Thursday, December 27, 2012

New books at the library

One of my on-going projects at the library is to continually research books that are of interest to the library and contact the author and/or publisher to request a donation of their book for our collection. As a result of these efforts, we recently received two important editions to our collection:

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Indiana University professor Christopher Beckwith is the first complete history of Central Eurasia from ancient times to the present day. Empires of the Silk Road “represents a fundamental rethinking of the origins, history, and significance of this major world region…and demonstrates why the region is central to understanding the history of civilization.” (From the jacket cover.) Empires of the Silk Road was published in April 2011 by Princeton University Press ( I look forward to reading it!

Though most of the books we receive through my requests are in English, our second recent acquisition is in Russian. One of the library staff had come across the announcement of the Russian translation of Northern and Eastern Tartary: The Travel Diary of Nicolaas Witsen, and asked me to pursue acquiring a copy for the library. Knowing nothing of the book, I was pleasantly surprised to find out what a rare and unusual book it is. Nicolaas Witsen was a 17th century Dutch traveler, cartographer, shipbuilder, ambassador, and the mayor of Amsterdam thirteen (!) times. He traveled extensively in Siberia, Mongolia and Central Asia as well as Persia, Crimea, and the Caucasus.
In 1691 he created the first large size map of the “Northern and Eastern part of Europe and Asia.” Eight years later he produced 'Noord en Oost Tartarye' (North and East Tartary), a book of 660 pages which served as a companion to the map. A revised edition with a total of thousand pages was printed in 1705.

The Northern and Eastern Tartary has long been considered one of the most important early sources for information about this vast region, but access to it has been limited because of its 17th century Dutch language. For a number of years a group of Russian and Dutch historians collaborated to produce a Russian edition. The book was published in three deluxe volumes in Amsterdam in 2010 and with the help of the Netherlands Embassy in Moscow, distributed free of charge to 107 libraries and scholarly institutions in the Russian Federation. (Information from

Here I am, proudly displaying the new books.
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to write the Netherlands Embassy in Ukraine to see if they could help the Gasprinskiy Library acquire a copy of the book.  An officer from the Embassy quickly responded in the affirmative, contacted their Embassy in Moscow, and soon a copy of the Northern and Eastern Tartary was on its way to our library. Because of the inclusion of Crimea at the time of the Crimean Khanate in Witsen’s travel writings, the book will be a great asset to scholars and researchers who come to our library.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What is being done to save the Crimean Tatar language?

In my last blog post I wrote about Crimean Tatar as an endangered language and why it is important to save it, how the survival of a language is inextricably linked to the survival of a culture. But how do you go about saving an endangered language? When only 5% of the children speak the language (the oft quoted statistic about Crimean Tatars), where do you start in reversing that fatal-seeming trend?
Obviously, the key to saving any endangered language is to provide conditions whereby children grow up speaking the language and receive schooling in which lessons are conducted in the language. As far as I know, there are no clear statistics on the level of language instruction in Crimean Tatar homes. In my limited experience, the older children (age 13+) who speak Crimean Tatar do so because their parents made an effort to speak it at home as they were growing up, and almost invariably, they grew up with a grandparent living in the household. The young people I know who did not grow up surrounded by adults speaking Crimea Tatar do not know the language.

And even if they did speak Crimean Tatar in their first years, that language could be lost once they started school. When the oldest son of a Crimean Tatar family I know began school in 1997, there wasn’t a single school in which Crimean Tatar was used as the language of instruction. He soon lost the language he had spoken the first five years of his life, and now, as a young adult, is “ashamed” that he does not know his mother tongue. 

Beginning in 1998, a number of schools called “national schools,” in which Crimean Tatar is the language of instruction, have been established in Crimea. According to a report published by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization ( in March of 2008, there are 3,472 pupils who study in 15 national schools. These schools (now numbering 16) are scattered across the peninsula from the largest cities to the smallest villages with enrollments running from 33 to 403 students. In 2012 there were 110 graduates of the national schools. 

In addition, also according to the 2008 UNPO report, 1029 pupils study Crimean Tatar in 33 general education institutions in which Russian is the main language of instruction. However, children are taught in Crimean Tatar for only four years before they are then taught exclusively in Russian. Obviously, a significant portion of school age children in Crimea are not able to study the Crimean Tatar language. Contrast this to before the 1944 Deportation, when over 40,000 students received instruction in Crimean Tatar language in over 300 schools. 

So what efforts are being made to change these grim statistics? Some Crimean Tatar leaders feel there is a great need to open more national schools.  Refat Chubarov, First Vice Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, has stated that “the main problem is the lack of Crimean Tatar schools and text-books in the native language. The national schools are not being built. The number of Crimean Tatar children that study in the native language is very small – 1 of 10 pupils attends Crimean Tatar schools. In order to guarantee the education of the children in our native language we need at least 40-50 schools,” said Chubarov in a May 2012 discussion with Steven Page, Second Secretary of US Embassy. (

Others feel that there needs to be a broader initiative outside the education system that brings in non-governmental organizations and the possibility of international funding.  According to the UNPO report, there are only 14 centers in Crimea offering extracurricular activities in the Crimean Tatar language.

 A recent study conducted in six Crimean cities by the Peace Action Training and Research Institute of Romania (PATRIR) with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland concluded that Crimean Tatar language can be preserved by the introduction of a multilingual education model (Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar) in Crimea. “Participants in the survey noted that this model of education helps children learn the second or third language much faster by teaching some subjects in the curriculum of these languages.”  Multilingual education also has the advantage, the report notes, of increasing trust and reducing isolation among the different ethnic groups of the peninsula. (From Crimean News Agency QHA report on April 25, 2012).

And perhaps fundamental to all these proposals is the recognition of Crimean Tatar as an official language in Crimea. The prospect of this happening has moved much closer in recent months. In August the Ukrainian president signed into law a bill that recognizes Russian as an official language in any region where more than 10 percent of the residents are Russian. There was huge opposition to this bill because of it being seen as one more move to closer ties with Russia and the beginning of the end of Ukrainian as an official state language.  However, because Crimean Tatars constitute 13% of the population in Crimea, the Crimean Tatar language would also fall under this law and become an official regional language in Crimea along with Russian. 

I remember so well my first weekend in Crimea when Nadjie Yagya, my counterpart at the library, took me on a little walking tour around the center of Simferopol. One of the buildings on our tour was the large modern structure housing the Crimean Rada (congress). Nadjie proudly showed me that the words inscribed on the panels above the doors announcing that this was the home of the Crimean government, were not only in Ukrainian and Russian, but also Crimean Tatar. Perhaps the inclusion of Crimean Tatar as an official language of the peninsula will help give support to the many proposals to strengthen the now endangered language of the indigenous people of Crimea.
Entrance to the Verkhovna Rada (congress) in Crimea. Ukrainian, the state language is in the front with Crimean Tatar (on the photo) to the left, and Russian to the right.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why save an endangered language?

On November 5th, a roundtable was held at the library on the Crimean Tatar language. Bringing together experts from the Crimean Tatar Educators Union, the Crimean Tatar Writer’s Union, the Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University, and the Verkhovna Rada (the Autonomous Republic of Crimea governing body), the purpose of the round table was to discuss the status of Crimean Tatar as an endangered language and what can be done to preserve it.

The roundtable started me thinking about why, exactly, is it important to preserve a language? Over the course of human history, thousands of languages have appeared and then disappeared. In the United States alone, 115 languages of the approximately 280 spoken at the time of Columbus, have been lost in the last five centuries. Today, according to UNESCO, there are about 6500 languages spoken in the world and at least half of those are under threat of extinction within the next 50 to 100 years.

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger has six classifications of language survival status, ranging from “safe” in which the language is spoken by all generations and intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted; to “extinct,” in which there are no speakers left. Crimean Tatar falls in the fourth classification, “severely endangered.” In this designation, “language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.” The statistic often sited when discussing the current status of the Crimean Tatar language--that only 5% of Crimean Tatar children speak their mother tongue--certainly supports this classification. 

In a speech to the European Parliament in March, 2010, Mustafa Jemilev, head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, said, “One of the most critical and, probably, key problems of the Crimean Tatar people is the problem of preservation of native language…”

And indeed, much of the work of Crimean Tatar organizations and institutions, such as the Gasprinskiy Crimean Tatar Library whose mission is “to preserve, grow, and transfer to present and future generations, the intellectual wealth, native language (emphasis mine), and culture of the Crimean Tatars,”   is oriented towards preserving and revitalizing the Crimean Tatar language. 

But why is language preservation so important? What will be lost if Crimean Tatars can no longer speak their native tongue? Around me I constantly hear Crimean Tatars speaking Russian, and indeed, many of the young Crimean Tatars I know are unable to speak more than a few words of Crimean Tatar. What would it mean if fifty or a hundred years from now, no one speaks Crimean Tatar? Would Crimean Tatars still exist as a people? 

The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at University of London has this to say about language preservation:
“In many areas of the world, economic, military, social and other pressures are causing communities to stop speaking their traditional languages, and turn to other, typically more dominant, languages. This can be a social, cultural and scientific disaster because languages express the unique knowledge, history and worldview of their communities; and each language is a specially evolved variation of the human capacity for communication.”

It seems inconceivable that such an event would come to past, as there are now approximately 100,000 speakers of Crimean Tatar (according to the UNESCO Atlas). But if only 5% of those speakers are the children who will become the Crimean Tatar people of the future, then it is obvious how a language can disappear.

For Crimean Tatar people to no longer have access to a language their ancestors have spoken for hundreds of years would greatly diminish who they are as a people. Their songs would go unsung, their poetry only read by language scholars, the wealth of their literary heritage only known in translated form. As my counterpart at the library, Nadjie Yagya, said to me when I first came to the library: “If a person does not know the language of his ancestors, the spiritual losses are irreplaceable, and he cannot fully understand the culture of his people.”

And so the work to preserve the Crimean Tatar language becomes a fight for the survival of the Crimean Tatar people. The words of Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin, about his endangered language ring true for the Crimean Tatar people:
·         If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
·         If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
·         How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?
Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing.

For more information on endangered languages, see these websites:
Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project SOAS University of London
Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gasprinskiy Library celebrates the arrival of the Terdjiman collection

October 24, 2012, was a special day at the library. With the help of a Peace Corps Partnership Grant and an individual named Renat Abibulaev, the Gasprinskiy Library was able to realize their long held dream of obtaining a complete collection of Ismail Gasprinskiy’s newspaper, Terdjiman.  Published from 1883 to 1918, Terdjiman was the first newspaper in Crimean Tatar history and became the most widely read newspaper among Muslims of the Russian empire. Islamic historian, Brian Glyn Williams, notes the importance of Terdjiman:
Crimean Muslim peasants who gathered before the village mosque to hear young students read aloud from the pages of Tercüman were, for the first time, exposed to events taking place beyond their immediate world. In the pages of Tercüman Gaspirali wrote of technical inventions in the United States of America, wars in the Balkans, the modernization of Japan, reform in the Ottoman Empire, the spread of European colonialism in Asia and Africa, the growing movement for women's rights in the West, etc

A number of years ago the library was able to acquire approximately 30% of Terdjiman on microfilm, but their attempts since that time to acquire the remaining 70% had been futile. When I first came to the library in 2009, researching ways to acquire the rest of Terdjiman became one of my initial tasks. The originals of Terdjiman are located in the National Library of Russia and microfilms of them are available, but tracking down where to purchase digital copies and how much they would cost was a daunting task. I went from the original supplier of the microfilms to the library, to the company who had later purchased the inventory (but whom never responded to my inquiries), and finally, directly to the National Library of Russia. There at least I did find some answers, but the costs of digital copies of Terdjiman were prohibitive and the copies were impossible to obtain long distance.

In the meantime, we wrote a Peace Corps Partnership Grant with the goal of at least digitizing the microfilms of Terdjiman that the library had in their collection and with the hope that perhaps a way would be found to acquire the entire collection.  Through the generosity of my American friends, family, and individuals I did not know but who saw the fundraising appeal on the Peace Corps website, over $4000 was raised for the project. (See Nov. 15, 2011 and subsequent posts).

Because we ended up raising $1000 more than our original goal, the library once again considered how to acquire a complete collection of Gasprinskiy’s newspaper. Fortuitously, Renat Abibulaev, a Crimean Tatar who is a Russian citizen and lives in St. Petersburg where the National Library of Russia is located, happened to be visiting our library at that time and offered to help us.  Through his diligent efforts over the next few months—frequent trips to the NLR, consultations with the librarians there as to the quality of the digital copies, meticulously attention to the necessary paperwork--the Gasprinskiy Library ultimately realized its long sought dream of having a complete collection of the Terdjiman newspapers. 

On October 24th, many people came to the library to celebrate this achievement and to thank Renat Abibulaev for his hard work and the American citizens who donated money to the project.  Present at the celebration were representatives from the Crimean government, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, Crimean Tatar elders, academics and historians, and individuals from the community, including the great granddaughter of Ismail Gasprinskiy. I felt fortunate to be part of this historic occasion and glad that a Peace Corps grant helped make it all possible.

I thank Renat and the donors to our project (my first public speaking in Russian!).
The beautiful voice of this young Crimean Tatar girl added to the celebration.
Cafure Kadzhametova, Crimean Rada Deputy, was one of the dignitaries on hand to congratulate the library.

Renat explains the process of acquiring the copies of Terdjiman.

Renat Abibulaev
Some of the forty plus Americans who donated to our project.