Ismail Gaspirali: "Unity in language, work and opinion"

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Canan Kevser
20 March 2021, 10:05
Canan Kevser
20 March 2021, 10:05

March 20, 2021, marks the 170th anniversary of the birth of Ismail Gaspirali (Gasprinsky), the great Crimean Tatar writer, educator, publisher and founder of the first Turkic-language newspaper Tercüman (The Translator).

Gaspirali (1851-1914) was also one of the founders of Pan-Turkism. He propagated the idea he formulated as "unity in language, work and opinion," which envisioned the unity of Turkish communities around the world.

His early life

Ismail Gaspirali was born on March 20, 1851, in the Avcıköy village of Bakhchysarai in central Crimea. His surname Gaspıralı comes from his father’s village Gaspra. His father Mustafa Ali-oğlu Gasprinsky was a lieutenant who retired from the Russian army while his mother Fatma Sultan was from a notable Crimean Muslim family.

Ismail Gaspirali graduated from the Akmescid (Simferopol) Gymnasium for Boys before he was admitted to a military college in Moscow. Gaspirali familiarised with Russian intellectual circles under the influence of pan-Slavist propaganda in those days. He realized the importance of his own ethnic origins as a reaction to that propaganda. He began to search for an awakening of the Muslims within the Russian Empire.

At the same time, he mentally supported the Ottoman Empire. So, he attempted to enter Turkey with a Muslim friend to join the Ottoman army fighting against the Greeks in Crete, but they were captured before crossing the border and dismissed from the Russian military.

Ismail Gaspirali supported the idea of unity in language, work and opinion for Turkic and Islamic communities as a publisher, politician and educator.

Gaspıralı returned to Bakhchysarai and taught Russian to madrasa students. In this period, he read many Russian texts including literary and philosophical works.

A few years later, in 1872, he travelled to Istanbul, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart and finally Paris. He made his living by working in any odd jobs he could find during the two years he spent in Paris. Gaspirali even worked as the personal assistant of influential Russian author Ivan Turgenyev. After Paris, he visited Istanbul with a dream to become an Ottoman military officer but wasn’t accepted by the authorities. So, he returned to Crimea.

Tercuman newspaper

After returning to Crimea in 1877, Gaspirali was elected deputy mayor of Bakhchysarai in 1878 and mayor in 1879. While serving until 1884, he tried to help awaken the Crimean Tatar Muslims who, in his opinion, were asleep politically. In 1881, he began to write his first articles about Muslims’ conditions in the Russian Empire.

On April 10, 1883, he began issuing the newspaper Tercüman (Terjiman), in which he published information about the economic and chauvinistic arbitrariness of the Russian government in Crimea, promoted the national values ​​of the Tatar people, and exposed attempts to discredit them. Gaspirali was the publisher, editor-in-chief, writer and worker during the newspaper's initial period.

Tercuman started to be published once a week, then twice a week in 1903, and became a daily in 1912. For a long time, the newspaper was the only Turkic-language periodical in Russia. Also, from the 20th century, it was considered the oldest Muslim newspaper in the world. Tercüman remained in publication for more than three decades, exceeding Gaspirali’s lifetime.

The newspaper was distributed not only in Russia but also in Persia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, France, Switzerland and the USA.

The educational reformist

Gaspirali opened a school for local governments in a small province in Bakhchisarai, in 1884. In this school, reading, writing, and all basic courses were thought with a more practical and easier method. This method was groundbreaking for Muslim schools in Czarist Russia.

For Gaspirali, the educational system needed to be in service of proper teaching of the mother tongue before all and should include secular as well as religious education.

Gaspirali's education method, which he called "Usul-u Cedid," or the "new method," became widespread. The number of Usul-u Cedid schools in the Russian Empire was more than 100 in 1895 and became nearly 5,000 in 1914. 

Gaspirali was an avid supporter of Muslim Turkish girls' education. His sister, Pembe Bolatukova, opened the first Usul-u Cedid school for girls in 1893 in Bakhchisarai.

The first women's magazine in the history of Russian Turks, Alem-i Nisvan, started publication in 1905 under Gaspirali's supervision and the editorship of his daughter, Sefika Gaspirali. 

The first children's magazine of Russian Turks also started publication by Gaspirali around the same time. "Alem-i Sibyan" magazine started as a supplement to the Daily Tercuman in March 1906.

His death

Ismail Gaspirali died on Sept. 24, 1914, in Bakhchysarai. More than 6,000 Muslims from all around the Russian Empire attended his funeral. His grave is beside the tomb of Hacı I Giray, the founder of the Crimean Khanate.

In 1944, the Soviet administration destroyed his grave during the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars. They returned to Crimea after the Soviet Union collapsed, found the place of Gaspirali’s grave and built a memorial stone in his name.