Monday, October 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Effort to Hijack Heritage of Crimean Tatar Enlightenment Figure Backfires

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 13 – An exhibit at the Oriental Museum in Moscow designed to show that the great Crimean Tatar enlightenment leader Ismail Gasprinski “did everything so that the Crimea would become at least a little ours” ends by underscoring how much at odds what he taught and what those who now change “Crime is Ours” remain.


            In an article in the weekend edition of “Kommersant,” Dmitry Butrin describes the small exhibit at the Moscow museum now devoted to Gasprinski and reflects upon what his life and teachings have to say about Russians and Crimea and Russia and Crimea to this day (


            Ismail bey Gasprinsky died exactly century ago on September 23, 1914. Few noted that at the time because his passing occurred just after World War I broke out. But to say that “’no one took notice’” of his death is a Russian point of view.”  People came from Kazan, St. Petersburg, Orenburg and Istanbul to his grave at Bakhchisaray.


            Gasprinsky’s birthplace Avdzhika was renamed Okhotnichye when the Crimean Tatars were “resettled” to Central Asia, and then it ceased to exist entirely in 1964 when Nikita Khrushchev ordered it to be flooded as part of a reservoir project.  But in that village until 1926 there was a Muslim school Gasprinsky founded in 1911 and that changed the Muslim world.


            The son of a tsarist army officer, Gasprinsky was trained at military schools in Voronezh and Moscow, but instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Gasprinsky returned to his native village and opened a school, subsequently studying in Paris and Constantinople and developing his ideas on the modernization of Islam which he presented in his newspaper, “Tercuman.”


            His central idea, Butrin says was “jadidism, the idea of the secular development of the Islamic world,” a world he did not divide between Russia and the rest.  He served as a secular official and in 1905, he helped found the first Russian political union of liberal Muslims, Ittifaq al-Muslimin.


            That did not last very long thanks to the efforts of reactionary Russian nationalists, and in 1907, Gasprinsky became the editor in chief of the St. Petersburg newspaper, “Milliet,” “the organ of the Muslim fraction of the State Duma.  And he promoted the idea of a World Congress of Muslims in Cairo to spread his reformist ideas.


            Gasprinsky is known among the Crimean Tatars and among Muslims more generally as “the teacher of teachers.”  But in Russian schools, Butrin says, no one is told anything “about Tatar enlightenment figures, about the history of Kazan after its conquest by Ivan the Terrible, about the history of Daghestan or about the Young Bukharans” or about so much else.


            Even as they shout “Crimea is ours,” Russians now only a highly selective part of the history of the Crimean Tatars, he writes. “We know only that they were resettled from Crimea in 1944. We do not know what happened afterwards. And even more we do not know what was before. We know that Crimea exists and that Crimea is now ours. But we do not know what Crimea is because Crimea is also they and in the first instance they.”


            “If we want to become finally real Russians in a real Russia, we will inevitably have to convert ourselves into a Tatar and a Daghestani and a German and a Jew and a Ukrainian and a German and, given Dostoyevsky … a Georgian and a Japanese and a Frenchman, and an American.”


            Unless that happens, Butrin reflects, the Russian world will remain divided and incomplete, but his own reflections on Gasprinsky are an indication that while some Russians understand that reality, many are now engaged in denying it – and still worse are trying to deprive those who are part of that broader tradition their memories and hence the possibility of trust.


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