Russian as the “State” Language of the Russian Federation

Joan Chevalier, Brandeis University

The Russian Federation is a multiethnic, multilingual state with over 150 languages spoken within its borders (Karaulov). The legal and social status of the Russian language within Russia bears important consequences for the future of the Russian Federation as a multiethnic state. The status of Russian has been a topic of recent lively debate sparked by federal legislation entitled “About the Russian language as the state language” that was passed by the Duma in February, 2003 (“Zakon o Russkom iazyke kak gosudarstvennom”; three terms used to designate the legal status of language in Russian legislation, “gosudarstvennyi,” “ofitsial'nyi,” and “titul’nyi” will be defined in the paper). This paper will examine this law, its current status, and the polemic surrounding it.

The first part of the paper will establish the historical context that produced the law. Language politics played a key role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In October of 1988, Lithuania officially designated Lithuanian as the “state” language of the Republic of Lithuania. A “bloodless revolution” ensued (Guboglo 1993: 7) and by December of 1990, eleven more union republics followed Lithuania’s example, granting titular languages status as state languages (Azerbaijan, Armenian, and Georgian were designated state languages in 1978). The Russian language was not granted special legal status until October of 1991, when it was declared the state language of the USSR in the law “About the languages of the ethnic groups of the Russian Federation.” This law gives former autonomous republics the right to designate their titular languages as state languages (Art. 3, pt. 2). The law also guarantees the legal right of non-Russian speaking citizens to use their native languages. The current drive to reassert the status of Russian as the language of state, as I will establish, is best understood as an attempt to clarify some of the contradictions arising from this legislation.

The second part of the paper will address the controversial points of the law “About the Russian language as the state language,” regulating the use of obscene and foreign lexicon in the public sector. The arguments for and against each of these proposals will be explored.

The current status of the law remains uncertain since many of the delegates to the Duma who drafted the law were voted out of office during the elections in December 2003. Even if the law remains unsigned by the President, the debate surrounding the law provides a unique view of post-Soviet identity in Russia.


Guboglo, M. N. Perelomnye gody. T. 1. Moskva: RAN, 1993.
Karaulov, Iu. N. “Etnokul'turnaia i iazykovaia situatsiia v sovremennoi Rossii.”

Federal Law, RSFSR. “O iazykakh narodov Rossiiskoi Federatsii.” No. 1807-1. 25 October 1991.