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Tatarstan: Analysis From Washington -- Changing Alphabets, Changing Orientations

  • Paul Goble

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 which 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 scripts.

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 of peoples."

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.