Autumn 2000 (8.3)
Changing Alphabets, Orientations
by Paul Globe
Washington, 4 September 2000 (RFE/RL) - Tatarstan's schools this
fall have dropped Cyrillic in favor of the Latin alphabet for
written work in the national language.Not only does this shift
reverse a Soviet-era effort to link the Tatars more closely to
the Russian nation, but it also makes it easier for the Tatars
to gain direct access to European culture.
Tatarstan's Education Ministry announced this step on Friday
at the start of the new academic year there, and its spokeswoman
argued that this return to the Latin script both permits a better
representation of the national language's sound patterns and
will help Tatar students to
learn English and other European languages.
But beyond these pedagogical considerations, this change of alphabets
both reflects and promotes an even more fundamental shift in
the social and political orientation of that Middle Volga nation.
And these are the implications that have already sparked controversy
between Moscow and Kazan.
Earlier this year, Tatarstan's parliament passed a law calling
for the introduction of the Latin script over the next decade
and setting up a special republic-level commission to oversee
this process. In July, that body approved new transliteration
and spelling rules and thus set the stage for the use of the
new script in Tatar schools this month.
In taking these actions, Tatarstan is clearly seeking to undo
an important element of more than 70 years of Soviet policies
toward non-Russian peoples living within the Soviet Union in
general and the Russian Federation in particular. Prior to 1917,
Tatars generally employed the Arabic script when they wrote their
language. Seeking both to cut off Muslim and Turkic communities
from their own pasts and the Arab world and also to speed up
the process of eliminating widespread illiteracy among these
peoples, the Soviet authorities in the 1920s introduced Latin-based
These Latin scripts were widely recognized as being the most
adequate to expressing the sound values of these languages. Indeed,
the Latin script developed by Soviet linguists in 1920 for Azerbaijan
became the basis for Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's
alphabet reform in his country in the mid-1920s.
But a decade later, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin scrapped the
Latin scripts for these Soviet nationalities, replacing them
with alphabets based on the Cyrillic system used by Russians.
His purpose, explicitly stated and celebrated by Soviet ideologies,
was to promote the "rapprochement" and ultimate "unification"
of all Soviet nationalities into a Russian-defined "community
Beyond any doubt, this Stalinist measure both effectively cut
off many of these peoples from their pasts and made it easier
for young people to learn Russian. But it also meant that alphabet
reform became a key element in the programs of national movements
of many groups at the end of the Soviet era and since that time.
And a few of them, like Tatarstan, have taken steps to move away
from the Cyrillic scripts.
But these nations have had a difficult time of it for three reasons:
First, such an effort is incredibly expensive. It requires new
signs, new textbooks and other publications, and new instruction
for those who had learned the earlier alphabet. Such costs have
proved to be a major break on such shifts in Azerbaijan and Central
Asia and may prove to be on Tatarstan as well.
Second, many brought up with the Cyrillic script will resist
any change both out of inertia and because of concerns that such
a new shift could separate them from their children just as earlier
alphabet reforms did with their parents and grandparents.
And third, many in Moscow view such efforts as inherently anti-Russian
and anti-Moscow. Russian officials have already criticized Tatarstan's
move as a threat to interethnic cooperation in that Middle Volga
region and as a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin's
efforts to integrate Russia and create a common legal space across
the entire Russian Federation.
Tatarstan thus will face many obstacles to achieving its goal
of alphabet reform, but the announcement last week that it has
begun suggests that the Tatars have already changed their orientations
enough that they may succeed in changing their alphabet as well.
is Communications Director of RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe / Radio
(8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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