A “voluntary-compulsory choice”: the law on voluntary study of languages in Russia marks a policy shift

A “voluntary-compulsory choice”: the law on voluntary study of languages in Russia marks a policy shift

The campaign against the compulsory teaching of state languages of republics started a year ago and culminated in the adoption of the amendment to the education law on 3 August 2018. The law enacted additional mechanisms to ensure the voluntary study of non-Russian languages that in practice was already enforced for over a year. In his analysis, Dr. Konstantin Zamyatin demonstrates that this amounted to a policy shift and explores how this shift came into being at the stages of policy formation and adoption.

The status of state language was not defined in the Russian legislation but in the post-Soviet context it typically combined the symbolic function of the national language and the practical function of the official language as the language for compulsory use in the public sphere.[1] In the early 1990s,  the republics designated their titular language(s) and Russian as the state languages, first in the declarations of state sovereignty and then in the language laws and constitutions. The designation of the co-official status was a compromise in the republics, and between the republics and Moscow. The co-official status implanted the problem for implementation of the practical use of non-Russian languages because Russian had already been used in all domains of the public sphere. The power constellations allowed the introduction in some republics of certain elements of compulsory use, such as the language requirements for the candidates to the position of the republic’s president and some categories of public officials as well as the compulsory study of titular state languages by all schoolchildren irrespective of their ethnicity.

With the change of the political regime in the early 2000s, language requirements stopped to be used. At the same time, the compulsory teaching of the state languages irrespective of ethnicity continued and was affirmed by the 2004 ruling of Russia’s Constitutional Court.[2]

Policy formation

Policy formation includes the identification of the problem, agenda-setting and policy formulation. During the Soviet times, the ethnic Russians did not have to learn non-Russian languages, and the introduction in the early 1990s of the compulsory study of titular languages was perceived as a problem.

The policymakers in republics realized that the amount of teaching of state languages was not sufficient to develop communicative skills of non-speakers. However, they insisted that learning had a symbolic value, because the acquaintance with titular languages should have promoted among the republics’ populations the vision of the republics as multilingual communities and, thus, to serve as a mechanism of diversity management. In Tatarstan, they found some evidence that the compulsory teaching contributed to the development of positive attitudes to the titular language among the Russian-speaking population. However, there is in no case a unilateral relation and much depends on the specific situation. In contrast, the level of support for the compulsory teaching of the titular language was raising among the titular group. This happened, for example, in Mari El. However, it was falling but among the Russians in the post-Soviet period. Given the prevailing monolingual language ideology, the Russian-speakers took languages for their instrumental value and did not see any benefits for their children in learning languages that are not their mother tongue. Moreover, they preferred to live in monolingual environment.[3]

The manifestations of the last trend are the demands to abolish compulsory language study that have continually been present in the discourse. Since 2000s, Russian-speaking parents formed networks, arranged rallies and filed complaints to courts to politicize the problem. These complaints were used as the justification for tightening the position of non-Russian languages in the 2007 education reform.[4] Yet, the official policymakers did not react to the demands to abolish the compulsory teaching. It was preserved in the new 2012 federal law on education.[5]


In Russia, the authoritarian regime defines political agenda, and the agenda-setting also was a top-down initiative. There were neither relevant changes in the legislations of the republics, nor other new circumstances that would have triggered the new move. The problem was set on the agenda by the instruction of the president Putin who in Summer 2017 requested the authorities to enforce the voluntary study of languages. Moreover, the instruction actually amounted to the policy decision that was sufficient in itself to stop the compulsory teaching in practice. After Putin’s words, there was no doubt that the compulsory teaching will be removed also from the legislation.

The law passed in the rubber-stamp legislature only gave the decision the visibility of legality.[6] The composition of the draft initiators witnesses that the motion was a coordinated effort: the six initiating deputies represented all four major parliamentary parties and included the first vice-chairs of the Duma Committees on Education and on Nationalities Affairs, as well as the deputies with minority background (from Chechnya and Chuvashia).

In the first reading, among other theatrical gestures, one of the authors from Transnistria presented the draft and pretended to speak in Moldovan apparently to show that this was a bottom-up initiative supported by minorities. However, she forgot part of even those few phrases she probably learned by heart, revealing that she actually does not have a command of the language.

The actual reason for the decision should be not sought in the public’s complaints that were suddenly heard in the Kremlin. After the 2014 Crimea annexation a major shift in the nationalities policy took place.[7] Among other things, the Kremlin put several heads of republics and other regions to jail and stopped to see ethnicity as one of the main criteria by the appointment of the new heads of the federal units. The removal of compulsory language teaching is another step of the process of the diversity management regime transformation from a multinational state to a nation-state model. [8]

Policy formulation

The main goal of the initial draft was the removal of the compulsory teaching of state languages of republics based on the restrictive interpretation of the official status of languages only to their symbolic function. The removal of the last elements of the republics’ status serves the unification of the educational sphere. In essence, the unifying agenda is driven by the ideologies of Russian linguistic nationalism and linguistic assimilation of non-Russians held by the Russian majority, who envisaged monolingualism as the norm. All the four major parties to a larger or lesser degree support the Russian nationalist agenda in its varieties.

The initial draft received a great deal of criticism from the republics, where some rallies were arranged.[9] It is interesting that before the first reading the Committee on Nationalities Affairs criticized the original draft law and its first vice-chair (who is from Chechnya) withdrew his support for it. At the first reading on 19 June 2018, the MPs from ethnic republics somewhat reluctantly criticized the draft. Only individual voices were heard that challenged the draft as such, while most expressed indirect criticism, pointing at a miserable condition of minority language education in Russia. The MPs of the minority background share with the majority the ideology of linguistic nationalism and its belief in the central role of language for identity. At the same time, they hold the ideology of linguistic pluralism and envisage multilingualism as a normal condition.

Among their suggestions, the compulsory teaching of native languages only to children of the respective ethnicity was proposed as a possible solution. In 2009, Russia’s Supreme Court did not find any violation of the federal legislation in the obligation of schoolchildren to learn native languages in Dagestan.[10] However, now this proposal was rejected based on the argument about the free self-identification of ethnic identity.

This raises the question: what is native language. In July 2017, Vladimir Putin suggested only that “forcing the person to learn a language which is not his/her native is impermissible”. The phrase can be interpreted in reverse that it is permissible to force the person to learn his/her native language. Since the Soviet times, ethnic and linguistic identities coincide.[11]

A working group under the Duma Committee on Education was created to take the criticisms into account. As a concession to find possible measures addressing the problems of minority language education, the Duma decree on passing the draft law in the first reading proposed the creation a foundation to support the native languages of Russia, funded by the central government. It also envisaged drafting of the concept of the teaching Russia’s native languages, in analogy to the Concept of the Teaching of the Russian Language and Literature that was approved in 2016.[12]

At the second reading on 24 July 2018, the Committee on Education chair mentioned the people’s complaints and concerns about the draft that native language teaching would be moved to the optional part of the curriculum. He presented the maintenance of native language teaching in the obligatory part of the main educational programs as the key point of the compromise as the major trade-off.

At the same time, a new issue was introduced in the agenda between the readings. The draft now emphasized the free choice of native language and, in effect, the removal of its compulsory teaching, which was not the main concern of the initial draft. The separate inclusion of a clause mentioning Russian among the native languages made this new goal explicit. The proposal was represented as a sample piece of equality and sounded well in its symmetry, when both the Russian and non-Russian languages are taught as native and state language. However, these are the twofold nationalist ideologies that backed the issue.

The ethnic variety of Russian nationalism seeks to “rehabilitate” the (ethnic) Russians as an ethnic people. Since the 1990s, the ethnic Russian nationalists, that were at that time on the margins of the political discourse, sought the attention of the state to address the “Russian question”. In this context, the formulation of the clause contains a symbolic affirmation of the (ethnic) Russian people and explicitly states that Russian can also be a native, i.e. “ethnic language”.[13]

The civic variety of Russian nationalism expressed in the official Russian nationalist agenda strives at the assimilation of minorities based on the Russian language. The Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences de facto acts as a think-tank that shapes the nationalities policy for the Russian state. From the Foucauldian premises, it uses in its activities science, “applied ethnology”, for political ends (preserving the territorial, educational, cultural, informational, etc. unity of the country). In this context, the reidentification of non-Russians with Russian as their native language is envisaged as the first step towards assimilation.[14]

Policy adoption

The final text of the compromised variant that became law (signed by the president on 3 August and published on 7 August) is shorter than the initial draft.

The law includes the written demand of parents when their children are enrolled in the preschool and first and fifth grades of school.

The concessions such as initiatives to establish the foundation with the federal funding for schoolbooks and teachers and to develop the concept of native language teaching were disconnected from the policy adoption. Hence, they were given to the discretion of the Government and the Ministry of education, which is not a minority-friendly institution. The implementation will be based on executive orders.

Similarly, the authorities have not yet published new versions of the federal educational standards which would take into account the new law. Hence, the question about the amount of language teaching remains open.

Probable impact

The Soviet euphemism of doing something in a “voluntary-compulsorily” manner (dobrovol’no-prinuditel’no) fits best to describe the situation after the law adoption.

People might have different options and have two native languages. Before the adoption of law people did not have to choose. Now the following logic is used: if persons do not demand a non-Russian native language, then Russian is their mother tongue. It means that they are forced to choose. Thus, this is the major step towards assimilationist policy.

Moreover, the law seemingly advances the free choice of individuals, but there are too many instances of how the society forces individuals to prefer the dominant language. ‘Common people’ of different ethnicities who reside in the republics do not have a genuinely free choice as they depend on the circumstances. The major limitation for the choice to learn the languages is restricted by “the range of possibilities provided by the education system”. These possibilities are typically not provided in the urban areas. For example, less than half of schoolchildren of titular ethnicities have access to the language teaching in the Finno-Ugric republics.[15] Thus, the authorities have many ways to misrepresent the free choice of individuals.

The law still satisfies the majority, and the Russian-speaking communities feel that they have won. The titular communities continue to accumulate resentment.


[1] Zamyatin, Konstantin. An Official Status for Minority Languages? A Study of State Languages in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics, Uralica Helsingiensia 6. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 2014.
[2] The text of the law is available at: http://zakon-ob-obrazovanii.ru.
[3] Zamyatin, Konstantin. Evaluating Language Revival Policies of Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics: Policy Impact and Its Limits. Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen Vol. 64, 2018, forthcoming; Monika Wingender (ed.). Multilingualism in the Volga-Ural Region. Volume 2: Topical Language Policy and Language Ideology (in Russian). Giessen: Justus-Liebig-Universität Institut für Slavistik, 2018, forthcoming.
[4] Постановление Конституционного Суда Российской Федерации от 16 ноября 2004 г. N 16-П “По делу о проверке конституционности положений пункта 2 статьи 10 Закона Республики Татарстан “О языках народов Республики Татарстан”, части второй статьи 9 Закона Республики Татарстан “О государственных языках Республики Татарстан и других языках в Республике Татарстан”, пункта 2 статьи 6 Закона Республики Татарстан “Об образовании” и пункта 6 статьи 3 Закона Российской Федерации “О языках народов Российской Федерации” в связи с жалобой гражданина С.И.Хапугина и запросами Государственного Совета Республики Татарстан и Верховного Суда Республики Татарстан”.
[5] Zamyatin, Konstantin. The Education Reform in Russia and its Impact on Teaching of the Minority Languages: an Effect of Nation-Building? Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, Vol. 11, No 1, 2012, pp. 17-47.
[6] For the text of the law and the process of its adoption, see: Законопроект № 438863-7 О внесении изменений в статьи 11 и 14 Федерального закона “Об образовании в Российской Федерации” (в части изучения родного языка из числа языков народов Российской Федерации и государственных языков республик, находящихся в составе Российской Федерации), http://sozd.parliament.gov.ru/bill/438863-7.
[7] Bowring, Bill, Minority Language Rights in the Russian Federation: The End of a Long Tradition? (June 7, 2018). Handbook of Minority Languages and Communities, forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3192470.
[8] Zamyatin, Konstantin. Russian Political Regime Change and Strategies of Diversity Management: From a Multinational Federation towards a Nation-State. Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, Vol. 15, No 1, 2016, pp. 19-49.
[9] See: Zamyatin, Konstantin. Minority language education in Russia: enforcing the voluntary teaching of non-Russian languages, International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies, 03.07.2018, http://www.icelds.org/2018/07/03/minority-language-education-in-russia-enforcing-the-voluntary-teaching-of-non-russian-languages/.
[10] See: Определение Верховного Суда РФ от 29.04.2009 № 20-ГО9-6 «Об оставлении без изменения решения Верховного Суда Республики Дагестан от 30.01.2009, которым отказано в удовлетворении заявления о признании недействующим отдельного положения Закона Республики Дагестан «Об образовании» от 03.11.2006 № 57.
[11] Zamyatin, Konstantin. A Russian-Speaking Nation? The Promotion of the Russian Language and Its Significance for Ongoing Efforts at the Russian Nation-Building, pp. 39-64. In: F. Grin and P.A. Kraus (eds). The Politics of Multilingualism: Linguistic Governance, Globalisation and Europeanisation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 39-64, in press (October 2018).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Since the mid-1990s, the draft law on the (ethnic) Russian people was being developed, see: http://www.mid.ru/rossia-prava-celoveka/-/asset_publisher/Z02tOD8Nkusz/content/id/580606.
[14] Tishkov, Valerii (2013). Reformirovanie etnicheskoi politiki v Rossii. Etnopoliticheskaia situatsiia v Rossii i sopredelnykh gosudarstvakh v 2012 godu. Ezhegodnyi doklad Seti etnologicheskogo monitoringa i rannego preduprezhdeniia konfliktov. V. Tishkov & V. Stepanov (eds.). Moscow: RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, 13-18.
[15] Zamyatin, Konstantin. An Official Status for Minority Languages? A Study of State Languages in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics, Uralica Helsingiensia 6. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 2014.

Image: © Andrzej Tichomirow

Share this post