Language of Lullabies: The Russification and De-Russification of the Baltic States

52 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2008

Date Written: January 1, 1997


With over five thousand languages and dialects in the world and approximately two hundred countries, most nations are home to a large number of people whose native language is different from the national language. Laws on language are therefore very important in most countries of the world. Language, for most of us, is more than just a means of communication. It is often a part of ethnic heritage and identity and is intertwined with culture, literature, and even lullabies. Thus, language laws have important implications for the rights and treatment of linguistic minorities.

Linguistic minorities have become a sudden and especially serious problem in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. There has been much controversy over the laws that the post-Soviet states have passed which impose the national language as the official language. The Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have been at the forefront of this controversy because they first confronted the issue of linguistic minorities and enacted some of the strongest laws to promote the national languages.

Most scholars have focused on the negative effect of these laws on the linguistic minorities, most significantly, the Russian minority. While identifying the potentially discriminatory effects of these laws is important, it leaves unanswered the questions of why the laws were enacted and whether they are necessary to serve the legitimate goals of the State. To answer these questions, we must examine these laws in their historical context and as a reaction to the language laws that existed under the Communist system. This article argues that the laws for promotion of the national languages are a legitimate means for the Baltic states to establish their cultural independence from Russia and the former Soviet Union.

The article is organized in three sections. Part I examines the current language laws in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia and reviews and analyzes the effect that the laws have had on the States and on their minority populations. Part I then reviews the official justification for the current laws: to reverse the Soviet policy of Russification.

Part II examines the history of language policies in the former USSR. It begins by reviewing the Tzarist legacy and the language policies of the early Communist leaders who did not intend the nationwide spread of Russian. An assessment of Nikita Khrushchev's language theories and laws follows, focusing especially on his policy of "sliianie" and the results thereof. Part II also discusses the results of Khrushchev's policies, specifically the increased status of Russian and the responses of Russian and non-Russian groups to these policies. Part II concludes with an examination of language laws of the post-Khrushchev Soviet leaders.

Part III then evaluates the language laws of the Baltic states to see if the justifications offered by the States have merit. It argues that the laws are justified for three reasons. First, when properly viewed in their historical context, the laws are a necessary response to Soviet language laws, especially those that promoted Russification. Part III asserts that the laws are a means of reclaiming the national languages. Second, though the laws may have some discriminatory effect, they do not violate international law. Third, the Baltic laws are not unique among the post-Soviet states. All of the newly independent states have, to varying degrees, attempted to regain their cultural and linguistic independence by enacting laws to promote the national language.

The article concludes by examining the lessons learned from Khrushchev's language policy and by examining why language laws are important. One of the great ironies of the Soviet legacy is that Khrushchev, viewed by many as a reformer, changed Soviet language policy to the point where Russification became the primary focus. This has both practical and theoretical relevance for the post-Soviet states. On a theoretical level, the lessons of Khrushchev's reign are valuable for understanding whether liberal language laws are possible. On a practical level, the policy of Russification led to the loss of native languages and the laws adopted by the post-Soviet states are a necessary response to that loss.

Keywords: Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Russification, Baltics, human rights, international law, language, minorities, linguistic, Russian

Suggested Citation

Green, Sonia Bychkov, Language of Lullabies: The Russification and De-Russification of the Baltic States (January 1, 1997). Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 19, No. 219, 1997, Available at SSRN: or

Sonia Bychkov Green (Contact Author)

The John Marshall Law School ( email )

315 South Plymouth Court
Chicago, IL 60604
United States

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