Reflections on the History of Alphabet Reform in Azerbaijan
"Like Father, Like
Son", we say in English. But Anar, the current President
of Azerbaijan's Writers' Union, has more in common with his father
Rasul Reza than just being a writer and heading the most prestigious
group of writers in Azerbaijan. Both of them have played critical
roles in helping their nation transition to a new alphabet.
Photo: Group of Azerbaijani
writers, mid-20th century. Soviets used writers to propagate
Cyrillic alphabet reform. Courtesy: Anar
In 1939, Rasul Reza had no choice but to pave the way from Latin
to Cyrillic. Today Anar's role is the exact opposite. He heads
the Parliament's main committee on decisions relating to the
transition from Cyrillic back to Latin - this time, a choice
that Azerbaijan made itself when the Soviet Union collapsed in
Since the alphabet has played a major role in his family's responsibilities,
Anar has done considerable historical research on the subject.
Here are some of his reflections on the transitions that have
taken place throughout the past century.
My father, Rasul Reza, was head of the Writers' Union for only
one year - 1939. I was barely two years old at the time. It was
during the height of Stalin's Repression, when those infamous
black Volgas would mysteriously pull up in front of people's
apartments in the wee hours of the morning. Targeted individuals
would never be seen by their loved ones again. Intellectuals
and those who dared breathe a word of opposition against the
political system just disappeared. Others did, too, for no apparent
reason. Many were shot to death; others were exiled to Siberian
labor camps. This happened not just in Azerbaijan but throughout
the entire Soviet Union. By the time Stalin's rule ended in 1953
with his death, the victims numbered into the hundreds of thousands;
some sources estimate even more.
My mother, the poetess Nigar Rafibeyli, used to tell how one
day my father came home with the beloved poet Samad Vurghun.
Dad asked Mom to bring something to eat and drink, meaning vodka.
Mom suspected something was dreadfully wrong. She was right.
Mir Jafar Baghirov, First Secretary of the Communist Party and
Stalin's right-hand man in Azerbaijan, had called them in and
ordered them to raise the issue of transitioning from what might
be called Early Latin to the Russian alphabet - Cyrillic.
There was no room for dissent - the directive had come straight
from Stalin. So my father and Vurghun had dinner together and
sat there drinking, bemoaning their fate and the destiny of the
Latin alphabet, which had just been adopted the decade before.
They dared not disagree with the change, and they dared not let
anyone else know that they vehemently hated the orders that they
had to carry out. They had to act as if they completely embraced
the idea. They had no choice.
My father still got into trouble over this issue, but not because
of his own actions. He had a relative named Abdulla Farrukh,
a poet. Without telling my father, Abdulla wrote a letter to
Baghirov protesting the change to Cyrillic. Baghirov became infuriated
and called my father in: "You didn't have the courage to
object on your own, so you told your relative to do it,"
My father had no idea what Baghirov was talking about. When Baghirov
showed him the letter, my father replied: "Do you take responsibility
for the actions of all your relatives?"
Baghirov replied: "I've shot relatives with my own hands."
In the end, that letter cost my father dearly. He was removed
from his post, and Abdulla was stripped of membership from the
Writers' Union. Abdulla was accused of being drunk in a restaurant
- a contrived story.
Baghirov's method of punishment was very inhuman. At the time,
my father's sister was working at the Azernashr Publishing House.
He ordered her to remove my father's name from all his publications.
My aunt feigned illness and didn't go to work. When she finally
returned, she discovered my father's name had already been removed
from everything - even from programs. But that wasn't all. My
father had been among those selected to represent Azerbaijan
at the Decade to Moscow. They wouldn't let him go.
A few years later, my father and Abdulla were both sent to the
war [World War II]. Abdulla was killed. My father was called
back two years later. He had been writing essays about how Azerbaijani
soldiers were being tormented by Mekhlis, the army's political
leader. Baghirov liked my father's essays very much, so he called
him back to Baku and asked him to describe everything he had
seen at the front. After that, Baghirov informed on Mekhlis to
Later, my family learned that Baghirov had himself been very
upset when he first heard about the change to Cyrillic. At the
time, Baghirov was a friend of Teymur Yagubov, a family friend.
Teymur had been at the Kremlin in Moscow with Baghirov earlier
in 1939. He remembered seeing Baghirov come out of Stalin's office
- he was obviously shaken by the experience because papers slipped
from his trembling hands onto the floor. When Teymur asked what
was wrong, Baghirov told him that Stalin had just ordered him
to start the transition to Cyrillic in Azerbaijan.
There was no open discussion about switching to Cyrillic, although
considerable debate did follow as to the best way to go about
it. Writers like my father could not object, but they managed
to inject their own values by arguing for the preservation of
the Azeri language, even if Cyrillic was to be the written medium.
They were concerned that the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet
- created to support the sound system of Russian, not Azeri -
would eventually lead to the distortion of Azeri.
There are a number of Cyrillic letters that represent sounds
in Russian that do not exist in Azeri. For example, in Russian,
there's a letter that represents the "ts" sound; Azeri
doesn't have this sound. There were other letters, too, symbolizing
sound combinations such as "ya", "yu" and
"ye". A joke circulating at the time noted that Azeri
was the only language in which you could compose a complex sentence
by simply rearranging three letters: "ya yu ye, ya ye yu",
meaning either "wash and then eat, or eat and then wash".
These three letters were not removed until the late 1950s, after
In my opinion, our first transition to Early Latin in the early
1920s was probably a mistake in itself. We weren't ready for
it, especially as it came on the heels of the incredible political
upheavals when Bolsheviks took over and set up their centralized
government in 1920. Besides, there's no question that Early Latin
did separate the Turkic peoples from their 1,300-year history.
The transition from Latin to Cyrillic was a different matter
entirely, as it was viewed as political oppression. It was not
a choice as Latin had been. Cyrillic implied a superiority of
the Russian language over Azeri. I remember that my parents considered
the transition to Cyrillic to be the greatest tragedy of their
lifetimes, second only to the Stalinist Repressions that began
in 1937. They feared that the decision would eventually lead
to a complete adoption of the Russian language in Azerbaijan
and the annihilation of the Azeri language. Fortunately, Azeri
did manage to survive those 50 years. Looking back, it's clear
that the decision to adopt Early Latin in 1923 provided the impetus
to return to Latin again immediately after we gained our independence
Congress in Baku
The initial switch to Latin had a profound impact on society,
but at least we had the opportunity to debate the issues first.
It wasn't just Azerbaijan that was considering the Latin alphabet.
Baku hosted the First Turkology Congress in 1926 and invited
participants from Turkey and Turkic Republics of the Soviet Union,
such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tatarstan. Even Turkic groups who didn't have their own state
structure came, such as Chuvashis, Sakhas (Yakuts), Khakases
and Balkars. Leading scholars from Moscow, such as Bartold and
Oldenburg, were also invited.
Eventually the Congress attracted 131 delegates. The session
lasted eight days, from February 26 to March 5. It was held in
the lavish Ismayiliyya Building (now the Presidium of the Academy
of Sciences), which had been built by Oil Baron Naghiyev. The
first session of the Congress was chaired by Samadagha Aghamalioghlu,
Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of Azerbaijan at
that time, the highest political office in Moscow's scheme of
things. Among the most active participants from Azerbaijan were
Ruhulla Akhundov, Habib Jabiyev and Bakir Chobanzade.
The Turkology Congress dealt with many issues, but primarily
was concerned with the decision to unify the alphabet for all
the Turkic languages. At the time, most of the Turkic peoples
were still using the Arabic script, although Azerbaijan had officially
adopted Latin as a second script and was using it simultaneously
with Arabic beginning on October 20, 1923.
Some of the minor Turkic peoples didn't have any alphabet at
all. By an overwhelming majority of 101 to 7, the Congress adopted
a resolution saying that all of the Turkic peoples in the Soviet
Union should adopt the Latin alphabet. Turkey went on to adopt
Latin in late 1928, and the new alphabet became effective for
them on January 1, 1929, the same date that Arabic would be banned
in Azerbaijan and all the Muslim nations of the Soviet Union.
Soviet encyclopedias trace the beginning of Latin in Azerbaijan
to 1929 when Arabic was banned, even though the two alphabets
were being used officially and simultaneously starting in 1923.
Some of the participants at the Congress vehemently opposed switching
to Latin. Kazakh scholar Baytursun and Tatar representative Galimjan
Sharifov both fought the idea and proposed reforming Arabic.
They wanted Arabic to represent each sound value in Azeri and
wanted to prevent any duplication of letters. The existing Arabic
script omitted the short vowels (a, e, i, o, u), but assigned
duplicate letters for other sounds (t, s, z).
Reading the stenographic transcriptions of the debates between
the Latinists and Arabists at the Congress makes for fascinating
reading - almost like a novel.
Arabists argued that switching to a new alphabet would be a step
backward in the development of the Turkic peoples, separating
them from their centuries - old heritage and from each another.
But representatives from Azerbaijan and Turkey viewed the transition
to Latin as a progressive step forward and weren't afraid of
being separated from their historical heritage. They estimated
that the costs of republishing all the historical documents and
texts that existed in Azeri from Arabic to Latin would cost the
equivalent of a single battleship - a sum that to them did not
One objector protested: "We know this game. Today you want
to adopt Latin, tomorrow you'll want Cyrillic."
A Russian scholar, hurt by this comment, answered: "Why
are you blaming the initiators of Latin? We know that the Turkic
peoples would never adopt Cyrillic because they would associate
it with colonial Czarist Russia." I believe his reply was
sincere. At that time, no one suspected that Stalin would impose
Cyrillic a few years later. Nor could they have imagined that
of the 131 participants attending the Congress, most of them
would meet a tragic death. Of the 27 participants from Azerbaijan,
only Aghamalioghlu died of natural causes. The rest became victims
of Stalin's Repression. Hardly a decade would pass before the
delegates were arrested, executed or exiled to Siberia where
It's my opinion that our intellectuals were mistaken in perceiving
the Arabic alphabet as backward. Cultures like the Japanese and
Chinese have complicated scripts, but that hasn't impeded their
I don't think we should have transitioned to Latin at that time.
It would have been better to have reformed the Arabic alphabet.
But, of course, after we gained our independence nearly 65 years
after the Congress and 50 years after using Cyrillic, it would
be ridiculous to try and go back to the Arabic. Today, it's essential
to be able to bridge to world languages through the Latin alphabet.
Transition to Latin
But the transition to Latin has not been easy. The greatest hindrance
is economical. Publishing requires an incredible amount of funding.
We need economic assistance in order to facilitate the process.
Nevertheless, we are moving ahead with plans to reprint some
of the major classics in Latin as soon as possible. We've made
a list of 50 titles from Azerbaijan's classic literature, such
as "Koroghlu" ("Dada Gorgud" has already
been printed) and writers such as Nizami, Nasimi, Fuzuli, Khatai,
Mirza Jalil, Sabir, Vagif and Mammadguluzade. We'll want to continue
this process gradually - step by step - and add other writers.
I'm convinced that it's right to have adopted Latin now, but
at the same time we must not reject Russian and the Cyrillic
alphabet in our education system right away. Not many of our
people have a strong foundation in English yet, and there's still
so much Russian literature that hasn't been translated into Azeri.
Children should still be studying Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet
simultaneously with Azeri. The transition process should be gradual
- not abrupt. We stand to lose too much of the intellectual heritage
that we have worked to build this past century if we insist on
discarding Cyrillic before Latin sources are adequately in place.
Anar is President of the
Writers' Union of Azerbaijan and a Member of Parliament who,
among his many other responsibilities, currently chairs the Committee
in Parliament on the Usage of Language and Alphabet in Azerbaijan.
(8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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