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  • Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia
  • Richard D. Anderson Jr.
Michael S. Gorham , Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia. De Kalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003. 177 pp. $40.00.

This exceptionally valuable study addresses a topic of crucial importance for understanding the Cold War. Had the USSR been a democracy, the democratic peace would presumably have prevailed in U.S.-Soviet relations, and the alliance forged against Nazi Germany would have persisted to this day. Dictatorships inevitably perceive [End Page 203] any democracy as a threat because the very existence of democracy convinces the subjects living under dictatorial misrule that the arguments for the necessity of their subjugation are false. In order to sustain dictatorship, rulers must bifurcate the population into the opposing social identities of oppressor and oppressed. The rulers recruit some members of the oppressed into the ranks of oppressors by their communications, which consist of discursive cues to the rulers' separateness from the population. Although most people respond to these cues with a mixture of indifference and hostility, some individuals instead identify with the rulers' distinctiveness and enforce their decrees on the rest. If censorship prevents the population as a whole from hearing other political messages, small minorities consisting of the rulers and their enforcers can establish dictatorships over very large populations. Michael Gorham explores how the discourse of separateness came into existence among early Soviet rulers despite their ideological motive to address an almost entirely illiterate population of subsistence farmers in the farmers' own language.

Although Vladimir Lenin and his followers seized power in a polyglot country, Gorham eschews the problem of multilingualism. Instead "Tongues" in the title refers to heteroglossia—the diversity of "voices" that emerged as the early Soviet leaders tried to figure out how to communicate with the population over which they were establishing control. They needed to communicate by "speaking" in "voices" because of mass illiteracy. Poorly educated as they were, the Bolshevik leaders could be regarded as educated intellectuals when compared to an illiterate population. Even Iosif Stalin, who barely makes an appearance in this book, attended seminary. When intellectuals spoke to an illiterate population, a communication gap immediately emerged. Gorham argues that the proposed solutions for this communication gap were grouped into four "voices" (the "tongues" of the title): the revolutionary voice, the popular voice, the national voice, and the party-state voice. The revolutionary voice sought to transform consciousness by introducing new ideas expressed largely in words of foreign origin. The popular voice responded by trying to integrate the revolutionary jargon with the authentic colloquialisms of the Russian people. The national voice emerged when dissatisfaction with the quality of expression in the popular voice prompted a reversion to the classics of nineteenth-century Russian realism—the aristocratic speech of War and Peace as a paradoxical model for a revolutionary party. The voice of the party-state developed as a synthesis of these three models.

Gorham provides a vivid, informative account of discussions among top Communist officials, litterateurs, linguists, educators, and journalists through which this distinctive discourse of rule took shape in the Soviet Union. Ideology did not motivate Soviet leaders to develop the discourse. Quite the contrary, as Gorham clearly shows, ideology motivated Lenin and the other Soviet rulers to strive for the authentic voice of the people. They saw themselves as transmitting Marxist ideas to illiterate Russians, and they encouraged the use of an oratorical style that would communicate. However, they also actively disliked colloquial, idiomatic Russian because it did not match the literary standard of the Russian realist novel they had been taught to regard as the best form of the language. It was not their fidelity to Karl Marx but their adherence to Leo [End Page 204] Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov that drove them to reject popular Russian. Gorham records a lively debate between those who favored introducing colloquial forms into the party's language and those who favored raising the popular language up to the party's standard. Although Gorham is persuasive in depicting the sides in this debate, he fails to notice that every...