Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 175

This year, Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan began the first stage in a long-awaited operation to switch the written Tatar language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. The past seventy years have seen no fewer than three reforms of the script in which the Tatar language was written. Advocates of the present switch won the day with their argument that adopting the Latin alphabet would bring the Tatar language into the modern world and enable young Tatars to make their mark in the “brave new world” of the Internet. The change has been bitterly opposed, however, by some members of the older generation, especially those members of the Tatar intelligentsia whose life’s work is written in the Cyrillic script and who fear, with some justification, that it will be lost to future generations if the alphabet changes.

Now the battle has moved to the federal legislature in Moscow. On September 18, the Unity faction in the State Duma proposed amendments to the federal law on the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation, including one stating that “Russia’s state language and the state languages of the republics use Cyrillic-based alphabets. Other alphabets may be introduced only by federal law” (, September 18). Unity called on Tatarstan’s leaders to review the potential political fallout that would allegedly result from their decision to switch to the Latin script. Unity member Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei warned that Tatarstan was showing a dangerous tendency toward rapprochement with Turkey. It could not, he said, be ruled out that other republics in the Russian Federation might follow suit.

The amendment did not come out of the blue. The day before the debate, the Russian media reported that inhabitants of Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, had formally protested the change of script to Tatarstan’s parliament (Interfax, September 17). The appeal, which was signed by fewer than fifty people, warned of the “threat to national security” allegedly contained in Tatarstan’s plans to revise its script. It expressed “alarm for the fate of our native Tatar language” and concern that “traditions will be destroyed, new textbooks will have to be printed, new teaching methods developed, books translated, teachers retrained. Huge funds will have to be spent on all of this…. It will cause a split in our society. It will be difficult for people to learn how to read and write anew…. The link between generations will be broken” (Interfax, September 17;, September 18).

A companion appeal came from distinguished Tatars living outside the republic. They too spoke of their “deep alarm for the fate of the native Tatar language, …the language that helps us maintain and strengthen the spiritual link with our historical motherland, to feel ourselves an integral part of the great Tatar people.” The change of script threatened “the literacy and education of our rising generation, access to knowledge and literature, scientific investigation, …in sum, the development of Tatar national culture beyond the borders of the historical motherland.” Among the signatories were Airat-Khazart Khaibullov, deputy mufti of the Chuvash Republic; Colonel-General Rasim Akchurin, president of the Tatar cultural community in Moscow; and the famous heart surgeon, academician Renat Akchurin (Vechernyaya Kazan,, September 20).

Because the first stages of Tatarstan’s script switch have already been set in motion, it is hard to predict how the matter will be resolved. But the timing of the campaign against the reform cannot be faulted. Reporting on the Duma debate, the Kremlin-friendly website called Tatarstan’s proposed switch to the Latin alphabet “a threat to the integrity of Russia” (, September 19). Against the background of the ongoing battle against international terrorism, the fact that any Russian region is moving closer toward the Muslim world can easily be made to look threatening. The issue may provide the Kremlin with another lever to bring the headstrong regions into line.