Turanism and the origins of Turkish nationalism

As I said over at Patreon we’re trying something new today. If it doesn’t work please let me know over there, although if you’re able to read this I think chances are it’s working.

Gaffsey asked for “something on the pre- and post-WWI formation of Turkish identity and the ways in which national histories and heroes were consciously selected.” That’s a pretty big universe of potential topics, but we can make it much smaller by getting at the roots of Turkish nationalism, which happen not to have come from within Turkey–or the Ottoman Empire, really. Instead, we’re going to the early-to-middle 19th century and the Russian Empire.

Real 1980s kids, or people who are older than that I guess, will remember that the Soviet Union covered a lot of places with sizable Turkic populations. By “Turkic populations” I mean groups that speak one of the Turkic languages, which I grant you isn’t particularly satisfying from an ethnic standpoint but is pretty much the way anthropologists have to approach this topic. There have been so many “Turkic peoples” over the centuries that we’d be here all day trying to write about them all, but for the most prominent modern examples, think of the Turks (obviously), Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Turkmens, Uyghurs, and Uzbeks. As I say, a lot of these groups found themselves (generally through no fault of their own) living in the Soviet Union, but prior to that most of them had been living in the Russian Empire. And not always living there so happily.

In 1839, in the midst of the heyday for the development of “pan”-nationalist movements (pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism are also products of this period, for example), a group of Tatar intellectuals got to thinking that it might be worthwhile to create some sort of common national identity among the Russian Empire’s Turkic peoples, and they founded the Turanian Society.

Let’s digress for a minute. “Turanism” or “Turanianism” nowadays refers to the hypothesized links between not just the Turkic peoples of the world, but between them and a whole bunch of other, more dubiously connected folks who allegedly all share some common Central Asian origins. You can really go nuts with this kind of thing–at its most expansive, Turanism includes Koreans, Japanese, Finns, Hungarians, Mongols, Manchus, and more. Some of these linkages are a little easier to accept than others. Mongols and Turks have a pretty intertwined history, for example, but Finns? Japanese? Sure, whatever. One of the bases for the hypothesized connection between these peoples is the “Ural-Altaic” linguistic theory, which posited a now heavily-discredited connection between the Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, etc.) and the Altaic languages (a group that includes Turkic and Mongolic, and sometimes Koreanic and Japonic, tongues). It’s bunk, dreamed up basically to compete with massive and much better attested language families like the Indo-European and Semitic ones.

Anyway, that extra baggage all kind of glommed on to Turanism in future decades. At the time these Tatars started using the term they really didn’t have all of that stuff in mind. They just wanted to unite a bunch of the empire’s minority groups who had shared histories and languages that went back to Central Asia. The word “Turan” refers to the Turan Depression, a mostly desert region east and southeast of the Aral Sea. Also it hearkens back to ancient Persia, whose legendary enemies come from Turan. At some point these ancient enemies became identified with ancient Turks, though it seems more likely that they were an Iranic people of some kind (probably one that remained nomadic while the Good Iranians settled down and built cities and the like).

One of Turanism’s more important advocates was a Crimean Tatar named Ismail Gaspirali (d. 1914), or Gasprinski as he was called by the Russians. He was a very influential thinker, and I’m not just saying that because I wrote a paper about him once.

Ismail Gaspirali

Gaspirali founded his own newspaper, Terciman, in 1883 and on its pages advocated for solidarity and modernization among the empire’s Turkic peoples. He was highly critical of the traditional Islamic education most imperial Turkic children received and called for Turkic schools to pattern themselves after the European model and to emphasize the teaching of a “pure” Turkic language as free as possible from loanwords. He tried scrupulously to make his own writing a model for this new/refined Turkic dialect. His appreciation for European schools aside, he was also highly critical of any European interference in the Islamic world–a criticism that he did not extend to Russian interference in the Islamic world. Despite his advocacy for Turkic or Turanian identity, and his multiple efforts as a young man to leave Russia and join the Ottoman army, he came to believe that Russian control was a beneficial, modernizing force for the Turks, though he spoke out against anything that he saw as Russian chauvinism or supremacy.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, Gaspirali came to occupy a middle ground between those who wanted to exclude Turks from the empire’s new constitutional governing institutions altogether and those more radical types who advocated for Muslim separatism. He also advocated strongly for the rights and privileges of women within the Russian Turkic community. Through it all he sometimes flirted with notions of pan-Turkicism or Turanism in terms of uniting the empire’s Turks with Turkic/Turanian peoples outside the empire, and he even flirted with pan-Islamism despite being a pretty strident secularist, but his primary focus always remained on the condition of Turks within the empire.

Turanism influenced the development of Turkish nationalism, but it took a while for it to catch on in the Ottoman Empire. And it’s not hard to see why. Nationalism often develops in reaction to something. In the Ottoman experience it developed first among Christian peoples in the Balkans as a reaction to the Ottomans. But what did Ottoman Turks have to react against? They were the dominant group in the empire. Developing an exclusionary nationalist sentiment would have only hurt their ability to hang on to the vast non-Turkish parts of that empire. It was only in the later 19th and early 20th century that Turkish nationalism developed in the empire, when the Turks were reacting to getting their asses kicked repeatedly in wars and began feeling like everybody was out to get them. It did, in fact, play a pretty substantial role in costing the empire its vast non-Turkish parts. And in doing away with the empire altogether. But it also became part of the rallying cry for the ex-Ottoman forces fighting the Turkish War of Independence, and in that sense it did help prevent them from being royally screwed by the Treaty of Sèvres after World War I.

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2 thoughts on “Turanism and the origins of Turkish nationalism

  1. It works just fine for me. Are you going to upload the podcasts in the same fashion? It may mess with the podcast RSS feeds just FYI.

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