Sunday, May 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Mark 125th Anniversary of Paper that Linked Them Together

Paul Goble

Baku, May 19 – Russia’s Muslims this month are commemorating the 125th anniversary of the foundation of “Tercuman,” the newspaper launched by Ismail Bey-Gasprinsky which provided them not only with a common language but a forum linking the disparate groups of that community of the faithful together.
Few newspapers have played such a significant role in the unification of groups long divided culturally, linguistically, and even religiously than “Tercuman,” which began appearing in 1883 and lasted until the death of its founding and irreplaceable editor, Ismail-bey Gasprinsky (in Russian; or Gasprali, in Turkish).
“One of the great monuments of the establishment of civil society in Russia,” according to historian Aydar Khabutdinov, “Tercuman” – which is Turkic for “Translator” – helped the Muslims of the Russian Empire not only to view themselves as a community but to enter the modern world (
Ismail-bey was born in the Crimean village of Gaspra (hence his last name) in 1851 in the family of a Russian army officer. He himself studied at the Moscow Military Gymnasium where he came under the influence of Slavophile journalist Mikhail Katkov. But more important, during his time in Moscow, he recognized the importance of a newspaper in organizing society.
At the age of 32, he established “Tercuman” to provide “sober and useful reports from the cultural life in the milieu of Muslims,” as his first lead article put it, but in fact, he and his newspaper did far more. Drawing on the ideas of Johan Fichte, Gasprinsky insisted that Russia’s Muslims were a single community.
And in support of that idea, he called for the introduction of a modern system of education, one that would teach both religious and secular subjects in a new way and in common Turkic language based on the vernaculars of the students rather than in Arabic as had been the case up until then.
Gasprinsky’s approach to education as outlined in “Tercuman” came to be called “the new method,” – “yzul jadid” in Turkic -- and thus the source of the term “jadid” and the ideas surrounding it. (For more information on his ideas, see the biographical sketch and bibliography at
Because he understood the importance of newspapers in the development of the Muslim community, he was an active advocate of an expansion of their numbers. And one indication of both his wisdom in this regard and his success in doing so was that in 1906, more than half of the members of the Central Committee of the Ittifaq Party were editors of Muslim newspaper.
In addition to Gasprinsky himself, these men included Said-Girey Alkin, Yusuf Akchura, Hadi Maksudi, Habdrrashid Ibrahim, Musa Bigi and Ali-Mardan Topchibashev, all of whom played key roles in the Muslim community of Russia and Eurasia more generally during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Today, at the start of the 21st century, Muslims in the Russian Federation are looking back at “Tercuman” and Gasprinsky for three reasons, according to Islamic and academic participants in a conference and roundtable on jadidism which took place in Kazan last week (; cf.
First, it is clear that Russia’s Muslim elite today believe that Gasprinsky’s use of a newspaper a century ago illustrate just how powerful the media – including more recent forms like the Internet --can be in a country which has not yet made the transition to a genuine civil society.
Second, “Tercuman” and Gasprinsky represent symbols of the unity that many Muslims in Russia would like but that they do not have. And third, the two show that it is possible to be a committed Muslim while drawing on the best of secular writings, a combination that some traditionalists reject but that almost certainly must be the basis for the future of that community.

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