RFE/RL: Tatarstan schools shift to Latin alphabet

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Subject: RFE/RL: Tatarstan schools shift to Latin alphabet

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RFE/RL: Tatarstan schools shift to Latin alphabet

RFE/RL Russian Federation Report
Vol. 2, No. 32, 6 September 2000
A Survey of Developments in the Regions Outside Moscow
Prepared by the Staff of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
******************Note to Readers*****************
A weekly supplement to "RFE/RL Newsline," the "RFE/RL
Russian Federation Report" features news about the
Russian Federation outside Moscow and the North
Caucasus. Those interested in Russia's regions might
also want to look at Russian-language transcripts of
RFE/RL's weekly "Korrespondentskii Chas" at


By Paul Goble
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 1 September at
the start of the new academic year there, and its spokeswoman argued
that the 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 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 brake on such shifts in Azerbaijan and Central Asia and may
prove to be in 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 the Tatars have already changed their orientations enough
that they may succeed in changing their alphabet as well.
Copyright (c) 2000. RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved.
"RFE/RL Russian Federation Report" is prepared by Julie A. Corwin
(JAC) on the basis of a variety of sources, including reporting by
"RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. Regular
contributors are Jan Cleave (JC), Liz Fuller (LF), and Paul Goble
(PG). It is distributed every Wednesday.
Direct comments to Julie A. Corwin at corwinj@rferl.org.
For information on subscriptions or reprints, contact Paul Goble in
Washington at (202) 457-6947 or at goblep@rferl.org. Back issues are
online at http://www.rferl.org/russianreport
Technical queries should be emailed to:

For information on subscriptions or reprints, contact Paul Goble in
Washington at (202) 457-6947 or at goblep@rferl.org. Back issues are
online at http://www.rferl.org/russianreport
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