Monday, January 18, 2010

Window on Eurasia: In Russia, Debates about Alphabets are about More than Letters

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 18 – Eighty years ago this month, Stalin and the Politburo put an end to plans backed by Lenin and other Bolsheviks to change the alphabet in which Russian is written from Cyrillic to a Latin script, an indication, a Moscow commentator says, that whatever system Russia attempts to build, it ends by being an empire.
In an essay in the current issue of “Kommersant-Vlast’,” Yevgeny Zhirnov traces the history of debates over the Latin script not only for Russian but for the other languages of the country, debates that continue to flare up to this day not only inside the Russian Federation but in the former Soviet republics (
Ever since Peter I introduced a special secular alphabet in place of the one used by the Russian Orthodox Church, the issue of alphabets has been a politically sensitive one, Zhirnov points out. On the one hand, this change led some Russians to believe that the logical next step was to go over to a Latin script like the ones used in Europe.
And on the other, Peter’s actions led many Slavophiles to argue that a Cyrillic-based script should be imposed on all the peoples of the empire, both those like the Poles who had long used the Latin script and other peoples who either lacked literary languages altogether or who used Arabic scripts linked to Islam.
Debates about alphabets intensified at the end of the imperial period, under the Provisional Government, and in the first years of Soviet power. The Cyrillic alphabet was simplified, with several letters being dropped, but even to those limited measures, there was a great deal of popular resistance.
Nonetheless, Lenin clearly indicated that he wanted to see Russian go over to the Latin script eventually. As his education commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky recalled, the founder of the Soviet state said that he did “not doubt that the time will come for the Latinization of the Russian script” but for the time being, any “rash” moves would generate resistance.
Consequently, Lenin backed off from shifting Russian to Latin, but in non-Russian areas, the situation was different. There, the Bolsheviks stressed “that they entirely opposes the old missionary alphabets,” a reference to those developed by Ilminsky in Kazan, which helped to “russify” and “enslave” the non-Russian peoples.
That led to a drive for Latinization in non-Russian areas. In Yakutia, now Sakha, officials called for a Latin script already in 1917, but this decision was implemented only in 1922 when Soviet power was fully installed there. Meanwhile, in 1921, a Latin script was developed for the Ingush, Osetins, Kabardins, and the Azerbaijanis.
Then, in 1925, the Abkhaz who had used a Cyrillic-based script that had been developed by Russian missionaries went over to a Latin-based one. “Formally,” Zhirnov points out, these changes were advertised as a means of freeing “the formerly oppressed peoples” of the Russian Empire as quickly as possible.”
“But in fact,” he notes, most of Moscow’s effort was directed “at peoples where the influence of Islam was strong and the chief goal remained pulling away the mass of toilers from religious education,” which up to that point was conducted on the basis of Arabic script and consequently allowed the mullahs to spread the ideas of Islam to the next generation.
But despite Turkey’s decision to go over to the Latin script, something that made it easier for Turkic peoples in the Soviet Union to accept this idea, the drive for Latinization among non-Russian peoples increasingly fell afoul of Moscow’s concerns as the USSR entered transformations of the 1930s.
On the one hand, the effort was very expensive: the non-Russian scripts had a total of some 400 different letters, many of the languages were spoken by only a small number of people – there were only 400 Aleuts for whom one Latin script was prepared – and typefaces for these scripts were manufactured in only two places, something that created bottlenecks.
And on the other, Latinization had the effect of setting the non-Russians apart, leading many of them to look abroad, to Europe and Turkey, rather than toward Moscow. Not only did the existence of the Latin scripts make learning Russian more difficult for some peoples, but it led some in Moscow to view these scripts as manifestations of anti-Soviet nationalism.
Such suspicions were only exacerbated by reports that the way in which certain key Moscow pronouncements were being translated in languages which were being printed in Latin script. Thus, in one, “revolution” was rendered as “a disorderly movement.” In another, “shock work” was translated as “hazavat.” And in a third, “general line” was given as “the tsar’s road.”
Nonetheless, Lunacharsky and many of the Old Bolsheviks continued to press for Latinization. But their day was ending. On January 25, 1930, the Politburo, led by Stalin, “prohibited any work on the transition of the Russian alphabet to the Latin script,” although it did permit continued Latinization of non-Russian scripts.
When the advocates of Latinization said that they would go ahead with plans regardless, the Politburo directed the education authorities “to stop working on the question of the Latinization of the Russian alphabet” and forbade any expenditure of time and money on the question as of 1931.
Latinization continued sporadically, but beginning in 1936, party and government officials in most areas where Latinization had been carried out began to ask “permission” to go over to the Cyrillic script. And in 1940, the Soviet government imposed Cyrillic on newly-occupied Bessarabia.
(Some nationality languages were never Cyrillicized: the Armenian and Georgian from the very beginning, representatives of communities whose primary homeland was abroad or deemed to be for political reasons, and the three Baltic peoples even after the Soviet re-occupation of them in 1944/45.)
When this happened, Zhirnov points out, no one wanted to talk about “Russification” or “imperial” designs. Instead, officials talked about things going “their customary and natural path.” And that, he says, means that the debate about alphabets remains instructive, not only in places like Tatarstan where many would like a Latin script but elsewhere as well.
“If the situation is examined,” he writes, “one can see that whatever system the powers that be begin to construct in Russia – an enlightened monarchy, a socialist republic or a democratic federation – the result all the same turns out to be an empire,” an outcome the affects both Russians and non-Russians alike.

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