Matthias Battis: Stalinabad 1930: Aleksandr Semenov & the convergence of scholarship & politics at the Tajik language congress

Tuesday 11th June (Please note this talk will take place in Lecture Room 4 at New College)

Dr Matthias Battis (ONGC)

Stalinabad 1930: Aleksandr Semenov and the convergence of scholarship and politics at the Tajik language congress

Alphabets are at once highly technical and deeply symbolic cultural artefacts. As such, they have attracted the attention of both linguists and political revolutionaries, who have looked to their reform as an opportunity for cultural and political change. Latinisation in early Soviet Central Asia is a case in point and the subject of this chapter. Hailed as “a great revolution in the East” by Lenin, it was part of wider language reform that transformed Central Asian languages and writing systems, including Persian, which became known as Tajik in the process. It saw scholarly knowledge and political power converge to make the case for the Latin alphabet and against the Perso-Arabic one. In parallel to developments in republican Turkey, linguists and political actors joined forces to associate the Perso-Arabic alphabet with backwardness, Islam and the old order, on the one hand, and the Latin script with progress, science and the nation, on the other. Unlike the Turkish experience, however, Latinisation in Soviet Central Asia was complicated by how it was negotiated within the Soviet national republican context, in particular against the backdrop of a nascent Tajik emancipatory nationalism that was resentful and suspicious of the real and imagined Turkist tendencies inherent in the Latinisation project. Aleksandr Semenov played a crucial, albeit somewhat reluctant, role in articulating a scientifically underpinned Tajik nationalist position in this negotiation. And he did so, both in competition and collaboration with Central Asian politicians, writers and linguists, such as Narzullo Bektosh or Abdurauf Fitrat.

TOSCCA/ONGC Seminar series on the History and Culture of Central Asia and the Caucasus

Tuesdays, weeks 2-8, 5pm in Lecture Room 6, New College.