MESA Banner
Spelling a Nation: Linguistics, Language, and Alphabet Reform between Turkey & Soviet Azerbaijan, 1918-1940
In the years following the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, two revolutionary modernizing regimes emerged in their wakes on both the northern and southern shores of the Black Sea. A hallmark of both the nascent Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union’s respective totalistic modernizing projects was the deployment of cutting-edge academic and scientific methods in service of nation-building and the construction of national identity. Bureaucrats and state-affiliated intellectuals in both Turkey and the Soviet Union used structured disciplinary study in the natural and social sciences in order to create new definitions of history, national belonging, and modernity for their fledgling states in the aftermath of the destruction of World War I. These state-sponsored intellectual projects did not take place in isolation from one another; instead, they involved mutually informed intellectual and political processes characterized by cross-border exchanges of ideas, people, and even policies. Informed by this context of transnational intellectual exchange, this paper will address the development and impact of linguistics in nation-building projects in and between Turkey and Soviet Azerbaijan between 1918 and roughly 1940. In doing so, this paper will argue that intellectual exchange between Turkish and Soviet Turkic academics served as an important driver of idea generation for linguists and nation-builders alike on both sides of the Soviet/Turkish border. Examination of this exchange, in turn, can offer important lessons about the nature of top-down nation-building projects in heterogenous post-imperial societies. In order to make this argument, this paper will engage with historiography on the conflicting (albeit often overlapping) approaches to nationalism and nation-building on both sides of the Turkish/Soviet border, as well as that examining Turkic intellectual history and transnational intellectual exchange more generally. The paper’s primary source base includes Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Russian-language periodicals, academic journals, and conference proceedings, particularly those from the 1926 Turcological Congress in Baku. Due to the top-down nature of the alphabet reforms and the intellectual discourse surrounding them in both states, a contextualized close reading of state-sponsored periodicals yields particularly interesting results. Within these sources lie a multitude of insights about the transnational intellectual, political, and cultural relationships influencing the constructions of Turkish, Azerbaijani, and even pan-Turkic national identities in the post-World War I era.
Geographic Area
former Soviet Union
Ottoman Empire
Sub Area