Tatarstan and Tatars

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Tatarstan is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, located at the confluence of the Volga and Kama rivers, with its capital at Kazan. Originally formed as the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1920, it was renamed the Republic of Tatarstan in 1990. Tatars, sometimes referred to as the Volga Tatars or Kazan Tatars, form the indigenous population of Tatarstan. They form the second largest nationality in Russia (5.5 million in 1989) and one of the largest in the former Soviet Union. As of 1989, about one quarter of Tatars lived in Tatarstan (1.8 million), with large communities in Bashkortostan (1.1 million) and other republics and provinces of the Volga-Ural region and Siberia. Additionally, about one million Tatars lived in other republics of the former Soviet Union, primarily in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in Central Asia. The Tatar language belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic language family and has several dialects. Most Tatars are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi legal school, with smaller numbers of Kriashen, or Christianized Tatars.

Finno-Ugric tribes, the earliest known inhabitants of Tatarstan, were joined by Turkic-speaking settlers after the third century c.e. Most important were the Volga Bulgars, who arrived in the seventh century and by the 900s had established a state that soon dominated the entire Middle Volga. Bulgar economic life combined agriculture, pastoralism, and commerce, making the Bulgar state one of the most important trading partners of Kievan Rus. The Volga Bulgars officially adopted Islam in 922 during the visit of Ibn Fadlan, an emissary

of the Caliph. In 1236 their capital at Great Bulgar was captured and destroyed during the Mongol invasion, and Bulgars subsequently became a subject people of the Mongol empire and the Golden Horde.

Russians and Europeans often referred to these invaders as Tatars, a term that originated with a Turkic tribe in the Mongol army but by the nineteenth and early twentieth century was applied by Russians to several different Turkic Muslim groups, including ancestors of today's Kazan or Volga Tatars, Crimean Tatars, and Azerbaijans. The implication that these peoples are descended from the Mongol invaders was long commonplace. While scholars agree that Mongols and their allied tribes may have played some part in the formation of today's Tatar people, most also assert that contemporary Tatars owe a much larger debt both genetically and culturally to the Volga Bulgars, with an admixture of local Finno-Ugric peoples and several Turkic tribes that migrated to the region over ensuing centuries.

In the 1440s, as the Golden Horde disintegrated, a separate khanate emerged at Kazan, in what some scholars see as a restoration of Bulgar statehood. In 1552 the Kazan Khanate was conquered and destroyed by Muscovy, marking the first Russian incorporation of large Muslim populations into their expanding empire. Under Russian rule, intense Christianization campaigns alternated with periods of greater toleration. In the late eighteenth century, Catherine II granted the Tatars the right to trade with the Muslims of Central Asia and allowed them to form a spiritual board at Ufa to regulate the religious affairs of Muslims in European Russia. With their superior knowledge of Turkic language and customs, Tatar merchants quickly established a virtual monopoly over trade between Russia and Central Asia. This contributed to the formation of Tatar commercial and industrial classes, urbanization, formation of a small industrial working class, and emergence of a secular national intelligentsia. These factors made the Tatars, like the Azerbaijans in the Caucasus, one of the most economically integrated Muslim groups in the empire.

The nineteenth century saw important intellectual and cultural changes, most importantly the Jadid movement to reform Islamic education by introducing the secular subjects taught in Russian schools, and the emergence of Western forms of culture such as novels, plays, theater, and newspapers. The development of national identity and cultural nationalism proceeded as well with the creation of a standard Tatar literary language. However, the broader questions of national language and the parameters of the nation remained controversial. Intellectuals who imagined all or most Turkic-speakers as belonging to a single nation of Turks quarreled with those who defined a narrower Tatar nationality, while others emphasized the larger Islamic community. Nevertheless, as Russia drifted toward revolution in the early twentieth century, most members of the educated elite shared a belief that their community formed the natural leadership of Russia's Muslim Turkic population.

Tatars were divided by the same social and political conflicts as Russians during the revolutionary period. The question of national autonomy was intertwined with these conflicts, with a serious division emerging in 1917 between supporters of extraterritorial cultural autonomy and those favoring the autonomy of a large territorial Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural) state within a Russian federation. Local Bolsheviks and Left SRs (Socialist Revolutionaries), both Russian and Tatar, secured Soviet power

through Moscow's proclamation of a Tatar-Bashkir Soviet Republic in March 1918 and suppression of anti-Bolshevik Tatar factions. Throughout the civil war, Tatar leftists such as Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev supported Soviet power in part because of its positive attitude toward ethnic federalism, though many other prominent Tatar leaders, such as the writer Ayaz Iskhakov, sympathized with the Whites. Moscow's decision to create a Bashkir republic in 1919 lead to abrogation of the Tatar-Bashkir republic and promulgation of a separate Tatar republic in 1920.

Tatarstan experienced all the economic trials of the Soviet period, including famine in 1921 and 1922 and the collectivization of agriculture, but also notable industrial development with the emergence of an oil industry since the 1940s, construction of the immense Kama automobile factory (KAMAZ) in Naberezhnye Chelny (1970s), and significant urban growth. Cultural policies were similarly inconsistent: The Tatar language was shifted from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin in the 1920s but then Cyrillicized in 1938; and elements of Tatar history and culture that were celebrated in the 1920s were vilified under Stalin's rule, only to be carefully rehabilitated in Tatar journals in the 1960s and 1970s.

During the Gorbachev years, new Tatar political organizations raised concerns about the survival and perpetuation of Tatar national culture, both within Tatarstan and in the extensive Tatar diaspora, where assimilation was more common. The governing circles of Tatarstan responded by declaring the republic's sovereignty and unilaterally raising its status to union republic (1990), writing a new authoritative constitution (1992), and signing a treaty (1994) and other agreements with the Russian federal government that delineated division of powers, responsibilities, and resources in a form widely studied as the Tatarstan model. There was relatively little interethnic violence in the republic, in part because Russian residents (43.3% of the population in 1989, compared to 48.5% Tatar) benefited from many of these steps as well. One continuing political problem in the 1990s was concern over the status of Tatars living in neighboring Bashkortostan.

See also: central asia; islam; kazan; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Daniel E. Schafer