory official language mean? In practice, it means that the language of the Great Russians, who are a minority of the population of Russia, is imposed upon all the rest of the population of Russia. In every school the teaching of the official language must be obligatory. All official correspondence must be conducted in the official language, not in the language of the local population.

On what grounds do the parties who advocate a compulsory official language justify its necessity?

The "arguments" of the Black Hundreds are curt, of course. They say: All non-Russians should be ruled with a rod of iron to keep them from "getting out of hand". Russia must be indivisible, and all the peoples must submit to Great-Russian rule, for it was the Great Russians who built up and united the land of Russia. Hence, the language of the ruling class must be the compulsory official language. The Purishkeviches would not mind having the "local lingoes" banned altogether; although they are spoken by about 60 per cent of Russia's total population.

The attitude of the liberals is much more "cultured" and "refined". They are for permitting the use of the native languages within certain limits (for example, in the elementary schools). At the same time they advocate an obligatory official language, which, they say, is necessary in the interests of "culture", in the interests of a "united" and "indivisible" Russia, and so forth.

    "Statehood is the affirmation of cultural unity.... An official language is an essential constituent of state culture.... Statehood is based on unity of authority, the official language being an instrument of that unity. The official language possesses the same compulsory and universally coercive power as all other forms of statehood....

    "If Russia is to remain united and indivisible, we must firmly insist on the political expediency of the Russian literary language."

This is the typical philosophy of a liberal on the necessity of an official language.

We have quoted the above passage from an article by Mr. S. Patrashkin in the liberal newspaper Dyen[1] (No. 7). For quite understandable reasons, the Black-Hundred Novoye Vremya rewarded the author of these ideas with a resounding kiss. Mr. Patrashkin expresses "very sound ideas", Menshikov's newspaper stated (No. 13588). Another paper the Black Hundreds are constantly praising for such very "sound" ideas is the national-liberal Russkaya Mysl[2]. And how can they help praising them when the liberals, with the aid of "cultured" arguments, are advocating things that please the Novoye Vremya people so much?

Russian is a great and mighty language, the liberals tell us. Don't you want everybody who lives in the border regions of Russia to know this great and mighty language? Don't you see that the Russian language will enrich the literature of the non-Russians, put great treasures of culture within their reach, and so forth?

That is all true, gentlemen, we say in reply to the liberals. We know better than you do that the language of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky is a great and mighty one. We desire more than you do that the closest possible intercourse and fraternal unity should be established between the oppressed classes of all the nations that inhabit Russia, without any discrimination. And we, of course, are in favour of every inhabitant of Russia having the opportunity to learn the great Russian language.

What we do not want is the element of coercion. We do not want to have people driven into paradise with a cudgel; for no matter how many fine phrases about "culture" you may utter, a compulsory official language involves coercion, the use of the cudgel. We do not think that the great and mighty Russian language needs anyone having to study it by sheer compulsion. We are convinced that the development of capitalism in Russia, and the whole course of social life in general, are tending to bring all nations closer together. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving from one end of Russia to another; the different national populations are intermingling; exclusiveness and national conservatism must disappear. People whose conditions of life and work make it necessary for them to know the Russian language will learn it without being forced to do so. But coercion (the cudgel) will have only one result: it will hinder the great and mighty Russian language from spreading to other national groups, and, most important of all, it will sharpen antagonism, cause friction in a million new forms, increase resentment, mutual misunderstanding, and so on.

Who wants that sort of thing? Not the Russian people, not the Russian democrats. They do not recognise national oppression in any form, even in "the interests of Russian culture and statehood".

That is why Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language, that the population must be provided with schools where teaching will be carried on in all the local languages, that a fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities.


[1] Dyen (The Day)—a daily newspaper of a liberal-bourgeois trend, published in St. Petersburg from 1912. Among its contributors were Menshevik liquidators, who took over complete control of the paper after February 1917. Closed down by the Revolutionary Military Committee of the Petrograd Soviet on October 26 (November 8), 1917.

[2] Russkaya Mysl (Russian Thought)—a monthly journal of the liberal bourgeoisie, published in Moscow from 1880. After the 1905 Revolution it became the organ of the Right wing of the Cadet Party. During that period Lenin called the Russkaya Mysl "Chernosotennaya Mysl" (Black-Hundred Thought). The journal closed down in the middle of 1918.

Published: Proletarskaya Pravda No. 14 (32), January 18, 1914. Published according to the text in Proletarskaya Pravda.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 20, pages 71-73.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Joe Fineberg

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