On February 3rd, the non-profit All-Tatar Public Center’s chairman Farit Zakiyev began a hunger strike after Russian prosecutors labeled his cultural organization as extremist. On February 9th, a Russian court in Tatarstan’s city of Naberezhnye Chelny charged the Tatar writer and activist, Fauzia Bairamova, with inciting secession in a speech and ordered her to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles, or 400 dollars. Ms. Bairamova said her speech, written in Tatar, was mistranslated into Russian and pled not guilty. These actions are the Kremlin’s latest attacks on Tatar, and minority rights in Russia.
Tatarstan, with its complex imperial history and, presents a special interest for Russian authorities. Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, was the last seat of the Golden Horde which ruled Russia from the 13th to 15th centuries. Prosperous in the latter days of the Russian Empire, the Soviets sought to dilute their autonomy by drawing borders of making Tatars a minority in their eponymous republic. The Tatars, numbering 5.3 million (four percent of the Russian population) and the second largest ethnic group in Russia today, only gained a majority in Tatarstan in 2002.
However, the Tatars were able to gain significant autonomy during the breakup of the Soviet Union when Moscow held a significantly weaker hand than it does today. At the time, a referendum revealed 61.4 percent of the population agreed Tatarstan was a sovereign state. While Chechnya chose secession and war, Tatarstan opted for greater autonomy within the new Russian Federation by signing a treaty with Moscow in 1994. The result was the Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation, which had jurisdiction over management of its natural resources, tax collection, judiciary, and even foreign economic relations.
The power dynamic shifted when Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power. In 2002, President Putin signed a law enforcing the usage of the Cyrillic over the Latin alphabet (Tatarstan switched to the Latin script in 1999). While Kremlin renewed the 1994 treaty in 2005, Moscow also eliminated Tatar laws that contradicted federal law, and the ethnic composition of the Tatarstan legislature was changed at the expense of the Tatars.
After the treaty renewal, President Putin continued to promote Russian culture over local ethnicities. In 2008, the Duma required high school exams to be conducted in Russian, leading to minority languages, like Tatar, being replaced by Russian as the language of instruction. In 2017, President Putin let lapse the treaty between Moscow and Kazan. This coincided with his declaration that it is “unacceptable to force a man to learn a language not his own,” or rather, to make a Russian learn a minority language. While previously ethnic mandated education to be conducted in the local language, the Russian federal government started pressuring local governments to abolish the local language requirements in the ethnic republics.
In October 2017, government prosecutors investigated Tatar schools to see if compulsory Tatar lessons had indeed been abolished. Prior to this, Tatar law required schools to teach in Tatar for six hours a week. The government followed the assault in February 2020, when they ordered school officials to halve the hours of optional lessons in Tatar from four hours a week to two.
Religion may now be the last bastion of Tatar culture. Mosques have begun teaching courses on Tatar language and culture, even switching their services from Russian to Tatar. Kamil Samigullin, the Chief Mufti of Tatarstan, noted that while religion is indeed separate from the state, it is tied to the soul of the Tatar people.
This synergy of Tatar culture and Islam is not new. In the 19th century, the Volga Tatars entered a cultural renaissance in which the elites embraced a trade-oriented version of Islam, creating a merchant class and intellectual movement similar to the Jewish Bund. The Tsars even sent these merchants out to the empire’s Muslim provinces to spread their interpretation of Islam. With this history, it is reasonable to expect a peaceful interaction between culture and faith in Tatarstan.
Moscow’s attack on ethnic minorities has been seen before; it has attempted forcible assimilation for centuries, stopping when it met local resistance. And the further centralization of the Russian center over the ethnic others by Putin fits with his psychology, given his fear of another fragmentation along ethnic lines like that of the Soviet Union. However, the center will only find instability, not security, if it continues pushing russification on Tatarstan and the other ethnic territories.
Image Source: TSAR Voyages