Tatar Nationalism Remains Vibrant Force in Volga Region

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 1

Tensions between ethnic Russians and Tatars in the Republic of Tatarstan increased in 2011. Ethnic Russian activists were particularly angered by Tatar TV journalist Elmira Israfilova after she lashed out at the Russian protesters. Israfilova reportedly called the Russians occupiers and suggested that those among them who did not like the state of affairs Tatarstan leave the republic. In November, Israfilova was promoted to the position of TV producer at the Tatarstan – Novy Vek (Tatarstan – New Century) TV station (, December 15, 2011).

Israfilov reportedly promised to, in her words to: “cut any throat for my Tatar language.” This alleged outburst of Tatar nationalism won her hero’s status among Tatar nationalists and scathing criticism from Russian nationalists. The Union of Tatar Youth organization, Azatlyk (Freedom), proclaimed her the new Tatar Queen Syuyumbike. This legendary Tatar queen hurled herself out of a tower to avoid captivity by Russian troops when Russian Tsarist forces took over the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1552 (, November 10, 2011).

The ethnic conflict in Tatarstan started in June 2011, when activists of the organization Russian Language in the Schools of Tatarstan protested against what they regard as an overly high representation of Tatar language classes in the republic’s schools. The Russian activists complained that Tatar language hours were increased at the expense of the Russian language, meaning that ethnic Russians end up learning Russian in programs designed for non-native Russian speakers, such as ethnic Tatars. Officials in Tatarstan promised to take the Russian protesters’ opinions into account in new laws on language (, June 9, 2011).

Tatarstan is home to the northernmost Muslim people in the Russian Federation – the Tatars. According to the latest Russian census, taken in 2010, the republic has almost 3.8 million people, 2 million of whom are ethnic Tatars. Ethnic Russians represent the second largest group in the republic, with 1.5 million people. The overall number of ethnic Tatars in the Russian Federation is 5.3 million: many of these Tatars live in other Volga region territories, such as neighboring Bashkortostan, which has a Tatar population of 1 million (, December 31, 2011). The Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in Russia after ethnic Russians. Thanks to its well-developed industries and rich oil fields, Tatarstan is also a very wealthy republic. Given all these conditions, it is no wonder that Tatarstan has played an important part in Russian politics, invariably managing to carve out for itself a special relationship with the authorities in Moscow. This is the only republic in Russia that has a unique agreement with Moscow on delimitation of powers. The first article of the republic’s constitution stipulates that Tatarstan is “a democratic constitutional state” that is united with the Russian Federation through a special agreement (

Tatarstan’s leadership and public are traditionally concerned with the powers the republic has and Tatar language issues. Out of the 5.3 million Tatars living in the Russian Federation, about 1 million say they do not speak their mother tongue, instead preferring Russian (, December 31, 2011). In 1999 Tatarstan adopted a plan to replace the Cyrillic scrip with the Latin alphabet for the written Tatar language. However, the Russian prosecutor general struck down the law in 2004 and the republic was forced to rescind it ( Tatar is a Turkic tongue, spoken by the Tatars as well as some other ethnic groups in the Russian Federation.

Russian analysts regularly sound alarm bells, saying that Tatar nationalism is becoming increasingly bolder. “[I]deas about the foul occupation of the Kazan Khanate by the Russians starting in 1552 and continuing to this day come today not from marginal activists, but are declared in textbooks (written) by official academics from Tatarstan’s Academy of Sciences in the textbooks.” Russian watchers of Tatarstan bombard Moscow with complaints about this republic’s “incorrect” reading of history to no avail, given that there is overwhelming historical evidence that confirms the Tatars were forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire and forcibly converted to Orthodox Christianity (, December 15, 2011;, September 10, 2011).

Tatarstan’s economy received a powerful boost in December 2, 2011, when a second major oil refinery, Taneko, was officially launched. Taneko is a subsidiary of the Tatneft oil company, and half of Tatarstan’s oil, approximately 14 million tons, will now be refined inside the republic. The republican authorities reportedly “dreamed” of reaching this goal for several decades (, December 27, 2011). The additional economic muscle will permit Tatar authorities to continue their remarkably successful epic struggle with Moscow for greater political power and self-governance.

It is probably because Tatarstan’s authorities retain a large degree of autonomy from Moscow that the situation in the republic is fairly stable despite its predominantly Muslim population. Still, in 2011 the republican authorities reportedly forced the replacement of Tatarstan’s mufti, Gusman Khazrat Iskhakov, with Ildus Khazrat Faizov. Iskhakov headed the Spiritual Board of Muslims in Tatarstan for 13 years, since 1998. Tatarstan’s government was reportedly alarmed by the rise of Salafi (aka Wahhabi) adherents in the republic. The new mufti Faizov is expected to lead a crusade against the Salafis using Hanafi Muslim doctrine and with a fair amount of assistance from the government. Faizov promised that the activities of the republic’s imams would be continuously monitored and that those who passed unspecified benchmark tests would receive salaries (, December 27, 2011). The authorities’ measures against certain types of Islam in Tatarstan are likely to fail, as they largely did in the North Caucasus. As the state chooses to support some spiritual teachings against others, state-supported teachings tend to lose followers, while non-state movements make gains. If Moscow succeeds in subduing Tatarstan’s leadership to the extent it did in the republics of the North Caucasus, and the republic’s leaders are seen as nothing more than Moscow puppets, the chances Tatarstan will experience destabilization will also increase. In either case, the current stance against selected Islamic teachings in Tatarstan does not seem to be sustainable in the long run.