Struggle Over Tatar Language Impacts More Than Just Tatarstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 187

Liliana Safina, head of "Umarta" language school (Source:

Tatarstan has long been considered the bellwether of nationality relations inside Russia. The republic has arguably held this status since at least 1920, when Joseph Stalin—then Soviet Commissar for Nationalities Affairs—engaged in his first act of ethnic engineering by dividing up the Turkic peoples of the Middle Volga into the Tatars and Bashkirs. Now, a recent scandal in Tatarstan regarding the relationship between language and national identity has highlighted rising tensions caused by Moscow’s promotion of Russian at the expense of the non-Russian languages. That policy is being rebuked by those who believe that the survival of their peoples depends on the defense of those languages, regardless of what the Kremlin wants.

On Sunday (November 27), Guzl Sharipova, the deputy culture minister of Tatarstan, delivered a speech to participants in a photo competition on “The Ethnographic Mosaic of the Tatar People.” Reportedly, she proclaimed that “our scholars say national distinctiveness, and in particular the national distinctiveness of the Tatars, is not based on the knowledge of language; that is, it is not necessary to know the [national] language” (, November 28).

These remarks were posted on various news website at 11:29 a.m. local time, setting off a firestorm of criticism, including demands that she be fired from her job. Three hours and 59 minutes later, her words were changed to read “our scholars say that national distinctiveness, and in particular the national distinctiveness of the Tatars, is not based only on a knowledge of the [national] language,” a very different position altogether, and one that all Tatars could subscribe to. According to one local reporter, the original report was wrong; but according to another, Sharipova was correctly quoted and the second text reflects a fundamental revision.

This is only the latest in a series of such controversies. Previous fights have included whether Tatar rather than Russian will be used in mosques and whether the reduction in the number of Tatar-language schools and classes in the republic reflect parental choice to allow their children to compete in the broader Russian world or whether this is part of a Kremlin strategy to destroy the Tatar nation. Tatars are the second-largest nationality in the country. And some minorities fear that if that Tatar nation is destroyed in this manner, Moscow will be free to move against the language rights of all the other non-Russians in the Russian Federation.

Meanwhile, many in Moscow see the Tatars as a test case for Russification. Specifically, Tatars not only live in a republic in which there are many Russians and in which most Tatars are already bilingual, but additionally many Tatars live beyond the borders of that republic and therefore are obvious candidates for acculturation and assimilation. Russian scholars also believe that the differences between the Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod Tatar dialects—the latter has far more Russian loan words and a word order that resembles Russian rather than a Turkic language—also promote a shift to Russian among the Tatars. This argument is particularly pervasive in Moscow, where most of the Tatar community comes from Nizhny Novgorod rather than Kazan.

But the Tatars are fighting back in defense of their language not only by insisting on more hours for Tatar-language instruction in Tatarstani schools but also through a remarkable network of language-training institutions beyond the borders of that Middle Volga republic. These seldom receive much attention—Russian officials prefer to ignore them and Tatars are wary of attracting too much attention to them. Nevertheless, last week, Liliana Safina, the lead teacher in one such Tatar-language-training center in the Russian capital, gave an interview to Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, in which she argued that ignorance of Tatar for Tatars is a source of “spiritual trauma.” Furthermore, she pointed out that, especially among Tatars living outside of Tatarstan, interest in Tatar is rapidly growing (Business-Gazeta, November 20).

Her school attracts numerous Tatars living in Moscow who want to acquire or improve a language they had heretofore been deprived of, she noted. Moreover, “thanks to Skype,” she is teaching the language to “residents of Tatarstan, Mari El, Bashkortostan, Switzerland and Latvia,” as well as in many cities of Russia and numerous foreign countries, Safina said. Many of those who come to her classes “are trying to find their lost roots through the study of Tatar.” But she pointed out that among her students, in addition to Tatars, are ethnic Russians and representatives of many peoples of Russia and especially of the Idel-Ural group in the Middle Volga.

Safina is an enthusiast, but she acknowledges that her school could not function “without the help of the state. The city of Moscow provides some [assistance], but most comes from Tatarstan. The key link in this is the permanent representation of the republic in the Russian capital and its head, the de facto ‘ambassador’ of Tatarstan to Russia, Ravil Akhmetshin.” “Regardless of the request I make to him,” she told Business-Gazeta, “I always find understanding; and in the first instance am grateful for the information support” (Business-Gazeta, November 20).

Now, according to Safina, the biggest problem is to encourage Russians in Tatarstan and elsewhere to learn Tatar. The Soviet state ended instruction in Tatar for children of non-Tatar nationality at the end of the 1930s. Efforts by Kazan to restart it have provoked protests in recent years, largely because Russians in the republic see no need to learn Tatar given that Tatars are bilingual. But “for the Tatars, the reduction in the sphere of the use of their language is a tragedy,” and her school is one of the ways Tatars are fighting back in today’s Russia.