U.S. English Foundation Research



Language Research

3. Language issues: Where does one observe language to be a problem in the country?

Article 26 of the Russian Constitution (1993) declares that everyone shall have the right to determine and to state his national identity. Everyone shall have the right to use his native language, and freely to choose his language of communication, education, training and creative work. The State Language is Russian and each of the 21 republics of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) has the right to institute its own State Language.

The 1991 RSFSR Peoples Act confirmed and enforced this declaration.

At present 14 out of the 21 national republics have issued Decrees on Language. The Republics of Kalmykia, of Tatarstan, of Chuvashia, Sakha and several Republics in the Northern Caucasus have worked out their own national-regional programs, concerning the preservation and development of the languages of their Republic. In the 1990s, many non-Russian ethnic groups have issued laws or decrees giving their native languages equal status with Russian in their respective regions of the Russian Federation. By the mid-1990s, some 80% of the non-Slavic nationalities or 12% of the total population of the Russian Federation did not speak Russian as their first language.

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Updated (September 2002)


At present, there are about 125,000 Karelians. The general language situation in Karelia is specific, one might say, even unique. In the first place, Karelians constitute about 10 percent of the Republic’s population. Then, until quite recently, Karelian had no writing form of its own. The Karelians were the biggest ethnos and the only titular people in Russia in such a position. Finally, beginning with the 1920s, Finnish played an important role in the language situation of Karelia, alongside with the Karelian, Vepsian, and Russian languages indigenous in this area.

In the 1930s, when the Soviet Union’s language policy was very active and a number of people in the country were given a writing of their own, the process in Karelia was peculiar in many respects.

At first, a Latin-based writing was created for the Karelians of Tver Region. Between 1931 and 1937, it was used as a teaching medium in primary schools. Several newspapers and a total of 50 books were published in it.

At the same time, beginning in the late 1920s, literary Finnish was taken up as a literary language by the native Finno-Ugric population of Karelia (the Karelians and the Vepsians). Finish was close to one of the Karelian dialects but the Vepsians did not understand it at all. Finnish was introduced on a large scale mainly for subjective reasons. Following the civil war in Finland, a great number of Finnish communists, persecuted at home, had fled to Karelia. They had taken key positions in the local Communist Party organs and administration. All this had a profound impact on the language situation in the area. Karelian was proclaimed to be incapable of playing an independent role and to devise a separate writing for it was considered superfluous.

In the mid 1930s, compulsory learning of Finnish was condemned as a survival of bourgeois nationalism. In 1937, a decision was taken to create a unified Karelian language for the whole population. However, this process was hampered by the existence of three dialects within Karelian, so different from one another as to make communication between their speakers almost impossible.

Prof. Bubrikh worked out the Cyrillic alphabet along with the norms of unified Karelian, based on all the dialects at the same time. Between 1937 and 1940, Karelian was used as a teaching medium in primary schools, in media, and about 200 books, mainly textbooks and books for children, were published in the language. Yet this version of Karelian never became popular. It was obscure to speakers of all three dialects, who proved to be psychologically unprepared for its introduction so it turned out to be short-lived.

Late in the 1930s, the language policy in the country changed radically. Karelian was replaced by Finnish in schools of the Karelian Republic and by Russian in Tver Region. As a result the number of Karelian speakers dropped considerably.

In the mid 1980s, a period marked by increased national self-consciousness and interest for different languages and cultures of the USSR, Karelian was in a deplorable state. According to the 1989 General Census, only 48.6 percent of the Karelians considered it to be their mother tongue. The real situation was even worse since some of those, stating Karelian was their mother tongue, spoke the language poorly or did not speak it at all.

The ethno-linguistic situation in the country was as follows.

  • The majority of the Karelian population, especially young people, were more proficient in Russian than in Karelian and used Russian as their first functional language
  • There were few remaining native speakers of the Lyudikovsky dialect
  • Many of those speaking the Northern dialect (which is close to Finnish) believed that there was no need to create a common Karelian literary language. They thought it is more reasonable to use Finnish as a written language

Finally, it was decided to devise two versions of the written Karelian language. One of them was intended for speakers of the Northern dialect and the other for speakers of the Livvikovsky dialect. Both versions were based on the Latin alphabet. (see also “The use of language in everyday life,” Updated September 2002)

Source: World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona, April 16-20, 2002, “Effective Language Politics: The Case of Karelian,” by T.B. Kryuchkova (Russia),


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