Thursday, October 6, 2016

How Stalin Saved Russia … from the Latin Alphabet

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 6 – Russian nationalists who have a positive view of Stalin usually cite his role in World War II and his moves toward a more traditional Russia after that time.  But some also invoke the Soviet dictator’s earlier struggles against “internationalist” Jewish communists like Trotsky and Zinovyev.

            But in Russia today, an increasing number of nationalists are praising Stalin for something else: for his role in blocking those like Anatol Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissar of enlightenment, from changing the alphabet in which Russian is written from Cyrillic to the Latin script, a step they view as among the worst forms of kowtowing to the West.

            Over the last decade, this issue has surfaced occasionally but usually in the context of discussions in other former Soviet republics and especially the Turkic ones to shift from the Cyrillic-based alphabets Stalin imposed in the 1930s to the Latin script that they used earlier and that Turkey adopted in the 1920s (

            Now, the issue has surfaced again on the TopNewsRussia site which has picked up a Russian nationalist’s blog post and run it under the title “How ‘the Bloody Tyrant’ Saved ‘the Great and Powerful’ from the Latinization of the Alphabet” (

                “Among the contributions of Stalin to the Russian people is his defense of the traditional alphabet of the Russian language – the Cyrillic one,” the article says.  He had to defend it because “just after the October revolution, certain ultra-revolutionaries tried to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin one.”

            Already in 1919, Lunacharsky’s commissariat of enlightenment was pushing for this change, not only for “all the peoples populating the territory of the republic” but also for Russian as well, something his aides said would represent “the completion of the alphabet reform” begun by Peter I.”

            That position provoked anger among many Russians, the blogger continues, including those organized in the Russia Language Society, which said that such a path would be destructive not only of the other languages in Russia but of Russian as well and would make the rapprochement of the nationalities in that country difficult if not impossible.

            “The supporters of the reform, basing themselves on a international point of view, insist on introducing the European script not only for the non-literary peoples of Russia but also for Russian,” something that in addition “will not only not make easier but in fact will make more difficult the study of Russian by foreigners.”

            During the 1920s, moves to shift Russian to the Latin script stalled, although Moscow did create Latin script-based alphabets for many of the peoples of the USSR that had either not had literary languages in the past, such as the numerically small peoples of the North or that had used Arabic script, such as the major Turkic peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

            But, the Russian nationalist blogger continues, “the Trotskyites with their pseudo-internationalist demagogy did not cease to try.” Ten years later, in January 1930, Lunacharsky issued another call on the pages of “Krasnaya gazeta” to shift the Russian language to the Latin script.

            No longer commissar of enlightenment – he had been replaced the year before by Andrey Bubnov, Lunacharsky even invoked Lenin in support of the idea.  He said that the founder of the Soviet state approved the idea but said introducing a Latin script for Russian was something that would have to wait for “calmer times.”

            That assertion, the Russian nationalist says, is “a lie. There is no mention of this them in any of Lenin’s works.”   But Lunacharsky’s article was enough to get things started again, and plans were made to hold a conference on this to push the idea forward.

            Bubnov appealed to the Communist Party Central Committee, and Stalin responded ten days later. In his note to the new commissar, the party secretary on behalf of the Politburo ordered all work on Latinization to be stopped and the organizations pushing it to be disbanded. That is exactly what happened.

            Any talk about shifting to the Latin script now, the blogger says, is “in general impermissible. Such news in the press would generate great anger among the population. “And whoever in Russia raises this issue,” he assures his readers, “will be considered the number one enemy of the people.”

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