How Belarusians mastered Turkmen language

In the history of Belarus-Turkmen relations the fate of Alexander Potseluevsky holds a special place

In the history of Belarus-Turkmen relations the fate of Alexander Potseluevsky holds a special place


Unfortunately, the Belarusian Encyclopaedia doesn’t contain reference to Alexander Petrovich Potseluevsky. Although the linguist, literary man and folklorist’s birthplace is Bukmuizha, in Rechitsa District, within Vitebsk Province, the location is now part of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. His son Yevgeny sent me a copy of his father’s biography a few years ago, which details that his own father was a teacher in the countryside. He denoted his nationality as ‘Belarusian’. However, Latvia claims him as ‘its own’. In due course, Potseluevsky will gain his place in our encyclopaedias, being worthy.

In his younger years, before going to Ashgabat (at that time, the capital of Zakaspiyski krai and called Poltoratsk) he attended a Vitebsk classical gymnasium, even though his father was not a man of means.

In 1914, Alexander entered the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow, writing: ‘Duringmy studies at the Lazarev Institute. I learnt French, attending courses with ‘Alliance Française’, and English, through ‘Societies of Convergence of Russia and England’. However, my main specialty was Turkic language’.

He graduated from the Institute, ‘having received worthy training in Turkish, Persian and Arabiс languages’. Answering a question on his knowledge of foreign languages and those of the peoples of the USSR, he stated: ‘I can read with and without a dictionary in German, Italian, Polish, Latin, Arabic, Anadolu-Turkish, Belarusian, Latvian, Azerbaijani, Crimean Tatar, Uzbek and Tajik. Moreover, I know French, English, Persian (Farsi), Russian and Turkmen well’.

From December 1918 until June 1922, Alexander taught English and French at Vitebsk branch of the Moscow Archaeological Institute. Then, for about a year, he worked as a lecturer and teacher for Vitebsk Province Department of National Education, in the Eastern languages of the great Persian poets, recalling the instruction he received at the Lazarev Institute. He may have realized that he needed more training in the Turkmen language as, in 1921, he was sent on a business trip to Tashkent, taking military language courses at the Turkestan Oriental Institute. In the streets of Tashkent, he loved listening to residents’ chatter, and tried out his Uzbek.

In October 1923, aged 29, he was invited to join the Central Asian Railway School, in Ashgabat, as an instructor-methodologist. Little did he know that he would only live for another 25 years.

At that time, there was real lack of teachers of foreign languages, so Alexander taught English, French, Persian and Turkmen (which he had just begun to master) at Ashgabat railway senior school (named after K.D. Ushinsky), as well as at a senior school named after N.A. Nekra­sov, and another named after A.V. Lunacharsky, which specialised in Persian.

He took infantry commander courses and those on commercial knowledge, working every hour to learn. However, he still found some time for family life, having four children, and making a home for his now elderly and infirm father. Languages remained Alexander’s passion and Turkmen (so little known to him originally) became one of his most favourite, being rich and poetic. His learning continued, despite almost no textbook literature existing to help him.

Prof. Samoilovich, at the Lazarev Institute, was his rolemodel. As a student, he had prepared his diploma thesis on the ‘Experience of Linguistic Research of the Tekke Sub-dialect of Turkmen Dialect’, including writing a short Tekke-Russian dictionary. His study was well received, earning him a gold medal from St. Petersburg University.

In 1903, he began his first dialectological expedition to Turkmenistan, needing to gain greater understanding of the Turkmen language. Working independently, he toured markets, and travelled widely, making expeditions with colleagues to record examples of oral speech across the country, monitoring dialects and cataloguing vocabulary usage by several Turkmen tribes. Each year, he spent 2-3 months in the most remote areas of Karakum. In 1927, he travelled to Yomut (Yomud) and Goklen, followed by a trip in 1928 to study the Anauli tribe. In 1929, he made an expedition to the Arsary (Ersari) tribe. He went to Salyr (Salor) and Saryk (Saryq) tribes in 1930 and, then, in December of the same year, studied the Nokhurli tribe. Potseluevsky was to return there during the Great Patriotic War.

Moscow journalist Nikolay Golovkin (born in Ashgabat) mentioned to me that his own mother took part in that expedition: Doctor of Philology Yevgenia Yershova has been long retired but her voice is still energetic. She tells me, “At that time, I was a student at the Pedagogical University, where Alexander Petrovich held the chair of Turkmen language and general linguistics. He had an incredible capacity to work. However, we were young, so we didn’t appreciate the full wonder. We felt our whole lives before us, believing that we had plenty of time to move mountains. When we recorded dialects and folklore from Nokhur, the professor impressed us by chatting with dehkans as an equal. Of course, he’d lived among the dehkans of the Nokhurli tribe for many years.”

By 1920, Potseluevsky’s understanding of the Turkmen language had vastly improved. In August 1926, he appeared in the newspaper Turkmenskaya Iskra (Turkmen Spark) with his article on the reform of the Turkmen alphabet. Several other scientific articles and books followed, including, in 1929, his ‘Manual for Studying Turkmen Language’ (with the ‘Short Turkmen Dictionary’ as an appendix). He then independently prepared his ‘Project to Reform the Spelling of the Turkmen Literary Language’.


Collecting information on the linguist, I chatted with various people. In Moscow, the name of Potseluevsky is well-known at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics, as well as at the MSU Institute of Asian and African Studies, and at the Institute of Oriental Studies. I wrote to Ashgabat, where I’d also lived and worked in the late 1980s, corresponding with various writers and academics. I couldn’t help but rail at having ‘missed’ a personal acquaintance with Potseluevsky. I searched for traces of other countrymen in Ashkhabad but none were as prominent as Potseluevsky. His death in the earthquake of 1948 was an irreplaceable loss.

That night, in October 1948, saw also the loss of his personal archive: 25 years of hard work on ‘Turkmen language construction’ allowed Alexander Petrovich to publish almost 20 books, creating a platform for several generations of specialists in Turkic philology. As this new century dawned in Ashgabat, the names of the most famous Turkmen people included Potseluevsky among them.

The archive included references to works yet unpublished: 10 essays devoted to tribal dialects, comprising over 300 typewritten pages, and about the same volume on ‘The Syntactic Morphology of the Turkmen Language’; a collection of ‘women’s songs’; a manual on the Persian language; and materials for compiling a Russian-Persian dictionary. The work involved was enormous.

After the earthquake of 1948, Ashgabat was restored rather quickly, thanks partially to help from Belarus, despite the country having its own troubles. The dialect collections of Potseluevsky were lost but his enthusiasm continued through the work of his pupils, in the homeland of Magtymguly.

By Ales Karlyukevich
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