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  • The Rise of Russian in the Cold WarHow Three Worlds Made a World Language
  • Rachel Applebaum (bio)

A summer training institute for schoolteachers in Weimar. A suburban high school on Long Island. A bread factory in Kabul. During the Cold War, these seemingly disparate sites featured in an ambitious Soviet project to export the Russian language abroad. Soviet citizens traveled to these locations—which they understood as belonging to three ideologically distinct worlds—to teach Russian to locals and to promote the Soviet Union as a global power.

Before World War II, French, English, and German were the most common languages employed by international organizations. They were also the most common living languages studied around the world. During the Cold War, Russian joined the ranks of world languages. It became an official language of global organizations such as the United Nations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and an important language in international scientific research.1 Russian language programs proliferated on both sides of the Iron Curtain: by the early 1970s, children and adults in 83 countries were studying Russian, [End Page 347] including 11 million secondary school pupils from Poland to Great Britain to Senegal.2

Russian's development into a world language is a global story, involving a concerted Soviet effort to use the language to promote the USSR's politics and culture abroad and foreign programs that were variously designed to assimilate, contest, or engage Soviet power. The widespread study of Russian beyond the USSR began in the socialist countries in Eastern Europe and East Asia in the late 1940s, when local communist leaders made it an obligatory subject in schools and universities. Ten years later, following the launch of Sputnik, the study of Russian became popular on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as Westerners raced to compete with Soviet scientific achievements. Around the same time, decolonization created new opportunities in Asia and Africa for the study of Russian.

In the first years after World War II, the Soviet government played a relatively minor role in the propagation of Russian abroad. By the late 1950s, however, officials in Soviet ministries and social organizations, along with philologists and pedagogues, began to promote Russian on the global stage. This shift was tied to the Khrushchev government's success in foreign affairs, including the cultural exchange agreements it signed with Western governments and the relations it established with newly decolonized countries. Yet Soviet efforts to advance Russian beyond the USSR also stemmed from anxieties about the potential hazards of becoming a superpower. Historically, states have launched campaigns to promote their languages around the world in response to apprehensions about their global power.3 The Soviet promotion of Russian was motivated by concern about rising Western influence in the Eastern bloc, fear that enemies of the USSR were commandeering the [End Page 348] teaching of Russian in the West, and anxiety about the development of a new, linguistic front in the Cold War in Africa and Asia.

The global scope of the Soviet project to make Russian a world language invites a global approach. The project ultimately encompassed all three worlds of the Soviet geopolitical imagination: the socialist countries, the capitalist countries, and what Soviet officials referred to as the "developing" or "underdeveloped" countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.4 In recent years, historians of the Soviet Union have increasingly adopted transnational or international methodologies; the result has been a new field exploring the USSR in the world.5 These historians have succeeded in dispelling Cold War stereotypes about the Iron Curtain's rigidity and Soviet isolationism by highlighting a wide range of Soviet cultural and economic contacts across state borders. Yet historians of Soviet internationalism have tended to focus on specific geographic case studies that examine Soviet relations with the West, the Eastern bloc, or the "Global South" as distinct domains.6 The [End Page 349] drawback to these geopolitically specific studies is that they obscure the ways the three worlds of the Soviet imagination influenced one another. A global approach to Soviet history—one that draws on examples from all three worlds—is necessary for addressing important questions pertaining to the...