Reviews

This article deals with Tatar language and its multidimensional evolution since the end of the Soviet period.  In order to break with usual approaches of a phenomenon generally limited to its linguistic and political aspects, the author has based her analysis on both contemporary scientific and periodical publications, and on her own fieldwork among the Tatar-speaking population.  Her study interestingly resituates debates on the present and future of Tatar language into a more general context marked by cultural change.  One of her central assumptions is that “purification” of Tatar language remains as a form of “de-Russification”.  Due to the fact that during Soviet times Tatars refrained from speaking their ‘primitive’ mother tongue, Tatar language lost its status as a language of communication.  The danger was real at the beginning of 1990s when more than half of words registered in Tatar dictionaries were deriving from Russian.  Albeit Tatar language has been recognised, with Russian, state language of Tatarstan, the asymmetry in the use of Tatar (“marked” and “particularised”) and Russian (“normal,” “unmarked”) is still a reality.

Speaking Tatar is not a requirement for making a career and until now, official texts in Tatar still look like simple translations from Russian.  Even the best public translators of Tatarstan are accustomed to the neglect of Tatar’s own stylistic and semantic constructions.  In this context, as far as language is considered as a strong marker of ethnic identification, the need to purify the language appears to many as a means of preserving the nation.  The postcolonial problematic allows the author to cast light on regularities in linguistic purification processes (comparisons with Kemalist Turkey, and with the Corsican issue in France).  If some purist discourses on Tatar language are characteristic of postcolonial tendencies to define the self through opposition with the other, the Tatar case retains some specificities:  The local government is officially not involved in the process (with the exception of the committee for the realisation of the law on “the languages of the peoples of Tatarstan”), and Tatar national activists and scholars monopolise the movement for purification.  This movement drives to funny situations, Bulgakov style, when newspapers readers do not understand the written and ‘pure’ Tatar language used by journalists.  

Another interesting statement of the author’s is the deconstruction of the myth of Tatar villages as enclaves of ‘pure’ Tatar language.  Even if villages have carried for centuries the Tatar culture expelled from cities, even if during the Soviet period the only schools with Tatar language as language of instruction were situated in rural areas, today the rural population mostly speaks a pidjin admixing Tatar and Russian elements.  In all, the article sheds a crude light, through concrete examples, on the fear of assimilation among Tatar nationalists.  On this basis, the current purist movement appears as a reaction of self-defence and touches, in fact, all aspects of Tatar life: ideology, linguistics, clothing, food, alcohol consummation, sexual practice and disposition, not forgetting the purification of Tatar onomastics.

Marat M. Gibatdinov, Institute of History, Kazan
CER: I-7.2-620