Russia — what does it make you think of? Cold winters, fur hats, vast forests, and perhaps some vodka and caviar? As a Russian historian in training, I want to help people understand that Russia is much more complex than these simple images suggest, as accurate as they may be. To offer just one example, over 185 ethnic groups live in Russia, each with its own linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions. By exploring their stories, we can learn more about the role of disenfranchised and underrepresented groups in an expansive, diverse place like Russia. Listening to many different voices from the past can provide a new, valuable perspective on the land of tsars and commissars.
I am currently a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I am writing my dissertation on the history of the largest minority group in Russia, the Volga Tatars, during the twentieth century. Interaction between Tatars and Russians stretches back at least 500 years to 1552, when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Kazan Khanate, the historical home of the Tatars. From Kazan, located in a strategic position on the Volga River, Tatars presided over valuable trade routes into Central Asia. The Russian conquest of Kazan brought the Tatars, as well as their commercial networks, under the authority of Moscow. Since then, Tatars and Russians have been learning how to live alongside one another. While periods of both peace and violence mark their relationship, Tatars and Russians have continued to influence each other at every step of their shared history.
A Treasure Trove in New York
For three weeks this summer, I conducted dissertation research at the New York Public Library with the support of a Short-Term Research Fellowship, which allows scholars from outside the New York area to travel to the city to utilize the library’s resources. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to explore a rare collection of material published in the Tatar language in the 1920s and 1930s. I first found out about this collection while chasing down a footnote in an old history book. I was directed to a January 1927 edition of The Bulletin of the New York Public Library, in which Avrahm Yarmolinsky, the head of the Slavonic Division, described a peculiar acquisition consisting of hundreds of titles in 27 languages, primarily those of the Soviet Union’s eastern nationalities. Over time this collection continued to grow, with the Tatar-language section alone eventually amounting to over 700 books, pamphlets, journals, and newspapers.
The journal Tamashachy (The Spectator), which was written primarily in Arabic-script Tatar, describes theater life in Kazan.
When I first enquired about the collection, NYPL librarians could tell me very little. Given the lack of Tatar-language speakers, no one had ever fully indexed the material; just one entry existed in the entire catalogue: (http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b12334730~S1).
The librarians nonetheless encouraged me to try for a short-term fellowship, and soon after learning that my application was successful, I arrived in New York eager to work. In one of the first volumes of documents I opened, I found a transcript of an important conference in 1926 in which participants debated the future of the Tatar language. Those who opposed reform and modernization soon met an untimely end in Stalinist purges. At that moment, my initial suspicions were affirmed: the collection at the NYPL was one-of-a-kind. Nothing else like it exists in America, and almost certainly not in the rest of the world. Sitting in the quiet reading room, I found it difficult to contain my excitement. Most surprising, these texts were not in the distant archives and libraries of Russia — which I had already spent a year combing through — but rather in New York, just a short flight from home.
Language, Culture, and Cows
With the helpful supervision and support of NYPL librarians, I made my way through the 70 bound volumes and 10 loose-leaf folios of the Tatar-language collection. I had to handle the material very carefully; some of the documents threatened to fall apart in my hands. I discovered documents on almost every theme imaginable. Some were translations of Vladimir Lenin (“Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” “On the National Question,” “State and Revolution”), Joseph Stalin (“Trotskyism or Leninism,” “Party Work in the Village”), and other Communist Party leaders. Translations of Jack London, Emile Zola, and Lord Byron surfaced. I also found some less relevant, although entertaining, titles such as “On Choosing the Best Milk Cow at the Market” and “How to Train Your Husky.” In total, about half of the publications dealt with economics, agriculture, education, and politics in the Soviet Union. These documents predominantly came from Moscow’s Central Publishing House of the Peoples of the USSR.
To help Tatars learn the new Latin alphabet, many publications, such as this antireligious journal Fen häm din (Science and Religion), were printed in both Arabic- and Latin-script Tatar.The remainder of the collection consisted of publications from Kazan that reflected regional issues among Tatars. I discovered poems, plays, and novels written by the most prominent members of the Tatar intelligentsia, such as Karim Tinchurin (“Misfortune”), Galimdzhan Ibragimov (“The Tale of the Red Flowers”, “The Kazak Girl”), Hadi Taktash (“After the Storm”), Shaikhzade Babich (“Verse Collection”), and Gadel Kutui (“Hot Days”). These important writers remain largely unknown outside of the region. Most significant for my research, however, were the journals, newspapers, brochures, textbooks, and primers that recounted decisive changes to the Tatar language in the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in 1927, Tatars abandoned their language’s Arabic script for a more “modern” Latin script. This controversial move did not endure long, though; in the late 1930s, the Tatar script changed again, this time to a Cyrillic alphabet similar to Russian. The collections at the New York Public Library revealed the many cultural, political, and religious aspects of this linguistic revolution, particularly how the Communist Party envisioned the Latin script initiating a new era of modernity for the Tatars.
Research at the NYPL
The satirical journal Chaian (The Scorpion) used vivid images and biting humor to criticize Tatar habits believed to be backward and unbefitting of a member of Soviet society.As I conducted my research, I met people sitting next to me in the library’s reading rooms studying Jewish immigration into America, the commercial interests of the United States in India, and Ukrainian aspects of the Holocaust. The New York Public Library is one of America’s premiere research establishments and has supported learning among scholars and laypeople alike for over one hundred years; its vast collections of primary sources shed light on all kinds of questions. Apart from the Tatar-language material I used, I noticed that the library has separate collections of publications from the Soviet Union in Uzbek, Yakut, Kazakh, Crimean Tatar, Bashkir, and other languages. I encountered some of these texts while working with the Tatar documents. I cannot read these languages, so they remain as they have for decades, waiting for someone to use them. Given the growing interest in the many different ethnolinguistic groups in Russia, I anticipate, and hope, that this will happen sooner rather than later.
The Short-Term Research Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to utilize the library’s one-of-a-kind collections. The material I read will help me to characterize the 1920s and 1930s as a time of dramatic change for the Tatars as they transitioned to a new era under Bolshevik rule. And many of the questions that these documents raised — the relationship between Russians and minority populations, the role of Islam in Russia, and the future for minority-language education — remain just as pertinent in Russia today. I hope that my research will help frame contemporary approaches to these issues in light of past experiences. I found invaluable material for my dissertation at the New York Public Library. What will you find?
The New York Public Library's Short-Term Research Fellowships [www.nypl.org/short-term] support scholars from outside the New York metropolitan area engaged in graduate-level, post-doctoral, or independent research with a demonstrated need to conduct research in the Library’s archival and special collections. The fellowships support research in the humanities including but not limited to art history, cultural studies, history, literature, performing arts and photography.