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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- The Interpreter Goes On Line

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the man who sought to promote the unity of the Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire, the International Committee for Crimea has launched a website devoted to the life and works of Ismail Bey Gaspirali, a step that promises to spread his ideas of "unity in language, thought, and action" to a new generation via an entirely new medium.

Ismail Bay Gaspirali was born on 8 March 1851, and is most often remembered for the 30 years he devoted to editing "Tercuman" ('The Interpreter'), a newspaper published in the Crimea which sought to create a common literary language among the Turkic peoples and to promote a new method of teaching children how to read and write.

Gaspirali was among the very first Muslim and Turkic figures to stress the importance of educating women and including them in public life. And as such, he exerted a profound influence on the national awakening of the Turkic-speaking community as a whole and individual Turkic nations in particular. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1914, he had almost single-handedly transformed these peoples into their modern form.

Not surprisingly, Gaspirali was frequently attacked by Soviet writers who portrayed him as a bourgeois nationalist who had sparked resistance to Russian rule among the Turkic peoples -- even though Gaspirali took many of his ideas from the Russian intelligentsia. And for much of the last decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gaspirali has been discussed in the region, if at all, almost exclusively as a Crimean Tatar figure.

Now, however, with the launch of this website at which carried materials in both English and Turkish, that may change. Not only is he likely be recognized by scholars and analysts for his broader contributions to the Turkic peoples, but Gaspirali appears set to play posthumously a new role as promoter of unity among those peoples to which he devoted his entire life.

The appearance of this website is particularly interesting for three reasons. First, it is a remarkable example of the ways ideas can be recycled through a new medium. Gaspirali promoted his ideas via a newspaper which reached the relatively few people among Russia's Turkic peoples who could read at the end of the last century. Now, using the Internet, his ideas can reach a far larger audience and thus link them together.

Second, the launch of this site highlights a particular strength of the Internet as a medium and also one of limitations of that channel of information. In contrast to a newspaper, which tends to reach a community defined in time and space and which is inherently diverse, Internet sites tend to attract those who already share a particular approach and thus to reinforce their attachment to the ideas contained therein.

Consequently, while the "Tercuman" promoted community in the broadest sense, the Gaspirali site on the Internet may contribute to the development of an ideological enclave within that broader group, an enclave whose members may indeed be close to one another but who may in the process become more isolated from those among whom they live.

And third, it represents a response to a continuing efforts at national and communal identification among the Turkic peoples, a process that Gaspirali was instrumental in promoting but which is far from over.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many analysts assumed that the Turkic peoples in the post-Soviet region would simply continue to live with identities which had been sponsored by the Soviet government or would revert back to identities, larger or smaller than the nation, which they had had earlier.

So far, none of the groups involved appears to have made a final choice. Instead, the peoples of this enormous region are continuing to struggle to define themselves. That is how Gaspirali almost certainly would have wanted it, and with the new website carrying materials about him, the "Interpreter" appears set to contribute in the future as he did a century ago to this ongoing process.