Moscow Backs Kryashens to Weaken Volga Tatars Ahead of 2020 Census

Tatar flags wave during Day of Remembrance (Source: PHmuseum)

In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin divided up the Circassians into four major “nations” as part of his initiative to block any efforts by that deported nationality to restore a single titular republic, attract millions of its co-ethnics back from abroad, and create a powerful bulwark against Russian control of the Caucasus. Now, according to the Tatar analyst Ilnar Garifullin , Vladimir Putin’s regime is trying to do the same thing with the Tatars for the entirely “banal” reason that the Tatars are “the largest ethno-nation in the Russian Federation after the Russians. Furthermore, the Tatars tend to be central in widely disseminated myths about the danger of separatism supposedly originating from the national republics” (, February 19).

Moscow’s point man on this, Garifullin says, is academic Valery Tishkov—the former nationalities minister, head of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, and a key advisor to Vladimir Putin on nationality and language policy (Window on Eurasia, February 12, 13). A major part of Tishkov’s plan is to boost the Kryashens as a separate nationality so as to reduce the number of the Volga Tatars. (Tatars generally believe that Kryashens are not a separate nationality but rather Orthodox Tatars.) In the last census, only 35,000 people identified as Kryashens, but some, like Tishkov, think there are as many as 200,000 of them. If they all declared this separate identity, the Tatars’ share of the population would be reduced by several percentage points.

Tishkov has been pushing for these steps since at least 2002, Garifullin writes, but to date, he has not been able to gain the official backing of the statistical authorities in Moscow; in part because Kazan officials have lobbied strongly against such moves. Yet, today, Tishkov appears to be on the verge of succeeding, prompting calls to step up the opposition against him. One reason Tishkov and those who agree with him look poised to win out is that the Moscow Patriarchate has come out in favor of the Kryashens as a people, given that, while they are Tatar in culture, their religion is Russian Orthodox.

A week ago, as part of this effort, the Orthodox Church sponsored a celebration of the Kryashens, one that featured claims that only the Church can save the Kryashens and their distinctive language, culture and faith from being overwhelmed by the Muslim Tatars (, March 2). In the current Russian environment, the Church’s support is critical to Tishkov achieving his goal.

However, Tishkov’s vision may prove a Pyrrhic victory at best and a disaster more likely. That is because of one simple fact: most nations in the Russian Federation include followers of more than one religion. If Moscow decides to follow Tishkov and the Moscow Patriarchate in declaring the Krayshens a separate and distinct nation, other religious minorities within existing nations in Russia may feel entitled to take the same step. In some cases, that could work to Moscow’s advantage—as with the Tatars. But in many others, it would have a rather different impact.

The most serious consequences would likely be within the ethnic-Russian nation itself. Many pagan groups and some Orthodox splinter groups like the True Orthodox and the Old Believers may conclude that they too would benefit from having the status of separate nations. That would not only further reduce the size of the ethnic-Russian nation but also present Moscow with the challenge of making choices, many invidious and explosive, between them.