Monday, September 21, 2020

Study of Central Asian Languages by Tsarist Military Laid Foundations for Their Development. Sumarokova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 20 – Soviet linguistic engineering in Central Asia in the 1920s when the four Turkic languages were separated and the one Persian one developed did not as is sometimes assumed happen from a blank slate. Instead, study of these languages by tsarist officers lay the foundation for their growth, Olga Sumarokova says.

            In Soviet times, this role was ignored almost entirely, with only a passing reference to the role of Tatars, Bashkirs, and Crimean Tatars as translators for Russian colonial administrations. But in fact, both in St. Petersburg and Tashkent, the tsarist military was simultaneously training officers in these languages and preparing grammars for them.

            The Rhythm of Eurasia journalist suggests that the role of Muslim translators not only has been overrated but has been whitewashed. According to some Central Asians, they played a negative role in the life of the national languages of the region (

            Much more important and positive for the development of those languages was the opening in 1883 of a subdivision of the Asian Department of the tsarist ministry of foreign affairs to train officers and diplomats in these languages. There was enormous demand for such training. In the first year, Sumarokova says, 50 officers competed for the five slots.

            Those who were accepted were expected to master Islamic law and five languages, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, French and Tatar.

            Fourteen years later, the tsarist authorities established a second center for the study of these languages, the Tashkent Officers School for Eastern Languages, which taught both foreign languages like Persian and Chinese and the various Turkic tongues spoken by the sedentary populations in Central Asia.

            Tsarist officials understood the importance of gaining access to information in these languages given intensifying geopolitical competition over the region; but until the start of the 20th century, Fyodor Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government in 1917, said, too little was done to promote Central Asian dialects as literary languages.

            Sumarokova’s article is important less because of the information it provides on these institutions than on its suggestion that the Tatars, Bashkirs and Crimean Tatars did not play the entirely positive role in Central Asia many of them still claim and that the tsarist military played a far greater and more positive one than many in Moscow have been willing to acknowledge. 


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