Growing up in Kazakhstan, Alsu Kurmasheva did not speak her native Tatar language with her mother in public. Russian was the lingua franca, and society dictated that other languages be relegated to the home.
Now the Deputy Director of RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, known locally as Radio Azatliq, Kurmasheva says Tatar has continued to be marginalized in Tatarstan, a republic of the Russian Federation, due to the long-term policy of Russification. Though a native of Tatarstan’s capital Kazan, Kurmasheva’s experience of growing up in Kazakhstan as a speaker of a minority language was part of the reason she decided to join RFE/RL in 1998.
“I came here because this media mattered for me. This mission to bring open and objective information to my people, to people who speak my language, Tatar in particular,” Kurmasheva said.
Surprisingly, Kurmasheva’s first encounter with journalism in a high school journalism course left a bad impression. She remembers being lectured to about the newspaper industry by a teacher who liked to compare Russian and western journalists, always portraying Russian media as more respectable than its western counterparts.
“I hated those lessons and our teachers who tried to impose on us that journalists are not reliable people.”
As a result, upon entering university, she chose to study English and Turkish instead. After graduating, she worked for several years as a teacher and translator before joining Radio Azatliq as a radio broadcaster using her Tatar, Russian and Turkish language skills. In addition to moderating programs, she spent her first year editing reports, learning technical production, and making new contacts.
Kurmasheva has spent the last 15 years of her career reporting on issues within the Volga Tatar, Bashkir, and Crimean Tatar communities, with a focus on human rights and the relationships among Tatar groups.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March has generated much confusion in western media about the connections among the millions of Tatars worldwide. Kurmasheva explains that the main difference between Crimean Tatars and Volga Tatars is their history and how they perceive it.
Among Crimean Tatars, the deportation of 200,000 members of their community in 1944 under Stalin is a fresh memory and, for some, an event they experienced directly. Their children have been taught this history and have been instilled with a sense of fear and angst towards the Russian government.
Volga Tatars, on the other hand, were conquered by Russia in the 16th century. Five centuries later the memory of that period has receded, and policies under successive governments have produced a level of high assimilation among the populace.
Kurmasheva explained how linguistic differences also distinguish different Tatar groups. Once a united nation spread all over the Eurasian space, Tatars developed their own cultures and languages in the various enclaves where they lived, including in Kazan, Crimea, Astrakhan, and Siberia.
Historically, the Crimean Tatar language has been more influenced by Turkish, while Volga Tatar has been heavily inflected with Russian. In addition, Volga Tatars were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet after the 1917 Russian Revolution, whereas Crimean Tatars use the Latin alphabet, further complicating communication between the two groups.
Since Radio Azatliq first went on the air 60 years ago, broadcasts targeting Crimean Tatar audiences have been a standard feature of its programing. Twice a week, a 10-minute program in the Crimean Tatar language can be heard on the services website, and audio reports from Crimea and Istanbul are uploaded daily. The recent crisis in Ukraine has generated an increased number of listeners, prompting the creation of a website dedicated to Crimea with reports in Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian, and Russian.
Despite the historical and linguistic differences separating Tatar communities, Radio Azatliq reports on issues that affect all Tatars around the world. Whether it is discussing Crimean Tatars’ fear of another Stalin-style ethnic cleansing or the controversy surrounding a Tatar woman being named Miss Russia, Kurmasheva aims to tell the untold stories of everyday life for Tatars.
She says that with the amount of propaganda currently on display in Russian media, independent news outlets for Tatars and Russians alike are now more important than ever.
“Being independent means you trust your own judgment,” said Kurmasheva. “This independent judgment can be built only on very rich expertise, experience, and work.”
On October 18, 2023, Alsu Kurmasheva was detained by Russian authorities. She is a dual U.S. and Russian citizen who lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her husband and two children. She has been charged with failure to register as a foreign agent. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Learn more about Alsu's case.