The Second World Congress of Tatars will be held in Kazan, capital of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, at the end of this week (August 29-30). Delegates are expected to call for the Tatar language to switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Tatar is a Turkic language and the Tatars deeply resent the fact that in 1928 the Soviet authorities forced them to abandon the Arabic script in which it had until then been written. First, they were made to use the Latin alphabet but in 1940 they were forced to change to Cyrillic. Now, they say that a return to the Latin alphabet would enable the written language to convey sounds (such as W) for which Cyrillic has no letters. The organizers of this week’s congress say that use of Cyrillic has distorted the spoken language. They hope that changing the script will give young Tatars a better sense of their own language. The organizers have already sounded out the government of Tatarstan and say they expect the congress’ recommendation to meet with a sympathetic response and government action.
Opinion surveys show that interethnic relations in Tatarstan, where Tatars make up just under half the population and ethnic Russians about 42 percent, are generally excellent. Ethnic Russians are slightly more likely than ethnic Tatars to complain of discrimination, but the level of discontent is low and has not changed since polling began in the early 1990s. (Kris [Kazan], August 6) The declining use of the Tatar language is, however, a sore point among many Tatars. Under the republic’s constitution, Russian and Tatar are state languages, and since 1994 study of the Tatar language has been obligatory in all schools in the republic. In reality, however, all official documents are written in Russian and knowledge of the Tatar language leaves much to be desired even among ethnic Tatars, while most of the republic’s non-Tatar inhabitants speak little or no Tatar. This provokes alarm not only among Tatar nationalists but also among rural Tatars, whose use of the language is far higher than that of urban Tatars. In fact, the language issue provokes more tensions between rural and urban Tatars than between Tatars in general and Russians. (Kris, August 6)
Earlier this month, a Kazan linguist warned that, unless Tatar parents take more active steps to teach their children the language, Tatar could become extinct within two generations. In Tatarstan today, he claimed, only 30-35 percent of Tatar children attend schools where Tatar is the main language of instruction. Moreover, these children tend to be from rural families. In the towns, the overwhelming majority of Tatar and Russian children attend schools where the bulk of the instruction is in Russian. Despite compulsory classes, their knowledge of the Tatar language remains sketchy at best. (Respublika Tatarstana, August 5) The organizers of this week’s congress hope to be able to do something to improve the situation but recognize that they face an uphill struggle.
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