Thursday, April 8, 2021

Latinization Gave Rise to Nationalism in Soviet Republics in 1920s and will Do So Again, Kramarenko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 5 – Maksim Kramarenko, head of the Regional Coordinating Couincil of Russian Compatriots of the Countries of the Near Abroad, says that Latinization of alphabets in Central Asia and the Caucasus is again playing the role it did in the 1920s and thus must be fought.

            In the first decade of Soviet power, officials created Latin-script-based alphabets for the peoples of these regions who were overwhelmingly illiterate but whose intelligentsias used the Arabic script. Some, including Lenin at one point, even talked about changing Russian from the Cyrillic to the Latin script.

            But after a decade of such efforts, Moscow changed course and forced those nations which had only just adopted the Latin script to shift to a Cyrillic-based script like Russian already had. That latter shift is usually explained by Stalin’s neo-traditionalism and by a desire to make it easier for these peoples to learn Russian.

            However, according to Kramarenko, there was an additional reason: Latinization was a surrogate for de-Russianization and thus promoted the rise of nationalism among non-Russian peoples in these regions. As a result, he says, Moscow had no choice but to shift to Cyrillic scripts (

            Today, something similar is going on and with the active support of outside powers. Republics whose languages had been written in Cyrillic scripts are shifting to Latin-based ones, typically arguing that they are doing so to take advantage of the international Internet community. But in fact, these moves are inherently nationalistic and anti-Russian.

            At the present time, he says, “de-Russification is manifested” via alphabet change by the lack of state support for Russian, the reduction in the number of hours of Russian in schools, the shift of subjects formerly taught in Russian to those taught in the languages of the titular nationalities, and the exclusion of Russian from radio, television and the print media.

            All those things must be opposed, but no one should forget the damage that shifts away from Cyrillic alphabets are doing. Given that Turkey wants all Turkic peoples to use a single Turkic alphabet, however, that gives Moscow an opening; and Kramarenko says Russian scholars are now working actively to fill it.

            Many of the Turkic languages have sound values that were reflected in the Cyrillic-based alphabets the Soviets developed but that are not reflected in the Latin-script Turkic alphabets that are being put in their place. Russian linguists are entering the debate by showing how these nations are losing their distinctiveness by making a change in alphabets.

            Turkey wants all these peoples to speak a common language so that they will be able to communicate and identify with each other, and Turkey’s Western backers are only too pleased to support that effort because it weakens Russia. But Russia can fight back by playing to the individual nationalisms of these peoples against pan-Turkic ideology.

            Moreover, as others have suggested, if these people go over to Latin scripts from Cyrillic ones, three other things will happen, none of them good as far as these nations are concerned. First, the experience of countries which have made the change shows that ever fewer people will read new materials even as younger people won’t read materials from the past.

            Second, these nations will be inflicting on themselves the status of mankurts, of people who do not know their pasts and therefore do not know who they are. And third, because of the close interconnection of language and traditions, many of the young people in these countries will be cut adrift, possibly leading to outcomes no one wants.


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