From: Central Asian Monuments, edited by H. B. Paksoy. Istanbul: Isis Press, 1992, pp. 143-156. Posted with permission. *

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii’s Perevodchik/Tercüman: A Clarion of Modernism

Edward J. Lazzerini

Es is der Geist der sich den Körper baut

Friedrich Schiller

The absence of ideas and aspirations...
demoralizes a people, lulls them to sleep,
and enfeebles them.

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii

During the 1870s, a young man from the southern portion of Tavrida Province, ancestral home of the Crimean Tatars who once figured crucially in the political and economic life of Eastern Europe, wrestled with a complex of social conditions that he deemed intolerable. Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (Gaspirali), then in his twenties, was hardly unique in this respect. For some time young subjects throughout the Russian Empire — people of varied ethnic backgrounds — had been pondering the fate of their country, had been encouraged to nurture a social consciousness by the writings of men like Alexander Herzen and, more recently, Nikolai Chernyshevskii, and had been engaged in both spontaneous and organized activities aimed at changing Russia. Like the "new people" celebrated in the latter’s novel What is to be Done?, these youths were angry with the socio-economic and political status quo and the traditions sustaining it; many were willing to sacrifice personal advantage and aspirations for the general good, however variously defined. Some would choose terror as their preferred tactic.

Gasprinskii shared similar sentiments, though he was not one of the latter extremists. Throughout a life committed to improving mankind’s material and spiritual well-being, he consistently rejected violence resolutely affirming, instead, the long-term value of rational discourse, dissemination of information, and education, and education for achieving the desired social transformation along modern lines. Like many of his contemporaries who matured in the intellectual climate of the 1850s-1870s, he developed into an unequivocal advocate of the ideology of progress that served to legitimize the modern perspective. Trusting in the truth-discovering power of empirical science and the efficacy of human reason, will, and energy, Gasprinskii was convinced that popular discipline and (re)education would unleash a boundless store of human creativity and turn it to the task of shaping the future. An armed spirit, as the German poet Schiller implied, could give dreams concrete expression.

Gasprinskii differed from other idealists of his generation, of course, by virtue of his being not merely a Russian(ized) subject, but also, a Tatar reared in the local variant of the greater Islamic cultural tradition. Discovering and living that more complex identity, with its special demands and burdens imposed largely by an imperial policy that proclaimed people bearing to it to be inorodtsy ("others") and marginalized them through administrative measures, complicated the gigantic mission Gasprinskii undertook. As a result, he had to contend with opposition from not only Muslim detractors but also, and more importantly Russian ones.

Minimizing that overt opposition and overcoming the apathy and more subtle resistance to change, typical of the general Muslim populace became Ismail Bey’s most challenging task. What had to be done, he decided not long after the mid-1870s, was to devise a multi-faceted strategy for enhancing intra- and inter-cultural communication, whether of ideas, skills, sensibilities, or even fears. Organizing new types of schools to create the proper environment for learning consistent with the needs of modern life was one such element of that strategy; so too were the encouragement of book publishing, with contents reflecting decidedly practical concerns, and the organization of mutual aid societies to consolidate resources and focus social activity. As a result, over the span of thirty years Gasprinskii had a direct hand in, or inspired by his example, the establishment of thousands of reformed (usul-i cedid—"new method") primary and secondary schools within Muslim communities inside Russia and out. Simultaneously, a small but productive printing facility that he owned and managed in Bakhchisarai contributed no small number of books and pamphlets to the growing array of cedid literature, whether for direct use in the new schools or to stimulate within the general reading public an appreciation of modern ways. Lastly, the number of mutual aid societies grew rapidly, especially after the turn of the century, adding their important share to the evolving sense of community across Russian Islam. Together such activities represented fundamental innovations in the experience of Muslims. In the midst of it all, he struggled to ally Russian fears of what the Muslims were up to, and sought to convince them and his co-religionists of the benefits to be derived from dialogue based upon respect and the realization of common purpose.

Central to Gasprinskii’s overall strategy, however, was his determination to found and sustain a newspaper. Until he received official permission to publish what would be Russia’s longest- running Turkic-language newspaper prior to 1917, the periodical press was virtually unknown among his cultural brethren despite occasional efforts to initiate it in Kazan, Tiflis, Tashkent, and Baku. Responding to a comment from a visiting Russian in 1888 that the native population did not provide particularly fertile soil in which Gasprinskii’s enterprise could flourish, the budding publisher acknowledged: "Even a short time ago there were few Muslims who could answer the question: What is a newspaper?" Yet here he knew was the one means by which he could most effectively propagandize his grand project, reach the widest audience, and overcome opposition to modernism; here too was a vehicle with extraordinary power to chip away at the entrenched prejudice fortifying Russian and Muslim against one another, prejudice born, he believed, of ignorance and misinformation. Moreover, a newspaper could serve to rally the fragile and widely dispersed forces already awakened to the benefits of progress, and encourage them through the difficult times that inevitably lay ahead, all the while serving as a forum for modernist agenda. As he wrote in his first editorial statement: "[The newspaper] will serve so far as possible to bring sober, useful information to Muslims about [Russian] culture and, conversely, acquaint the Russian with [Muslim] life, views, and needs." And as he later commented, "[f]or the revival of a great people, who have long remained in ignorance, the press will play a crucial role."

The newspaper about which Gasprinskii wrote and to which he devoted the fullest measure of resources and energy was the first of several that he would sponsor. Its most distinguishing feature was its dual-language format: a Russian text with a Turkic translation. Along with the usual information about date and place of publication (and price), the masthead bore the title Perevodchik for the Russian portion and Tercüman for the Turkic. Each means "translator" or "interpreter." Title and format thus speak to the essential purpose of the publication: to elucidate the natures of Islamic and Russian/Western cultures for wide-spread public consumption across cultural lines so as to encourage both the revitalization of Islamic society and its sblizhenie (rapprochement) with the Russian. The anticipated consequences were, on the one hand, an end to the mental complacency of Muslims that stifled economic development, encouraged social indifference, and engendered political weakness; on the other, a beginning to an equal partnership between Muslim and Russian in shaping a more just, harmonious, and strengthened empire. A tall order for one man and his fledgling newspaper, but not for Gasprinskii and Perevodchik/Tercüman, propelled as they both were by the unflagging belief that with effort and time, "little things become large, difficult things easy, [and] distant things close."

* * *

From all corners of Russia Muslim merchants came to
the Nizhni-Novgorod fair. Each year I went there to propagandize
[my ideas]....But so as not to draw official suspicion to myself,...
I collected subscribers for my newspaper.

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii

A man struggling to change one culture subsumed within another, dominant one, by means of discourse that relies upon the technical achievements of the printing revolution only recently available to Russian Islam, needs an audience. The trips he made to the Nizhni-Novgorod fair, and later to other important Muslim centers, were sensible responses to an obvious problem that would only abate with time. Held annually in August for two weeks, the fair was Russia’s most important. But it had significance even greater than its vital economic functions: the participation of a large number of Muslim merchants and businessman, particularly of Volga Tatar ethnicity. Because of their long-standing involvement in far-flung commercial activity, their significant diaspora, consequent extensive contacts, influences, experiences, as well as competitive spirit that made them more open to change, Gasprinskii recognized in the Volga Tatars a potential ally and shrewdly sought their support. He did so, however, only after he had developed a project that they and other Muslims, he hoped, would find attractive. That project — a search for means by which to propagandize his modernist position — took several years of intense and often frustrated efforts to consummate.

For about four years before 1883, Ismail Bey tested several alternatives. In 1879 he submitted his first request to Russian officials for permission to establish a newspaper. This followed by two years the closure of Hasan Bey Melikov Zerdabi’s Ekinçi, the very first Turkic-language newspaper in Russia, and occurred at approximately the same time that Said and Celal Unsizade in Tiflis were authorized to begin publishing their newspaper Ziya. Rejection of Gasprinskii’s request remains inexplicable, as does the similar fate of subsequent petitions he submitted to "two governors and three ministers." Differences between Crimea and Caucasus in local conditions, as well as administrative leadership and regulations, however, may have been instrumental.

With this avenue closed to him for the moment, he turned to other forms of publishing. Beginning in May 1881 and continuing into the following year, he produced at irregular intervals twelve "newsletters" of one to two pages each. Written in Crimean Tatar, they contained not only articles of general interest but also a number dealing with language reform, a subject that would figure prominently throughout his career. To avoid charges that he was managing a periodical without official authorization, Gasprinskii gave each newsletter a different name. Of the twelve, I have been able to identify eight: Tonguç, Sefak, Kamer, Ay, Yildiz, Günes, Hakikat, and Latail. For lack of a press in Bakhchisarai capable of printing the Arabic script, the first two were issued in Tiflis by the Unsizade brothers in quantities of five hundred and one thousand respectively. Gasprinskii managed to print all subsequent editions in Bakhchisarai (in undetermined count) because he would gain permission during the summer of 1881 to open a printing establishment. With that permission in hand, he traveled to St. Petersburg, commissioned the printing of a circular announcing his publishing plans (fifty issues of the newsletter a year, for three rubles), and then traveled through several provinces distributing the circulars. It was August 1881 and the Fair at Nizhni-Novgorod was in progress. From it, despite significant resistance to the idea of a "secular publication," at least some Muslim merchants carried the announcement with their wares "to all significant places in European and Asiatic Russia." Shortly after returning home, he began setting up the press, training typesetters, and turning out the newsletters, buoyed by support from about two hundred and fifty subscribers.

This auspicious beginning, however, was stalled for reasons still obscure. Only ten of the promised fifty newsletters followed upon the heels of Tonguç and Sefak, with Gasprinskii suggesting that the authorities had caught up with his game and forced him to cease publishing that which "had the character of a periodical." In the confusion that followed, and the embarrassment with regard to his subscribers, Ismail Bey settled on two strategies: first, the compilation, printing, and distribution among those patrons of two booklets as partial compensation; and second, a renewed attempt to persuade government authorities to allow him to start a newspaper.

The booklets in question were hurriedly put together, as Gasprinskii admits himself. Nevertheless the proved typical of so many others that he would author over the next thirty years: didactic, informational, simple, and straightforward, they were, in a phrase, little more than primers. The first was Salname-i Turki (A Turki Almanac), a "calendar" in the nineteenth century sense entailing a compendium of information "necessary for the coming year." To compile the data Gasprinskii drew upon almanacs, geographies, statistical works, and other sources in Russian, Turkish and French. Its contents ranged from history and geography to contemporary events, education in various lands, the press, train schedules, and even a description of the history, spread and treatment of syphilis. The second and much shorter booklet was Mir’at-i cedid (The New Mirror), again a collection of diverse materials including an article on the life of animals, an itinerary for a pilgrimage to Mecca by Russian Muslims, an essay on tea, a vignette on the cafe owner, a brief history of Istanbul, and a description of the Aurora Borealis. To supplement the text Gasprinskii inserted several illustrations (as of a tea plant), a "remarkable" decision that he felt obliged to explain — and did so in terms of the demands of modern scientific analysis — to readers accustomed to the traditional Islamic prohibition against portrayal of living things.

As for his second strategy, persistence reaped its rewards. A petition addressed and personally delivered in St. Petersburg to Count Dimitrii Tolstoi (Minister of Internal Affairs) in August 1882 received a positive response. Gasprinskii was permitted to begin publishing a weekly newspaper whose contents were to be printed in both Russian and Turkic and which would be subject to the preliminary review of a special censor. Although available sources discuss this episode only superficially, several considerations may explain why success was finally achieved when it was: the involvement of V. D. Smirnov, the publication of Gasprinskii’s essay Russkoe musul’manstvo, and the soon-to-be celebrated one hundredth anniversary of the Russian conquest and incorporation of the Crimea.

An orientalist-historian by training, Smirnov certainly had a hand, perhaps a crucial one, in the events leading up to Gasprinskii’s hard-won victory. If only as a result of his interests and duties, Smirnov could hardly avoid being attracted to Gasprinskii: as a historian, he maintained a life-long fascination with the Crimea and published several studies of the pre-Russian period of the region’s history; as an accomplished linguist with a thorough knowledge of a number of Turkic languages, he served as censor of Muslim publications in Russia; and as a student of Islamic culture, he found himself heavily involved in the problems of educating the empire’s muslims at a time when the issue was a subject of intense debate, writing articles for the official journal of the ministry of public education dealing with the matter both in general terms and as it applied specifically to the Crimea.

The publication of Russkoe musul’manstvo in booklet form after being serialized in a local Russian newspaper introduced Gasprinskii’s name and ideas to the Russian reading public. While many would find much in this essay with which to disagree, Ismail Bey’s call for sblizhenie between Russians and Muslims, his assertion of unqualified Muslim loyalty to the Russian state, and his condemnation of the old Muslim educational system, among other things, must have made him an attractive figure save the most ardent imperial reactionary. Himself a hostile critic of the traditional Islamic education and religious obscurantism, Smirnov must have appreciated the sympathetic arguments of this Russianized Crimean Tatar. And if a comment he made in 1905 concerning Perevodchik/Tercüman is telling at all — that the newspaper "promised a great deal with its appearance" — then we can reasonably assume his initial approval.

A third factor that may have influenced the response to Ismail Bey’s latest petition is rather more complicated and relates indirectly to the April 1883 anniversary of one hundred years of Russian rule over the Crimea. While no internal memoranda or records of official discussions surrounding the issue have been uncovered to date to sustain an argument, government leaders may very well have decided to permit the creation of a native-language newspaper in conjunction with the celebration for the following complex of reasons: (1) the historical significance of the eighteenth-century event and the economic and strategic gains expected for the empire even after a full century; (2) conversely, the difficulties that the region had had in fulfilling many expectations, especially economic ones, and the overall decline in the quality of life of its native inhabitants that generated a certain amount of visible discontent and mutual distrust, leading to (3) the apparent sympathy for and dependence upon the Ottoman Empire (with whom Russia had frequent conflicts, the most recent being in 1877-1878) that Crimean Tatars continued to display in various ways —e.g. through occasional and usually massive emigration to Turkey and heavy reliance upon imported Turkish mullas.

Whatever the circumstances that gained him permission to publish a newspaper, Gasprinskii plunged ahead with efforts to produce Perevodchik/Tercüman. Its first number appeared on April 10, 1883, just missing the anniversary celebration by two days, perhaps because of the need to send copy to St. Petersburg for prior review by Smirnov, the newspaper’s first censor. It had been put to press in part with Arabic type imported from Istanbul and typesetter from the same place. A year would pass before Ismail Bey managed to train local men to assist with the various printing tasks. Even then the dual-language character of the newspaper continued to cause problems to the typesetters who only slowly learned to "compose Russian texts and ceased to confuse the Tatar."

The first few years of Perevodchik/Tercüman’s existence proved financially unstable. Some help came from the dowry that Zühre hanim brought to her marriage to Gasprinskii in 1881 and from the sale of a legacy bequeathed by his mother, but the key to long-range survival of the newspaper depended upon how successful its publisher would prove in attracting subscribers. The task was daunting. Everywhere he faced extraordinary apathy, mistrust, and cynicism. Two episodes, both occurring during junkets to a major Muslim community in search of support, illustrate his difficulties. The first transpired in Kazan in 1882. Renting a large hall in one of the local hotels and advertising a literary soiree for the city’s Tatar community, Gasprinskii planned to give a talk on the advantages of reading and writing and on the Muslim languages. As he recounted the evening, however,

Nine o’clock arrived. I waited another two hours but only three visitors showed up, not from Kazan but out-of-towners. One of them was Allahyar Bey from the Caucasus,and the other two were the brothers Saki and Zakir Ramiev, the future publishers of Vakit [a Tatar-language newspaper] in Orenburg. The event, of course, did not take place, but among these travelers meeting by chance in Kazan there passed a very useful exchange.

According to Cemaledin Validov, the only native of Kazan who approved of Gasprinskii’s plan for a newspaper and encouraged him in his endeavor was the prominent reformist alim and historian Sihabeddin Mercani. But even sympathizers could have their doubts as shown in a letter from Sakir Ramiev to his brother probably not long after they had met Ismail Bey:

You have seen yourself, so you know, that our people do not pay attention to the words of those who do not wear a ... turban on their heads. Some people were frightened when they heard that Gasprinskii was preparing to publish a newspaper, and brandishing their sticks from afar they said: "The newspaper, the newspaper! It leads to the destruction of the world!"

While very much in favor of spreading literacy and enlightenment among Russian Muslims, Sakir was personally unsure that the time was ripe for a newspaper.

The second episode occurred several years later in 1885 during a "hunting" expedition for subscribers in the Caucasus. Recalling the experience some time later, Gasprinskii wrote:

Having gone all around the city [Baku] at that time, and having distributed almost by force several hundred copies of the newspaper, we were able to find not one person who wanted to subscribe to it. The merchants were evidently afraid of us, as were the people, and this seriously hindered our efforts. The clergy shunned us as heretics, and the two or three intellectuals that we met by chance viewed us as madcaps!

How many subscribers Perevodchik/Tercüman had at any given time in its history defies confirmation. For its later years, a figure of ten to fifteen thousand is typically bandied about, with five thousand being sold in Turkey alone, but the validity of these numbers remain suspect. By the end of its first half decade, according to comments Gasprinskii made to Filipov, the newspaper still attracted only three to four hundred. Puzzling is Seydahmet’s claim that figures for 1883, 1884 and 1885 were three hundred and twenty, four hundred and six, and over one thousand respectively. However accurate these numbers may be, by the early 1890s, the issue of financial survival seems to have receded and then disappeared.

From its inception until late 1905, Perevodchik/Tercüman maintained a technical format of four pages almost equally divided between the Russian and Turkic sections. Gasprinskii seems to have always written his copy in Russian first and then had it translated into Turkic. Abdurresid Ibrahimov claim that this was Ismail Bey’s practice because he was unable to write in the latter language. It may be more a matter of not being "a master of literary style," as Gasprinskii described himself in 1906. Whether and to what degree he became proficient in his native tongue is unclear, although he notes the continued practice as late as the end of 1905 of having others translate his work into Turkic. In any event, by 1905 the Russian section had dwindled to near nothing and the newspaper’s name had become Tercüman-i Ahval-i Zaman (The Interpreter of Contemporary News).

At first a weekly publication, Perevodchik/Tercüman began to appear twice a week in 1904, then three times a week in 1906, and finally as a daily from 1912 until its closure in 1918. The cost of a subscription was originally four rubles a year, reduced to three in 1907, and finally raised to five when it became a daily. From 1890 onward, sketches, illustrations, and photographs were permitted, although Gasprinskii continued to be cautious in their use. In terms of basic layout, consistency was a hallmark: a lead article or articles by Gasprinskii, Russian domestic news, news from abroad, a feuilleton (sometimes literary/didactic, other times straightforwardly informational), official announcements (particularly those affecting Muslims), excerpts from the Russian (and later the Muslim) periodical press, book news, and advertisements.

This bare-bones description of the contents typical of an issue of Perevodchik/Tercüman tells one little about the newspaper’s monumental significance. To begin with, its very existence was constant testimony to a veritable revolution in communications that, coupled with a rapidly expanding book publishing/trade cycle, changed for increasing numbers of Russian Muslims not only the nature of public discourse but its level and impact as well. In the beginning the newspaper was, quite simply, a novelty, and like novelties it elicited a wide range of responses: from curiosity and applause, to suspicion and condemnation. It served as both a reflection of and a mouthpiece for a way of looking at the world and human activity that was, for Muslims, different and thus unnerving. As a clarion of modernism, it was inherently subversive, which helps to explain Ismail Bey’s strategy of incremental assault upon the status quo, whether rooted in Islamic or Russian practice. Thus, on the one hand, he initially limited the newspaper’s contents to the most elementary and unadorned information on matters of non-controversial interest to his Muslim readers. As he noted:

Thus it went for three years. In the fourth year I enlarged somewhat the contents of the newspaper and introduced into it critical elements. In order to do this, however, it was first of all necessary to convince my subscribers that they should not confuse my criticism with mockery or scandalous gossip. Convincing people of this takes a long time, and [the task] still continues. Even now [1888] my readers at times assume that I am gossiping, and it takes all my efforts to try to convince them otherwise.

On the other, he respected the realities of Russian power and dominion, avoided the censor’s club, and kept politics out of his program until circumstances had changed in the empire after 1905. As its novelty wore off, Perevodchik/Tercüman gradually acquired a stature that bore symbolic, even metaphorical significance. This occurred partly because it was a survivor, a sturdy plant spawned from a seed tossed upon rich but undeveloped soil. By comparison, most other Muslim fruits of the periodical press appearing during the several decades before 1917 were short-lived and came on the scene much later, largely after 1905. More significant than survivability, however, was the program for shaping a better future that slowly found expression on its pages. By encouraging the reading of books (the right kind, of course) and newspapers, Gasprinskii set the stage for a broader and more tolerant entertainment of ideas: about reforming the traditional educational system, about simplifying the Arabic script and overcoming distinctions among Turkic languages, about the importance of studying foreign languages as passages to other cultures and their achievements, about developing skills (particularly economic ones) and unleashing talents (especially in women), and about restructuring the administration of Muslim religious practices.

Even more basic was his unwavering insistence that reason and religion were not incompatible; they merely served different human needs. Religion, while regulative of human behavior, was not to be the exclusive object of experience, from which men must learn. As Gasprinskii succinctly put the matter: "...[I]t is highly important that the sheriat, or faith, not diverge from reality, that is, from reason and the dictates of experiences." By de-centering the Islamic religion, though not disowning it, he sought to create a secular place within the Muslim experience that would permit adoption of the technicalistic achievements of the West. Those achievements, more and more people came to believe — not without constant prodding from the likes of Perevodchik/Tercüman — could not remain the patrimony of Westerners alone. How to share in that patrimony, incorporate it into a commitment to modernist ideology, and thereby reclaim the power, prosperity, and dignity that Muslims believed they once possessed and desired anew, was the challenge and the promise offered by Gasprinskii and his newspaper. With time Perevodchik/Tercüman became a metaphor for modernism. As such its name would conjure for Russian Muslims that monumental goal toward which they and so many others have lurched for the last century or so.


Please refer to the printed version for the footnotes.

* Reproduced from Central Asian Monuments, edited by H.B. Paksoy.
ISBN: 975-428-033-9; Library of Congress Card Catalog: DS329.4 .C46 1992
173 pp. (paperback) US $20.
ISIS Press © 1992
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Published as part of Eurasia Research Center's Turko-Iranian Monograph and Paper Series


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