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  • Breaking the Tongue: Language, Education, and Power in Soviet Ukraine, 1923–1934 by Matthew D. Pauly
  • Serhy Yekelchyk
Matthew D. Pauly. Breaking the Tongue: Language, Education, and Power in Soviet Ukraine, 1923–1934. University of Toronto Press. xx, 456. $85.00

The Soviet policy of Ukrainization, the 1920s affirmative action program aimed at recruiting the peasantry for the Bolshevik project, has been studied at the level of political decisions. In contrast, we know little of its actual implementation at the local level. In this painstakingly researched book Matthew D. Pauly does an excellent job at filling in this blank spot in Ukrainian and Soviet history. Along the way he provides a number of valuable insights into the ambivalent nature of Soviet nation building and the survival of hybrid identities from the czarist period, such as Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Because many of his case studies are from southern and eastern Ukraine, Pauly’s book also furnishes the necessary background for understanding present-day politics there.

The author’s rich narrative discusses the Ukrainization of schools in the context of the contemporary and complementary process of implementing progressive, child-centred education. Participatory and collectivist learning was framed as the study of multidisciplinary thematic “complexes,” such as the life and poetry of Taras Shevchenko, the Revolution, or the students’ region. The early Soviet Ukrainian functionaries in charge of culture, such as the former borotbists (non-Bolshevik Ukrainian communists) Hryhorii Hrynko and Oleksander Shumsky, saw Ukrainization as part and parcel of the overall pedagogical revolution. They also took the notion of applied instruction farther than in the Soviet Russian republic by introducing in Soviet Ukraine a two-year vocational school after the seven years of primary schooling.

However, it was the introduction of Ukrainian as the language of instruction in the majority of the republic’s schools that caused the greatest controversy. Already in 1926 the highest Ukrainian leadership took time to consider parental protests against the “forced Ukrainization” of a school in Mariupol. In the same year a Soviet bureaucrat from Moscow, the Crimean-born Yurii Larin, demanded that ethnic Russians in Ukraine be granted the full rights of a national minority, including schooling in their native language, although at the time the share of Russian schools in the Ukrainian republic still exceeded that of the ethnic Russian population. Both sides in the debate exploited the blurred boundary between ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. The defenders of Ukrainization among the top Ukrainian leadership, such as Mykola Skrypnyk, argued that Russian-speaking Ukrainians could and should be subject to the party’s policy of Ukrainization, which was aimed at undoing the imperial legacy of assimilation. Skrypnyk claimed that Russophone Ukrainians actually spoke a mixed language based on Ukrainian, and school acceptance commissions leaned on parents to increase the number of students studying in Ukrainian. As the authorities confronted urban prejudice [End Page 509] against the “peasant” Ukrainian tongue, in the countryside the language issue seemed secondary to the dire lack of qualified teachers.

Pauly’s book provides a useful corrective to the rosy picture of Ukrai-nization that some researchers paint based on official Soviet figures. When Skrypnyk reported that, in the academic year 1929–30, 97.4 per cent of ethnic Ukrainian students attended Ukrainian schools, this announcement glossed over so many problems as to be virtually meaningless. For example, in the same year there was only one Ukrainian school in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk), although 30 per cent of the workers there were Ukrainian. The authorities also employed the statistical trick of including in the tally “semi-Ukrainized” schools, which in reality could offer only some classes in Ukrainian. Moreover, even in solidly Ukrainophone regions the quality of instruction was so bad that students were actually learning a Russian-Ukrainian mixture rather than the recently standardized literary Ukrainian.

The 1930 show trial of the fictitious Union for the Liberation of Ukraine delivered the first warning about the dangers of being seen as a zealous Ukrainizer. The Soviet secret police claimed to uncover the union’s “school group” centred around Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Labour School No. 1. After Skrypnyk’s fall from power and his suicide in 1933...


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