Remembering İsmail Gaspirali: Tatar man of letters

IT HAS BEEN a big year for anniversaries. It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WWI, of course, and recently we saw the 13th anniversary of September 11, a date which must be nigh-on globally recognised. That particular day this year also marked a centenary, one that received little attention. On September 11, 1914, İsmail Gaspirali (Gasprinski) passed away after a lifetime as an intellectual, educator and politician.

A great man of letters and polymath, Gaspirali was a Crimean Tatar. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Eurasian people living, as their name would suggest, in the Crimean Peninsula. Another of those fabled/clichéd crossroads, Crimea through its history has seen Greek and Genoese colonists, Armenians, Bulgarians and nomadic peoples including Scythians, Cumans, Kipchaks, Khazars and the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, all of whom to different degrees have contributed to the Tatar gene pool. They are counted as a Turkic people, speaking a language that is related to Turkish.

Gasprinskiy-headshotWith all those comings and goings, the Tatars have had a complicated and torrid history. They established themselves in the Crimea and the northern littoral of the Black Sea in the 13th century, before creating a khanate in the 1440s then becoming vassals of the Ottoman Turks in 1475. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean khans enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their capital at Bakhchisaray (from the Turkic bahçe saray, literally ‘garden palace’). The Russians, under Catherine the Great, then annexed their territory in 1783, sending thousands of Tatar refugees to Ottoman Turkey, where they were largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Born near Bakhchisaray in 1851, Ismail Gaspirali pursued a modernising mission for his people and fellow Muslims of the Russian empire. He was inspired by the vision of the Islamic Modernists a movement that sought the betterment of Muslim societies through the employment of science, technology and education in a delicate coupling with and accommodation and reinterpretation of Islamic rulings and cultural norms.

Gaspirali became an eloquent and effective proponent – and exponent – of the Modernist vision. He saw education and the emancipation of women as the most important and immediate paths to progress. He also saw that it was necessary to educate and publish for people in their mother tongues rather than the Russian spoken by the educated elites across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Gaspirali is also credited as the founder of the Jadid movement (from usul-i jadid, meaning ‘new method’), which established new schooling models for Muslim populations across Central Asia.

The then-new technology of mass printing, in particular newspapers, was central to Gaspirali’s modernisation project. In 1883 – another centenary, this one marking the Russian annexation of Crimea – he established his periodical Tercüman (from the Turkish/Turkic for ‘interpreter’), publishing it in Russian and a modified Turkic. In many respects the underlying philosophy and intellectual bases for Tercüman served as a model for Molla Nasreddin, the celebrated Azeri satirical periodical established in Baku in the early 20th century, which adopted a much more scathing tone but which covered similar intellectual territory including advocating for women’s rights, curtailing the influence of conservatives clerics and championing reason over retrograde custom.

tercuman-imageThe vision of the Islamic Modernists appears entirely reasonable, laudable and practicable even today, all the more so in comparison to the nihilistic apparitions that so many modern-day jihadis espouse. But the Islamic Modernists of imperial Russia’s domain were smothered by the flow tides of history, not least among them the Bolsheviks. Tercüman ceased publication in 1918, four years after Gaspirali’s death. The Jadidists were largely purged and their innovations brought to an abrupt close. So began all manner of horrors.

As for the Crimean Tatars, the travails that began under Catherine the Great did not cease under the Soviets. This year marks the 70th anniversary of their enforced exile from their homeland by Josef Stalin on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. A quarter of a million Tatars (as well as other Crimean minorities including Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians) were deported en masse to Uzbekistan, with thousands dying in transit or, later, in squalor and penury abandoned to the extremes of the Central Asian climate. Stalin’s allegations were entirely false something that the Soviets recognised in 1967. From the mid-1980s Tatars began returning to their homeland, with numbers accelerating after the collapse of the USSR. Still, as of earlier this decade, the Tatars constituted less than one-fifth of the population of the Crimean Peninsula.

The palace at Bakhchisaray

The palace at Bakhchisaray

With events earlier this year as Russia once again annexed the Crimea the Tatars are once again in a precarious position. It is generally understood that the Tatars supported the Euromaidan protests that shook Kiev, that they continue to see Kiev, rather than Moscow, as the capital city they should rightfully owe allegiance to, that Ukraine’s drawing closer to Western Europe would be in their best interests. Since the annexation Russian officials demanded that Tatars cede their land to Russians.  Many Tatars feared that a new round of ethnic cleansing may be in the offing and others are taking it upon themselves to leave before they are forced to do so, fleeing to the safety of Lviv, near the Polish border.

How Gaspirali would weep at the predicament that his people have found themselves in, how circumstances could have gone so spectacularly awry, so far from the optimistic, progressive, enlightened ambition that he had, where he saw the benefits of ‘modernity’ being shared and enjoyed across ethnic and religious and cultural divides by all the peoples of Eurasia… Still, Gaspirali stands as a beacon, proof positive that people of passion, of commitment to the betterment of humankind, of heart, of vision, of compassion are not restricted to any one faith or ethnicity or ‘civilisation’ but might emerge anywhere.

Would that there were more of them, and fewer shitty, malevolent idiosyncrasies in the unfurling of uncaring history and heartless fate…

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