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A Part of Russia That Wants out

People in the Volga Republic of Tatarstan are Rebuilding a National Identity Suppressed by Czars and Soviets – and Trying to go it Alone

Burke, Justin. "A Part of Russia That Wants out." Christian Science Monitor, 3 September 1993, 6-7.


Kazan, the capital of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, has the look of a typically sleepy Russian provincial city.

Coated in dust, downtown Kazan is full of Czarist-era buildings with elaborate but decaying facades. The outskirts feature drab apartment blocks, and overlooking the city from the heights above the Volga River is a white-walled kremlin, or fortress.

But on this very Russian foundation, Tatarstan’s leaders are working to build a separate nation within the Russian Federation. The Tatar green-and-white-and-red flag has already replaced the Russian tricolor atop all government buildings.

The task is complex because Tatar leaders have essentially started from scratch. In 1552, when Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan, the Tatars were considered Moscow’s most dangerous enemies. Thus, to be sure they would never again pose a threat to his empire, Ivan sacked the Tatar capital, burning the state archives, in attempt to destroy the national identity.

Czars and then Soviet commissars continued the assimilation work until the late 1980s, when perestroika reforms opened the door for the revival of Tatar sovereignty. That effort has gained momentum amid the Soviet Union’s collapse and ongoing political turmoil in Moscow.

Tatarstan is perhaps the most active of Russia’s autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, in trying to change the nature of the federation. No longer does the Tatar government of President Mintimer Shaimiyev accept centralized rule from Moscow. Instead, the republic wants control of its natural resources – including substantial oil reserves – and only a loose association with Moscow, involving mainly defense cooperation.

In a recent interview, top Shaimiyev aide Rafael Khakimov spoke wistfully of the tiny European nations of San Marino and Liechtenstein as role models for Tatarstan’s self-rule. "We have a lot to do before we can be recognized as a sovereign state. But we’re working for it and I think we’ll attain it," he says.

Many federal government officials are wary of the effort by Tatarstan and other autonomous republics to assert their autonomy, fearing it could spark Russia’s disintegration. But while Moscow may oppose the sovereignty drive, intrigues in the Russian capital are preventing federal officials from formulating an effective response.

Mr. Khakimov indicates the federal government’s instability is fueling the autonomy efforts. But some political observers say Tatarstan’s leaders are using the sovereignty issue to try to establish their own little fiefdom. Olga Senatova, a Moscow-based political scientist, says the Tatar leaders, casting themselves as moderates, have played up the possibility of an ultra nationalist revival to frighten federal officials into making initial autonomy concessions.

"There isn’t a great feeling of nationalism in the Tatar leadership," Ms. Senatova says. "The Tatar Constitution, for example, doesn’t refer to the 'Tatar people.' Instead it’s the 'people of Tatarstan.' It’s an important difference."

"The nationalists were always used as a scarecrow to frighten Moscow," Senatova continues. "But now the [Tatar] government controls everything [in Tatarstan] and there’s no need to scare Moscow anymore."

In reviving Tatar culture, the Tatar government has kept ultra nationalist sentiment in check, so as not to antagonize the republic’s Russian population.

Kazan’s overriding concern is stability, something reflected by the government’s cautious approach to reforms. Tatar officials denounced Moscow’s attempt at "shock therapy," which stressed rapid price liberation. "We felt we must first feed the people, then tackle reforms. A hungry people will never accept reforms," Khahimov says.

To that end, Tatarstan has been slow to discard the vestiges of the Soviet system, including collectivized agriculture and state-controlled prices. But this go-slow approach has produced some good results. For example, the republic has funneled revenue earned from its extensive oil reserves into agriculture, helping to raise yields by about 9 percent compare with the previous harvest.

"Here there is discipline and the certainty that decisions will be carried out. That’s not the case in Russia," Khahimov says.

Tatarstan’s relative economic stability is attracting foreign investment. In July, Tatar officials signed a $1.2-billion deal with South Korean automaker Daewoo to build a car factory in the republic. A Daewoo consumer electronics plant is also planned in Kazan.

"The question of sovereignty is really a question of economic development," Khahimov says. Development, however, will be a daunting task, as downtown Kazan illustrates. As in many cities along the Volga – even those such as Kazan with a million-plus inhabitants – a few neighborhoods here still do not have indoor plumbing. People use outhouses and wash their clothes on the street, utilizing had pumps.

Though cautious on reform, Tatar officials are active in regional diplomacy, wanting to maintain interethnic harmony. The contracts extend beyond Tatarstan’s immediate neighbors to include the entire Volga Basin and Ural Mountain region, Tatar officials say.

There are about 5 million Tatars in the Russian Federation, but only 1.2 million Tatars live in Tatarstan proper. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars live surrounding areas – both in Russian regions, such as Chelyabinsk, and in autonomous republics, including Chuvashia and Bashkortostan.

Tatars comprise just under half the republic’s population. Roughly 40 percent is Russian with the remainder comprising Bashkirs, Chuvash, and other nationalities.

In dealing with such an ethnic polyglot, the Tatar leadership must strike a delicate balance. They stress the Tatar culture as the basis for the republic’s sovereignty and separation from Russia, but have been careful to take account of other cultures.

"For all nationalities and peoples were are trying to create conditions for national revival," says Vasil Gaifullin, Tatar minister for popular education. There is no state-sponsored education. As a result, the government is opening not only Tatar-language schools, but also those with classes taught in Chuvash, Udmrt, and Bashkir.

To keep ethnic Russians happy, both Russian and Tatar have been declared the official languages of Tatarstan. And knowledge of Tatar is not required of ethnic Russians.

As for Tatar culture, the government is opening Tatar-language schools and encouraging a revival of Islam along the moderate Turkish model. Islam is a major component of Tatar culture, having spread up the Volga to the region more than a millennium ago. Traces of Kazan’s Islamic heritage are still visible, as several minarets pike above the city skyline.

Tatar leaders are careful not to promote Islam as a state religion. "It’s a personal matter," says Mr. Gaifullin. "Constitutionally there’s a separation between church and state."

So far, most of Tatarstan’s residents seem content. Russians queried on Kazan’s streets say they do not feel discrimination, while Tatars relish the gradual cultural revival. "Before, no one would speak Tatar in public. Now young people are proud they can converse in Tatar," says Lilia Gilmuddinova, a leader of the Tatar Watan Society, a cultural organization.

Some nationalist groups, however, want the government to move faster on cultural revival. "The Tatar state should be for Tatars, while other should enjoy human right protection," says Rashad Safin, a leader of the All-Tatar Social Center nationalist organization. "If there are two state languages, people should be required to speak both."

Viewing such sentiment as a threat to stability, the Tatar government has cracked down on Center nationalists. Center leaders say they are being persecuted because the Shaimiyev administration wants to eliminate all opposition.

Kazan may have enjoyed initial success in establishing a new Tatar state, but protecting those gains could prove difficult. President Shaimiyev insists on a bilateral treaty with Russia to guarantee Tatar sovereignty. But efforts to agree on such a pact with Moscow have made little progress. Russian President Boris Yeltsin prefers that the issue of sovereignty and Russia’s federal structure be outlined in his proposed new Constitution.

Tatar officials do not trust Moscow’s assurances of constitutional guarantees. "Everyone’s corrupt," Khahimov says of federal officials. "They know they may be removed at any time, so they rob as much as they can, build their own country homes, and that’s about all."

But no matter how strained current relations with Moscow are, Khahimov and other Tatar officials also realize Yeltsin is the Russian leader most flexible on the autonomous republics’ sovereignty. "Yeltsin is the most democratic leader we’ll get in Moscow," Khahimov says.

Showing the flag: Officials in Tatarstan reject Moscow’s rule and are pressing for sovereignty. The Tatar tricolor flies behind a statue of Lenin in the capital, Kazan.
Rush hour: Like many Russian cities, Kazan is underdeveloped. But Tatarstan’s political stability is attracting foreign investment. Korean automaker Daewoo is opening a factory here.

Reprinted with permission of the Christian Science Monitor.

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