Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 5

Russian identity: The view from Tatarstan

By Gulnara Khasanova

Tatarstan today is characterized by stability and civic and interethnic harmony. This is especially remarkable in view of the often stormy nature of the relations between Tatarstan and Russia, and in light of the crisis of identity into which the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Tatarstan’s two main ethnic communities — Tatars and ethnic Russians. What does Russian identity mean to these two communities? Do they understand it in the same way?

The post-Soviet identity crisis affected everyone in Tatarstan but was tackled by these two communities in different ways. The republic’s population was divided into two groups: those who favored Tatarstan’s independence, and those who favored remaining within the Russian Federation. This confrontation reflected the clash of two principles: the territorial integrity of states, and the right of peoples to national self-determination.

The division did not run cleanly along ethnic lines. Representatives of both ethnic communities were found among the supporters of both the "pro-Russian" and the "pro-Tatarstani" position. But it did have an ethnic tint: Russians were more likely to identify with the "new" Russia, while Tatars identified predominantly with Tatarstan.

The Tatars: Living with the Painful Memory of a Shattered State

Most Tatars saw the breakup of the USSR as a chance to restore their statehood; it gave new impetus to the fight for an independent state that has defined relations between Tatars and Russians over the course of the last four centuries.

In the words of the chairman of the Executive Committee of the World Congress of Tatars, Indous Tagirov, "Tatars today are the world’s forgotten people. We must remind the world that we exist and we must take our proper place among the world’s civilized peoples." (1) Supporters of independence saw restoring their state as the first step toward that goal.

The consciousness of the Tatar people is dominated by the memory of the shattered state, founded back in the eighth century, which they lost in 1552 when their territory was conquered and annexed to Russia by Ivan the Terrible. Along with the idea of restoring their statehood, the Tatars have always favored the idea of uniting the various peoples of the Volga-Ural region: both Turkic (Bashkirs and Chuvash) and Finno-Ugric (Udmurts, Maris and Mordvins).

The Tatars tried many times over the centuries to throw off Russian rule, but their efforts to regain independence were ruthlessly suppressed. Russian settlers colonized the region: the territory was ethnically mixed by the end of the sixteenth century and by the end of the eighteenth century it had a majority Russian population.

The 1917 Revolution revived Tatar hopes for their own state on the Volga; these aspirations were crushed in 1920, when Moscow set up the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). Tatarstan’s leaders deeply resented the fact that their territory had been given only this status, not that of a Union republic like the Ukrainians and Armenians. They continued to agitate for Union republic status throughout the Soviet period.

In 1990, as the foundations of the Soviet state began to crumble, Tatarstan issued a declaration of state sovereignty. Tatarstan was one of the first of Russia’s autonomous republics to declare itself sovereign; and it was the first to make no mention of itself as part of the Russian Republic. In effect, therefore, Tatarstan’s declaration of sovereignty was a declaration of independence from the Russian Republic. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s planned Union Treaty of 1991, Tatarstan would at last promised the status of Union republic, but the treaty was never signed. Instead, the first formal document recognizing Tatarstan’s enhanced status was an official agreement on economic cooperation signed by the governments of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan at the end of 1991. Tatarstan’s leaders refused to sign the Russian Federal Treaty of 1992, describing it as "the treaty of a unitary state." Instead, after several years of prolonged negotiation, the presidents of Tatarstan and Russia in 1994 signed a groundbreaking power-sharing treaty that described Tatarstan as a state united with Russia on the basis of the constitutions of the two states and of the new treaty itself.

The Russian government must take part of the blame for the desire for independence of the non-Russian peoples who live within its borders. Russia did not have, and did not want to create, mechanisms to resolve conflicts between the interests of the state and the interests of ethnic groups, and the federal government resisted all attempts of national groups to come up with such solutions on their own.

While the supporters of independence believed that democratization would destroy the Russian Federation, many Russian leaders saw the existence of ethnically-based autonomous regions within Russia as an obstacle to democratization. The government saw the breakup of the USSR and the threat to Russia’s territorial integrity not as the result of objective laws governing the breakup of colonial empires, but as the consequence of separatist aspirations on the part of the various republics and regions comprising the federation. In this, the federal authorities demonstrated that they were still in the grip of the great power, imperial mentality.

To counteract the activation of ethnic movements, Russia armed itself with the idea of the de-ethnization of the state, the de-politicization of ethnic groups, the elimination of the ethnically-based republics and the switch to a system of ethnically-neutral provinces [gubernizatsiya] as a recipe for resolving the "national question." For the Tatars, this became another strong argument in favor of independence.

Supporters of Tatarstan’s independence were convinced that the national and cultural rebirth of the Tatars could be achieved only within an independent state. On the one hand, the Tatars have an ancient culture, their own written language, and great cultural potential. The national value system lays special emphasis on education. Thanks to this "cult of knowledge," Tatars had a literacy rate of almost 100 percent prior to 1917 and occupied first place in Russia for the number of published books per head of the population. On the other hand, Tatarstan’s status within the USSR hindered the realization of this cultural potential and resulted in a decline in national culture. The policies of the Communist era — the abolition of education in the Tatar language in schools in the towns (where 70 percent of Tatar population live), the restriction of the spheres in which the Tatar language might be used, and the resultant decline in prestige of the Tatar language — led to a situation where half of all city-dwelling Tatars have today lost their national language and are estranged from the values of their national culture.

The consequences of globalization, such as the prevalence of mass culture and mass migration, also provoked concern about the preservation of national identity. For the Tatars, these phenomena were associated, to a significant extent, with Russia and Russian culture. Migration, though a worldwide phenomenon, was artificially stimulated in the Soviet period and led to a further fall in the proportion of ethnic Tatars in the republic. Today, the low-brow productions of mass culture are re-broadcast by the Russian media through the medium of the Russian language and are seen as a threat to Tatar culture and ethnic integrity.

The historic tendency for the Russian state and the Orthodox Church to converge could not but concern Tatars. In 1989, Tatars celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the conversion of their forbears to Islam. It was Islam that helped the Tatars preserve their national identity over the centuries; as a result, it has become for them virtually an ethno-religion. Tatars were the founders of the Muslim reform movement Jadidism — the Islamic analogue of the Reformation in Christian Europe. Yet an analysis of today’s Russian media reveals untiring efforts to foist a negative stereotype of Islam on public opinion. Attempts to give one religion official status in a multiethnic and multiconfessional state do not reinforce the authority of the state as the guarantor of religious freedom.

The Russian View: Identifying the Individual with the State

The peculiarities of the Russian worldview gave rise in Tatarstan to a false dichotomy: "the rights of the nation" were counterposed to "the rights of the individual." Supporters of the "pro-Russian" position argued that national rights were secondary, and flowed from individual rights, which therefore took precedence. It is instructive to note how this logic was used to make the case against the movement for national sovereignty in Tatarstan.

In Russia, the individual was not traditionally seen as a value in his or her own right but as something that could be sacrificed to the interests of the state. Russians came, accordingly, to identify the individual with the interests of the state. The Russian worldview could almost be summed up in the well-known phrase, "The state is me." A threat to the integrity of the state was accordingly seen as a threat to the individual’s own security. From this flowed the amazing argument that it was Russia that deserved the laurels of a guarantor of human rights, while Tatarstan, in its striving for sovereignty and independence, posed a threat to them.

The seemingly irrational belief, on the part of those who oppose Tatarstani independence, that Russia is the defender of human rights, is well-founded in this case. For what they mean by "human rights" is really "the rights of the ethnic Russian population." This is objectively true, even if the representatives of that group often do not realize it.

There is a further manifestation of the Russian worldview: the idea of the "non-ethnic" or "supra-ethnic" nature of the Russian state. This also makes it possible to present "the rights of ethnic Russians" as "human rights." This idea is buttressed by the messianism that characterizes the belief that Russia has a special mission in the historical process, that it acts as a bridge linking East and West, and the Eurasian space is endowed with unique characteristics.

Meanwhile, the campaigns of peoples like the Tatars for national rebirth is perceived as a threat and a pretext for discrimination against the ethnic Russian population. It is difficult for those who share this viewpoint to accept the ideal of interethnic relations that argues that "Interest in the survival of one’s own ethnic group can no longer serve as an indicator of ethnocentrism. Confidence that one’s ethnic group will survive is the basis of tolerance and the antithesis of ethnocentrism." (2)

Overcoming the Crisis of Social Identity

For the pro-Tatarstani part of the population, the social identity crisis (3) developed in the following way. For these people, the ethnic component of their social identity was heightened. The lifting of the taboo on discussing the nationalities problem and on studying national history, which took place under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, aroused feelings of hurt national pride, humiliation and inequality on the part of Tatars, and of shame and guilt on the part of ethnic Russians. From the late 1980s, and especially in the years 1992-94, dissatisfaction with Russian citizenship grew, as did the desire to restore Tatarstan’s independence. People began to "distance" themselves from Russia and to reject Russia as an object of identification. They grew dissatisfied with their status and began to despair of realizing their rights.

For pro-Russian residents of Tatarstan, the identity crisis took a different form. Russian ethnic pride was hurt by the breakup of the USSR. Russians were alarmed at the dispersal of their co-ethnics between an array of new states, and feared that the same thing might happen to the Russian Federation. Insofar as the Russian concept of the nation is fused with the idea of the state, people were terrified of ending up outside Russia and of losing contact with the motherland. They sought to identify themselves if not with the old, then with the "new" Russia. As a result, they rejected the possibility of belonging to the state of Tatarstan.

The activities of nationalist movements in Tatarstan were sometimes accompanied by strong anti-Russian sentiments. This stimulated feelings of resentment and discrimination among the ethnic Russian population. Russians began to fear that their status might be downgraded and their rights infringed.

In any event, the identity crisis experienced by both the Tatar and the ethnic Russian communities in Tatarstan was overcome in a positive way, and did not lead either to ethnic intolerance or to a wider cultural gap between the two groups. Unlike the situation in a number of the former Union republics, the Russian community did not feel under pressure either to leave Tatarstan and migrate to Russia proper, or to renounce their ethnic background and assimilate to the culture of the titular nationality. (4)

What made the situation in Tatarstan unique was that, in spite of the intense desire of the Tatar population for independence, interethnic harmony was preserved. This is confirmed by public opinion data. According to the results of a poll conducted in Tatarstan in 1995, only two percent of ethnic Russians expressed the desire to leave the republic. (5) The reason for this was, it seems, the fact that although the Tatar independence movement is rooted in the national idea, the Tatars’ historical memory of the loss of their state did not lead to ethnocentrism or turn into a movement for ethnic sovereignty. Instead, it became "civic" and multiethnic in nature.

The treaty between Tatarstan and Russia signed in 1994 was the compromise that enabled both peoples to overcome their identity crisis. Tatarstan’s status as a sovereign state and subject of international law allowed Tatars to satisfy, to a certain extent, their age-old dream of having their own independent state, while Tatarstan’s status as a state united with the Russian Federation gave Russians a reason to identify themselves with a "united Russia." Enthusiasm for the treaty has increased on the part of Russians and Tatars alike. When it was signed, it was supported by 57 percent of Tatars and 68 percent of Russians. By 1996, it was supported by 88 percent of Tatars and 80 percent of Russians. (6) The experience of these two peoples living and working together and the unique example of Islamic-Christian dialogue bode well for the successful formation of a single polyethnic Tatarstani nation. And the indications of this are already here.

Hope for the Future

The situation in Tatarstan today does not mean that the idea of independence has been rejected. But forcible methods of achieving independence — the so-called Chechen path — are categorically rejected by virtually everyone in Tatarstan today. A truly sovereign, independent state remains, to a significant degree, an abstract dream, an ideal future.

But just as the creation of ethnic autonomies after the 1917 Revolution secured the foundation for the state with limited sovereignty which is the Republic of Tatarstan today, Tatarstan’s latest achievements give reason for hope that, in the future, Tatarstan will become a prosperous independent state, a home, and the object of positive identification for all of the peoples who live there.


1. I. Tagirov, "Natsional’noe dvizhenie: ego proshloe, nastoyashchee i budushchee," Tatarstan, 1995, No. 3-4, p. 6

2. I. W. Berry and M. Pleasants, "Ethnic Tolerance in Plural Societies," paper delivered at an international conference on authoritarianism and dogmatism, Potsdam, N.J.: Wiley, 1984

3. See N. M. Lebedeva, "Russkaya diaspora: dialog tsivilizatsii i krizis sotsial’noi identichnosti," Psikhologichesky zhurnal, Vol. 17, 1996, No. 4

4. Ibid.

5. R. Musina and R. Tagirov, "Etnicheskoe samosoznanie cherez prizmu sotsiologii," Nauchny Tatarstan, 1995, No. 4, p. 59

6. "Ostrie grani federalizma," Tatarstan, 1996, No. 10, p. 10

Translated by Mark Eckert

Gulnara Khasanova is assistant professor of sociology in the Education Department at Kazan Chemical-Technological University.


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

The opinions expressed in Prism are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jamestown Foundation.

If you would like information on subscribing to Prism, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at <>, by fax at 202-483-8337, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 1528 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of Prism is strictly prohibited by law.