Thursday, February 22, 2018

Russian State Cult of Cyrillic Alphabet a Relatively Recent Development, Bagdasarov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 22 -- Moscow’s extremely harsh response to Kazakhstan’s decision to shift from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin-based alphabet obscures the fact that the state cult around Cyrillic is a relatively recent development and only took its current form under Vladimir Putin, according to Roman Bagdasarov.

            In today’s Nezavisimaya gazeta, the historian points out that alphabets always trail the spoken language and that “the periodic reforming of language is natural,” although because of the role of the state in education,  it is something that is invariably “politicized” (

                Over the course of Russian history, Bagdasarov says, “language reform has marked the change of the state system: the secularization of the alphabet under Petr I, the shock linguistic construction in the USSR, and finally, the transformation of Cyrillic into a (so far) unofficial symbol of present-day Russian statehood alongside the official flag, hymn and coat of arms.”

            Among the state-supported celebrations that mark this latest development, he continues, are the establishment of May 24th as the Day of Slavic Writing and Culture, various campaigns against the Latin script as now regarding Kazakhstan, and the legal specification of Cyrillic as the alphabet not only of Russia but of its republics in 2002.

            In many ways, Bagdasarov says, “the most surprising” event is the Day of Slavic First Teachers Kirill and Mefodius, who “according to the overwhelming opinion of scholars invented not Cyrillic but Glagolithic, which is used today by the Croatian Greek Catholics [only] on very big holidays.”

             This “state cult of the Cyrilllic alphabet and its transformation into one of the bindings [of the Russian people] is an invention of the late Soviet period,” the scholar continues. Yes, the tsarist administration limited the use of the Latin script, but it more than tolerated the use of the Latin script for French in which many documents were written.

            “Russian apologists of Cyrillic are not inclined to remember that the texts of the classics of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries were written in another orthography, and its sovietization became an intentional change of the ‘bourgeois’ cultural heritage and its ‘worker-peasant’ adaptation.”

            For many Russians now, however, this “Sovietized Cyrillic script is viewed almost as a civilizational code.”

            The situation in Kazakhstan is completely the opposite, Bagdasarov says. “For this country as for the majority of other Turkic language countries, the symbol of state and ‘civilizational’ sovereignty has become the Roman alphabet (the Latin script).”

            That is because, he continues, “if there is a Russian world, then there is also a Turkic world: If someone wants to revive the unity of Slavic peoples, then why should Turkic peoples not think about their unity – all the more so since this unity in the 1920s was part of the conception of the nationality policy of the Country of the Soviets.”

            “If someone were to decide to create a Day of Turkic Writing and Culture, then undoubtedly it would become November 1, 1928, when the parliament of the Republic of Turkey unanimously voted fore a law on the transition from Arabic to the Roman alphabet,” a step that played “a decisive role for the new Turkic alphabets for the Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union.

            After having promoted this shift to the Latin script for the Turkic peoples within its borders in order to “justify aggression toward its neighbors, “the Bolsheviks in the mid-1930s became convinced that they couldn’t control these processes” and imposed Cyrillic-based scripts on the languages of these peoples.

             (The only case where Moscow’s early promotion or tolerance of the Latin script had any positive consequences from its point of view, Bagdasarov says, was with in Karelia where the Finnish language was written in Latin script and this fact used as “a propaganda argument” during the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-1940.)

            A major reason why Moscow has been against the use of Latin script by the Turkic peoples both within Russia and within the former Soviet space is that the Latin script makes them more similar one to another and thus promotes horizontal ties. The Cyrillic scripts Moscow imposed promoted distinctions which are quickly lost with the Latin.

            The efforts of the Kazan Tatars to move to Latin script in the 1990s were blocked, and today, only Karelian is written in the Latin script, one of the reasons why it is “the only language of the titular ethnos of a republic that has not been given state status.” Crimean Tatar in the occupied Ukrainian peninsula is now written in a Cyrillic-based script.

            Alphabets are closely tied to the issue of disappearing languages, Bagdasarov says. If the Turkic peoples or the Finno-Ugric peoples could establish common scripts, something they could easily do with Latin-based alphabets, they would have a better chance of survival. But so far, he says with apparent regret, no one is focusing on that possibility.

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