This article will feature

in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

In 2017, then-Kazakh president of nearly three decades, Nursultan Nazarbayev, officially announced the beginning of his country’s Latinization journey. By 2025, Nazarbayev hopes that a Latin-based Kazakh alphabet will have transplanted the current Cyrillic-based alphabet as the one used for government, media and education. In making this announcement, Kazakhstan has joined its neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on a journey of self-identification in the wake of the Soviet dissolution.

The Central Asian steppe was for a long time inhabited by a group of nomadic Turkic, Iranian and Mongolic tribes. These tribes were often hostile to one another and the idea of a unifying intertribal identity was foreign.

Khorloogiin Choibalsan, Mongolian Communist leader who outlawed traditional Mongoloain script

The 200-or-so years starting at the beginning of the 8th century saw the arrival of Islam, which had a profound effect on the region. The literate began to use the Arabic script, modified to write the various tribal languages, and previously-separated tribes began to feel a sense of unity in their newly-found Muslim faith. It has even been argued that the Arabic script is what inspired the Uyghurs of present-day Eastern China in the creation of their script, which they eventually passed to the Mongolians who continued to use it for generations.

The new unifying Arabic script wasn’t without its issues, however. The Arabic language is worlds away from the languages of the plateau, and their inventory of letters proved woefully inadequate to accurately represent all the letters of the tribes’ native languages. This made for an awkward, difficult-to-learn script that was only readable by those specially educated in its use, mainly men who had devoted their lives to the study of their religion.

1813 saw the Russian and Persian empires, Central Asia’s neighbouring superpowers, gather in Gulistan in the Caucasus region to the West, to sign the Treaty of Gulistan. This ceded a large part of the Caucasian land to the Russians, including most of what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan. This marked the beginning of Russian influence in the Turkic world. For the next century, Russian sovereignty advanced across the steppe to subsume the territories of today’s Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

 A street sign in Kazakhstan with Cyrillic script

In an effort to modernize the minorities of the new Soviet Union, the Latin script was introduced to write the various ethnic languages of the region. The opinion was that the Arabic script was “backwards” and “primitive”, while the Latin script was the script of modernity and progress. It was the script that all nations of the world were tending toward.

So, for nearly a decade, a Latin-based orthography was taught in the Central Asian ASSR’s to write the Central Asian Turkic languages, as well as the Tajik dialect of Persian.

With this script, however, the previously scattered tribes of Central Asia began to write with a relatively accessible and unified orthography. Stalin saw the emergence of a pan-Turkic identity which united the Turkic citizens of Central Asia, who, together, had the power to cause problems for their colonizers. Fearing a rebellion, Stalin imposed a Cyrillic-based script, designed to redirect this newfound unity into a loyalty for Moscow and the Kremlin. By 1940, the Cyrillic script had become the only one used in the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, in Azerbaijan, and even in Mongolia. Although never officially becoming part of the Soviet Union, the communist leader of Mongolia at the time, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, outlawed the traditional Mongolian script, along with most other symbols of traditional Mongolian identity, and mandated the use of a Cyrillic-based script, in an attempt to improve relations with Moscow.

Tensions to the West, meanwhile, rose as the Turks of Central Asia began to discover their long-lost brotherhood. The Soviet Iranians were separated from their compatriots in Persia, and both fought against the colonizing Russian authorities, which treated them as second-class citizens in their own land. In 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed, and Central Asia was once again free. Now though, they had a national identity they didn’t have before. The Central Asian territories had been divided into the states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, all homes for the titular Turkic nationalities, while the Republic of Tajikistan homed the Iranian Tajiks. Almost immediately, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus announced their intention to get rid of the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic script and forge a new identity on their own terms. Kazakhstan, being much more closely tied to the Soviet government, and having a higher proportion of ethnic Russians in its territories, filled many of its highest governmental positions with ethnic Russians, who objected to the change, and still do today, claiming discrimination in a country that now treats them as second-class citizens.

The fact that Kazakhstan has now begun the Latinization process, and Mongolia is making efforts to reintroduce its ancient native script, leaves Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as the only Cyrillic holdouts in Central Asia. The governments of the two states have been clear in their opposition to the adoption of a Latin script, but it is clear that the once-ubiquitous Cyrillic script is seen as a reminder of a dark past in Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has dealt a massive blow to the Soviet colonial legacy in the region.