The geopolitics of the Cyrillic alphabet: Historical dimension


On May 24th, Russia and the entire world once again celebrated St. Cyril and Methodius Day of Slavic Literature. Once again we will hear the words of Slavic solidarity of the traditional culture. This event makes us think about what usually overlooks May 24th – or for whom is it a holiday? To whom and in what areas of life is the Cyrillic alphabet "native"?

When it comes to information wars - at least in the last few centuries - it is impossible not to notice the enormous role they play, not just of those or other figures of speech (for some "occupation", for others "liberation" – something from time immemorial), or different geographical names of one and the same place, but also certain graphical systems and spelling. Even within the same language with one alphabet - how differently, for example, Russian text written in Old Church Slavonic letters or typed in pre-revolutionary orthography or in modern spelling looks and is perceived! The choice of writing is never a neutral sense; it always carries a certain ideological and political message, a reference to a particular historical tradition. For example, in the Russian community abroad (and in some places even now) the use of pre-revolutionary or "Soviet" spelling allows the almost unerringly determination of the political orientation of a particular immigrant. Today, the Belarusian language has at least two systems of spelling in active competition with one another - the official alphabet and "tarashkevitsa" used by local "opposition". North Korea, since 1945, passed the entire syllabary, while in South Korea, many of the words are still written in Chinese characters. And such examples can be continued.

Even the font lettering method adjusts the reader in quite a certain way. For example, the letters on the cover of Russian artwork, historical works, and foreign language textbooks are styled by the Greek, Chinese, Indian ... This is a relatively "harmless" example. If we are talking about the introduction of the civil script by Peter I, which was met with passive resistance stretching for a quarter century, or the translation of the German language from the gothic to the usual Latin in 1918 (and again in 1945), such a "correction" of graphics is perceived to be always painful, like breaking the national consciousness.

But spelling reform and font changes pale in comparison to the change of alphabets (graphic systems). The choice of characters (e.g. Cyrillic or Latin alphabet) not only plays an important role in the information wars of our time, but it is the most common means of these wars, the background against which the future discourse is built in a certain language. Graphics, as an extra linguistic phenomenon, have an impact on the perception of the meaning of written communication. The appearance of the text relates to its content, and if we are fighting for Russian culture, and often are insufficiently aware of the lack of value of our wealth, our enemies understand this is not the first century. Today the situation has worsened: in the globalized world of survival, a self-active role can claim only those cultures and language, whose cultural sphere is expanding. Going on the defense is losing. The example of the millennial struggle between Cyrillic and Latin alphabets demonstrates this most clearly.

Episode One: Eastern expansion of Europe

Already during the life of St. Cyril and Methodius, and immediately after their death, the question of an alphabet for Slavs began to play a key role in the struggle between Rome and Constantinople for influence in Eastern Europe. The Latin alphabet was spread at the plantations of Western Christianity in the territory of today's Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Croatia, while Cyrillic and (more often) the Glagolitic alphabet, as well as a number of other written systems, continued to be used in this region for several centuries. From the medieval period up to the beginning of the Reformation is a time when the spread of Catholicism throughout Europe went hand in hand with the spread of the Latin alphabet. In Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland the supplanted runic and ogham writing was replaced by the Latin alphabet, in Eastern and Southern Europe - Greek, Arabic, Slavic, Turkic alphabets were expelled. Cyrillic prevailed in Serbia, Bulgaria, Wallachia, and in Russia, but was not then applied to the non-Slavic languages (except Romanian language). For example, I know about only one birch-bark scroll with the inscription in Russian letters of the Karelian language. When St. Stephen of Perm in the 14th century baptized the people of Komi, he invented a new alphabet for them, not daring to use the Cyrillic alphabet. And this was at a time when Latin was already implemented in Finland (captured by the Swedes) and the Baltics (conquered by the Germans), and penetrated from Poland to Lithuania (the state language of which has long remained Ruthenian)!
With the geographical discoveries of the 16th-18th centuries, colonialists and missionaries brought the Latin alphabet to all continents of the Earth, while the scope of the Cyrillic alphabet remained virtually unchanged. Moreover, the Turkish yoke in the Balkans and the Petrine reforms in Russia fundamentally undermined its prestige. The West won the first stage of the confrontation, because Russia had not yet realized the importance of this struggle.

Episode Two: global offensive of Latin alphabet

The French Revolution, on the one hand, and the romantic nationalism of the first half of the 19th century, on the other hand, affected those in the corners of Europe and the world, which previously did not know about the new forms of ideological struggle. In the Ottoman and Austrian empires, nationalism arose among Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, Czechs and so on. Russian Slavophiles first raised the issue of distributing the new Cyrillic in Eastern Europe; they found like-minded people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but that did not bring the desired effect. On the contrary, the growth of Romanian nationalism, orientated to the West, denied Greek and Slavic culture, leading to the rise of the movement for the transition of the Romanian language in the Latin alphabet. Such a transition was carried out in the middle of the 19th century in several stages. Simultaneously, reform was held on Serbian and Croatian lands that did not have political independence (Gaj – Karadzic): a single Serbo-Croatian literary language with two alphabet variants rigidly attached to each other, Cyrillic and Latin, was developed. It was beneficial primarily for the Croats, because from then they were able to ask "brotherly" assistance from Russia, while preserving the Catholic faith and the Latin alphabet, and later distribute them to Bosnia.

Thus, up to the 1860’s, the scope of use of the Cyrillic alphabet suffered some significant losses. To top it off, after the sale of Alaska, Aleuts were deprived of the Russian alphabet. But at this time, we are confronted with a new phenomenon for the first time: the Slavophile circles attempted to counterattack. Some Cyrillic books in Polish and Czech languages were produced as an experiment. Since 1864, the use of the Russian alphabet (with additional letters) for the Lithuanian language (but still Lithuanian books printed in Latin letters in Germany were illegally imported into the territory of the Russian Empire) gradually became mandatory. Success was a struggle for those who tried to use the Polish alphabet for Belarusian and Ukrainian dialects. However, most important from a historical perspective was the creation of missionary-educators of Cyrillic alphabets for Mordovians, Mari and Chuvash, and Abkhazians and Ossetians. This was done primarily to deal with Islamic influence, but as a result new centers of national cultures that were already inextricably linked with Russia emerged.

What was the reason for the "cyrillization" of the second half of the 19th century, albeit timid and inconsistent? The answer is simple: it was brought to life by the liberal reforms of the 60’s and the development of capitalism in Russia, which opened the way for mass education and culture, dramatically increasing social mobility. The army, education system, and press become a powerful tool of unification of the old dialects and finalizing the literary languages. In place of the undifferentiated array of dialects common between Great Russia and Poland, artificially constructed Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian languages came to life; in the middle of the Baltic dominions of German barons there were Estonian and Latvian national movements; Languages of the vast sea of Muslim ethnic groups of the Volga region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia that used the Arabic script slowly began to become isolated in individual literary languages. By the beginning of the 20th century, new intelligentsia of "eastern" peoples of the Russian Empire began to think about the possibility of switching to the Cyrillic or Latin alphabet, especially since the latter at that time was the only common alphabet, not only in Europe but also in the Americas, Australia, Oceania, as well as Southeast Asia and Africa (except for Arabic-speaking countries and Ethiopia).

In this situation, the success of the Latin script was provided. Already in 1904 it officially returned to the Lithuanian language, and then triumphed in Albania and in Russia; since 1917 the Bolsheviks began an unrestrained campaign for the planting of Latin. For twenty years Lenin, prominent bolshevic occultist Bogdanov, People's Commissar of Education Lunacharsky, and their associates systematically urged the abolishment of all writing except Latin as a "reactionary legacy" and "a relic of the Middle Ages." European languages themselves assumed a radical simplification of spelling. The most important purpose of building a communist society was the proclaimed transition of the entire population of the Earth from Esperanto and the death of thousands of living languages. The World non-national Association (SAT), headed by E. Drezen, practiced rites that are mysterious to the uninitiated. It is significant that they called themselves SAT'ano (Satan)...

The Bolsheviks moved quickly from words to deeds. Vulgar Marxism and the defeat of philological sciences (especially Slavic studies) were the prelude to all-out Soviet Latinization of languages. By the end of the 1920’s, the Latin alphabet, in different and often successive variations, was introduced for previously unwritten languages and languages that had a long history of using Cyrillic, Arabic or Old Mongolian writing. And if even a single transition of the Turkish language from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet, implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was very painful and led to the rupture of the cultural and historical continuity of the Turks, then what can we say about the languages of the USSR, on which such experiments in the 1920-30’s years were conducted two to four times?
By 1932, Latin was firmly established in most areas of the Soviet Union. Fulfilling Lenin's precepts, Bukharin, Marr, Lunacharsky, and Yakovlev prepared everything necessary for the translation of the Russian language (as well as several others, including the Georgian, Armenian and Yiddish) into Latin. The Russian alphabet seemed for the Bolsheviks school of Pokrovsky and other Esperantists the most important obstacle to a world revolution, the triumph of cosmopolitanism, and the final abolition of languages and nationalities. For some reason, it was believed that of all the alphabets of the world, only Latin was not burdened by "reactionary" historical associations. It seemed for a few years that Russians and the other peoples of the former empire would be cut off from the pre-revolutionary culture, because for the most part they will not be able to read the works of "aristocratic-bourgeois literature” of the 19th century...

Episode Three: Cyrillic offensive

Marr, Lunacharsky, and Yakovlev were surprised when in 1933 Stalin ordered to immediately stop the Latinization (somewhere on the outskirts of it continued for a few more years of inertia), and in 1935 commanded to start the process of transferring almost all languages of the Soviet Union to the Cyrillic alphabet - both those who have had a rich written tradition, the interrupted reforms of the late twenties, and those that have found the alphabet recently. By 1940, the "cyrillization of the entire country" had been largely completed, but it was sometimes delayed until the beginning of the 1950’s. Dozens of languages found the writing, which united them with the Russian cultural world and, practically for the first time, were included in a single Eurasian information space. Those layers of the radical nationalist intellectuals, who had previously conducted latinization, were exterminated. "Satan" led by Dresen was physically destroyed in 1937, and Esperanto was forbidden in the Soviet Union.

The most amazing thing is that all the participants of the "struggle for writing" in the 1920-1930’s were well aware of its importance. For them it was not a whim, but a matter of life and death. It decided the fate of the peoples of Eurasia (including Russians): integrate into "one world", or to create their own cultural and information worlds. This was understood both by Stalin and those "Latinists" who were repressed. It was well understood by the Nazis, who (also forbade Esperanto in Germany) in 1941 began to plant the Latin alphabet on the occupied territories of the USSR (Crimea, Caucasus), like Lenin's Bolshevik guards in the past.

The victory of 1945 meant the consolidation of the Cyrillic alphabet as the main linguistic system of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc (for example, the Russian alphabet was introduced in Mongolia). By the early 1950s, in parallel with the final defeat of Marxism, an unprecedented earlier attempt was made to broaden the scope of Cyrillic within the Russian language: Russian letters began to be used in mathematical and economic formulas. Unfortunately, now it is difficult to say what the results might bring.

Of course, Latin remained in some areas of victorious socialism (Baltic, East European countries - except for Bulgaria and Yugoslavia), and other languages have kept their own ancient writing, but who knows what situation would have developed in the future, if not for the death of Stalin? We cannot ignore the well-known inconsistencies in Stalin’s national policy after the war (to present it as one continuous "Russification" for no reason), but still the main trend of those years was just the displacement of Latin beyond historical Eurasia.

In the aftermath of Stalin's death, and before the "perestroika", very little happened in the field of writing, but in some places the old Cyrillic alphabets are replaced with new, more comfortable ones. But it was during the years of "stagnation" when not only the frames were anti-Soviet, anti-Russian, but also (in Yugoslavia - anti-Serbian) intellectuals in the national republics. And very soon, the late 80’s confirmed the old adage: who does not come - is forced to retreat. Since the beginning of the 90’s, the decline in the prestige of the Russian language in the world went hand in hand with a wave of latinization, covering both former Soviet republics and the Russian Federation itself. Overseas experts again, like in the 1920’s, declared the futility of the "too complex" Russian language and the desirability of gradual adaptation to Western standards, including by switching to the Latin alphabet. Official attempts of Latinization were made in a number of national republics of the Russian Federation.
Fortunately, the calls of those who wish to maintain a uniform graphic as a guarantee of a uniform information field, at least in Russia, were heard. At the initiative of President Putin in 2003, a law was passed that allowed only the use the Cyrillic graphics in the official languages of the republics within the Russian Federation. The powerful attack of the Latin alphabet was stopped - temporarily and only by one boundary.

To be continued…