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  • Russia Learns to WriteSlavistics, Politics, and the Struggle to Redefine Empire in the Early 20th Century
  • Juliette Cadiot (bio)
    Translated by Carol B. Stevens

At the end of the 19th century, a group of language specialists—philologists, Slavists, Orientalists—participated in the birth of modern linguistics. In retrospect, as Roman Jakobson has shown, these changes occurred not just in Geneva (where Ferdinand de Saussure was working) but also in Kazan and Moscow, where the concept of the phoneme was being elaborated at the same time.1 The debate about developing national "literary" languages had been transformed by new studies and new projects. The idea of simplifying written languages also was part of the movement for democratization and nationalization in the countries of Eastern Europe. Moreover, the spread of education had become a major issue, for the abolition of serfdom in Russia was expected to produce peasants who were self-aware, moral, and cultured. The study of speech and dialects was expected not only to identify linguistic borders but also to unify peoples through the creation of an accessible literary language. The impulse to modernization that emerged from the Great Reforms thus took shape as a series of measures affecting the schools. It was hoped that literacy across the empire would create peasants, subjects of the tsar—Russian citizens, even—who were capable of modernizing the economy and making the country more governable. The conclusion that literacy was necessary on a vast scale was expressed in a series of resolutions in the 1870s, but it was during the Duma period and within the Duma itself that the idea of universal education was discussed and then decided in 1911.2 [End Page 135]

In this article, I study how Russian linguists positioned themselves on the question of linguistic standardization at the beginning of the 20th century by using two examples: the simplification of Russian spelling and the official recognition of a norm for the Ukrainian literary language. I propose to show how "language specialists" interfered in the question of recasting the empire, notably by encouraging the project of a transition to literacy for the population and defending either Russification or the right to speak, publish, and teach in the vernacular languages. In political expectations as well as technical matters, the supporters of language simplification chose their positions based on experiments conducted outside Russia. Nevertheless, in this article I do not study just the importation of the slogan "write as you speak." Certainly, the linguists studied here thought comparatively, situating themselves in an imaginary community (particularly with the other Slavic countries) and thereby sharing in the history of cultural transfers. But what interests me most is to show how much the history of Russia is necessarily part of a transnational history.3 The issues of simplifying Russian and standardizing Ukrainian had characteristics specific to the administration of an empire and to anxieties linked to its future. For instance, some of the linguists discussed here had no specific nationality but instead navigated between empires. The disputes about the definition of written Ukrainian can be understood only in their connection to the question of Russian identity and in an international context of geopolitical tensions that made speakers of Ukrainian, who lived between empires, into key figures on essential national and political matters—especially when they acknowledged that Ukrainian had the qualities of a literary language, linguists were actively helping to reconfigure the empire. Questions about the future of the empire—as a nation-state or a federation, and with what place for Russians and non-Russians in its imperial structure—are essential to understanding scholarly conflicts that seem a priori technical.4 It is this politicization of scholarship, so characteristic of troubled political times, that I want to study by examining one particular form of transfer—the transference of scientific questions into the political sphere and political questions into the scholarly. In both of the scholarly polemics under discussion here, the scholars put forward their arguments as impartial experts who had placed themselves in the service of political reform and social renewal. In a context of more or less strong political control, they fought to impose a scholarly truth (about the origins of the...


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