Cooperation and Shared History

April 28, 2010

“When the Tatars were in charge, they acted like monsters. They stole from the Russians.” A Russian friend said that to me while I was in Nizhny Novgorod visiting. The time of the Tatar Yoke—the three centuries preceding Ivan the Terrible’s 16th century conquest of the area that became Tatarstan—left an indelible mark upon the Russian psyche. For their part, Tatars remember the time of Ivan’s conquest as an age of forced conversion, destroyed mosques, and “Tatar suburbs”—areas akin to the ghettos of eastern Europe and the United States where Tatars were forced to live. These two ethnic groups have historically been adversaries, and their cultural memory shows it. But today they share space within Russia peacefully, a model of cultural accommodation. The vast majority of ethnic Russians are Orthodox Christians, culturally if not religiously; the Tatars are the largest Muslim ethnic group living within the Russian Federation.

Russia is not without violent conflict, with Islamic separatists in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia all occupying much of the Russian government’s attention. In this context it is remarkable how peaceful inter-ethnic relations between Tatars and Russians are. The popular imagination holds that Western societies cannot coexist with Islamic ones, and that when Islam encounters other religious or cultural ideologies—particularly Western or Christian ones— conflict inevitably follows. A poll in the 90’s asked Tatars and Russians about their attitudes towards each other, and the results of the poll showed that Tatars and Russians were actually highly favorably inclined towards each other. How then, do Tatars and Russians retain such good relations in the face of numerous historical reasons to be antagonistic? The answer is predictably complicated, and the reasons are difficult to separate from each other; but a combination of Soviet urban policy, open religious dialogue, continued economic prosperity, broad autonomy, and a local emphasis on shared cultural history and values keeps the peace between Russians and Tatars.

In 1910, only 182,653 people lived in Kazan, the capitol of what would become Tatarstan. Of these, only 30,486 were Tatar. One hundred years later, more than one million people live in Kazan, and a comfortable majority of those are ethnically Tatar. This follows the general pattern of Soviet demographics. During the eighty years of Soviet rule the entire USSR urbanized at an impressively quick pace. Tatarstan was no exception, and by the time the USSR fell apart the republic had changed from a rural to an urban, industrialized area. The transition from urban to rural was eased somewhat by the presence of the Jadids, Islamic reformers whose influence will be explained in greater depth below, but many of the normal effects of urbanization, combined with Soviet anti-religious policy, kept conflict to a minimum. Anti-religious persecution did not acknowledge creedal lines, so Muslims were repressed just as Christians were. As a result, a certain amount of solidarity emerged among religious Tatars and religious Christians. “A religious Orthodox Russian is closer to me than a non-religious Tatar.”

Atheist propaganda was not the most effective policy for dampening Tatar identity at any rate, since prior to their conception of themselves as “Tatar” the Tatars had seen themselves as “Muslim.” Gordon Hahn traces the beginnings of entrenched, self-conscious Tatar nationalism to the reforms of the Jadid movement, which had as its initial goal the improvement of education, but eventually went far further than that. The Jadids can be understood in the larger intellectual context of the Russian Empire at the time, as the decade they emerged in was a highly rationalist/modernizing one. They won an internal battle with the Qadimists, who were more traditional. Rorlich notes “the early Tatar reformers approached Islam not only as a religion but also as a culture that united the spiritual and temporal on a religious foundation.” Even as the Tatars embraced their own literary language in the 19th century, urbanized during the 20th century, and found themselves persecuted by the authorities for their religious beliefs, they did not give up the idea of Islam as fundamental to their national, Tatar identity. Indeed, Rorlich notes “the move toward a Tatar literary language was also perhaps the key point in the transition from a purely Islamic identity to a still-Islamic, but also national, Tatar identity.”

A final consequence of Soviet policy was the marginalization and elimination of internal dissent. In this sense, the Tatars and Tatarstan in particular were not much different from the rest of the USSR. During the Revolution the Bolshevik movement managed to arrest or cause the flight of many of the top nationalists/separatists in Tatarstan, which undoubtedly set back any sort of nationalist movement by decades, and also probably contributed to the generally peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims. With the loudest separatist voices gone and Christian and Muslim alike discriminated against by the Soviet regime, neither side could afford to indulge in petty conflict with the other. Instead of arraying themselves against Russian Christians, the Tatars directed their energy at the Communist Party. The local party, controlled by Sultan Galiev, was a constant irritant to the Soviet administration. Even in embracing Communism in Tatarstan, Galiev’s followers retained a distinctly Tatar, thus Muslim, identity, going so far as to release a statement decrying the proletariat of the revolution for failing to treat minority groups with equality.

Tatar leaders were able to keep a hold of their people’s identity, even in the face of increased Soviet pressure, and even attained for themselves a measure of autonomous control. However, the creation of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) didn’t solve all the post-revolution problems, since the boundaries of the ASSR were arbitrarily drawn, leaving a majority of Tatars residing outside the boundaries of the Republic. Indeed, the simultaneous creation of the Bashkir ASSR was an attempt to cripple the Tatar nationalist movement within the Soviet Union by stranding a large number of Tatars outside the boundaries of their own ASSR. Still, the creation of the ASSR, now the Republic of Tatarstan, gave the Tatars unprecedented control over their domestic affairs.
Current President of the Republic, Mintimer Shaimiev, took advantage of the reforms of Perestroika to secure for the region even more autonomy, so that at the height of its privileges, it functioned in a way analogous to Scotland in the United Kingdom. These powers have been scaled back in recent years due to the reforms of Vladimir Putin, but Tatarstan is still allowed a great deal of autonomy in conducting its affairs. One particularly important piece of autonomy that the Tatars have won for themselves is the right to use their language in official business in the Republic. The number of Tatar language schools in Tatarstan and the surrounding regions has grown by leaps and bounds over the past twenty years. Tatars enjoy a significant numerical advantage within their republic, but it isn’t so great that the desires of the Russian minority can be ignored. Additionally, the area of Tatarstan is very rich in natural resources, making it an industrial center within Russia. This continuous flow of capital has ensured that the region has stayed prosperous, particularly in comparison to the more isolated Islamic Republics within Russia.

The religious history of Tatarstan also has helped to ensure continuing peace in the region. The Tatars are the descendents of the Mongol Horde, and for several centuries after the Mongols swept across the face of Eurasia the Tatars enjoyed the upper hand in relations with the Russians. While the Tatars certainly were not entirely benevolent rulers, they did share the Mongol temperament towards differing religions; that is, religion was unimportant so long as the necessary tribute was paid on time. By the time the Russians turned the tables in the 16th century, religious tolerance was hardwired into the Tatar outlook. After initial attempts to force conversion upon Tatars and to marginalize them within their region, relations were normalized under Catherine the Great, and further liberalization occurred under Alexander II.

The Tatars adapted their faith to their context,

“The Shariah does not function in Russia, and Orthodox Christians comprise the majority of the population. Muslims should settle into this way of life… This country is no worse and no better than Muslim states, it is simply different. This is our fate and our destiny– to work out the experience of the true path in these conditions. We cannot be made a Saudi Arabia, and we can hardly become Christian Europe. We are as we are. The date tree does not grow on Russian soil.”—Rafael Khakimov.

This flexibility has allowed Russians and Tatars to live together in peace since the conquests of Ivan the Terrible. One notable example of the independence of Tatar Muslims was their attitudes towards prayer during the Soviet era. In a break with tradition, Tatar mullahs began to allow women into the mosques to pray with the men during services. This had a dual effect: it brought the Tatar community together, and it made the differences between Tatars and Russian Christians slightly less distinct. The mullahs are also flexible on the aspect of daily prayer. The whole program of religion among Tatars is more relaxed than elsewhere in the Muslim world, probably because of Soviet restrictions.

The relationship between Muslim and Christian clergy is, at the least, cordial. When the Kazan Kremlin was being restored and the Qol Sharrif mosque being rebuilt within the Kremlin walls, Patriarch of Russia Alexei returned to Kazan the most sacred copy of the city’s distinctive icon, the Kazan Mother of God. The Tatars saw this gesture as a deeply respectful acknowledgement of Tatarstan and Tatar culture on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the ceremony, the Patriarch emphasized the cooperation that Christian and Muslims within Russia were capable of, saying that such cooperation enabled the groups “to sustain peace in society, to cooperate in preventing moral foundations from being ruined, and to uphold traditional cultural values.” Indeed, Damir-khezrat Mukhetdinov, a Tatar Muslim leader in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, which borders Tatarstan, states that the relationship with the church is positive. The two groups share similar values between the Bible and the Qur’an; they have solidarity with each other. Gordon Hahn characterizes Tatarstan’s official clergy as slightly more conservative than the Tatar intelligentsia, but they are also financially dependent upon the government for funding.

Relations, however, are not perfect. Mukhetdinov notes that some of the younger Orthodox clergy members have emerged from seminary radicalized, and he also allows that every once in a while, one sees negative speeches about Tatars, for example. Overall, religious people—Russian and Tatar—are generally more tolerant of each other than non-religious people. He does not appreciate work done by the Orthodox Church to proselytize to Muslims, believing that the two religions should not be competing for converts, but rather competing to do good works. In November, a Tatar priest was killed after evening mass, presumably by a Muslim assailant. Father Danil Sysoyev was known for his anti-Muslim stance, and he openly encouraged Muslims to convert to Christianity. He was notorious for comparing Islam with the Communist Party and the Nazis. Muslim leaders condemned the killing, but at least one who preferred to remain anonymous allowed, “He was an odious figure.”

Sometimes the Russian government is the bull in the china shop, creating tension between groups. Mukhetdinov says that the Russian government does not see shades of grey, and he thinks that this is a bad stance for the government to take. The government’s deals depend solely on the situation immediately, not based on the future or long-term projections. The government is focused on now. “The government works as a firefighter only at the last possible moment, but they do not engage in any fire prevention. They only respond when things start to burn.” The deals that the government brokers are not “literate” to the situations.

While the Russian government has been helpful in allowing that Tatars—like other national minorities—teach their native language in state schools, this has not been an unqualified success. Ethnic Russians within Tatarstan are mostly monolingual since they are not encouraged to learn Tatar, meaning that if Tatars wish to do business or communicate with Russians, they must be bilingual. Further trouble arises when it comes time to teach history and culture in Tatarstan. The Russian government has made it mandatory that all children in state schools be given a course in Russian cultural history. By default, this has meant teaching of “Orthodox” culture, as this is considered to be a defining Russian cultural feature. Professor Vagapova says that this requirement would not bother most Tatars if a corresponding class on Russian Muslim culture was taught, but this is forbidden. From Vagapova’s point of view, Russia is multicultural, so this stance does not make sense. Islam is also part of Russian culture, so it is wrong to exclude it from the schools, particularly those schools in predominantly Muslim regions.

Another particularly awkward moment occurred when conservative Muslims in Tatarstan protested at the Christian symbols on their passports, and Muslim women demanded to be allowed to wear their headscarves while being photographed for their passports. Muslim authorities intervened in each case, assuring pious Muslims that it was permissible to carry around items with crosses on them so long as the crosses were not being worshipped, and obtaining the right for women to be photographed with their scarves on. Vagapova meets periodically with cultural and religious leaders in the Nizhny Novgorod region, but Mukhetdinov notes that these groups are few and far between in Russia. From his perspective, it is a shame that Russians are more knowledgeable of Americans and the English than of the minorities within their own country.

Still, Mukhetdinov notes that the serious problems between Tatars and Russians are in the past, and he views Tatar efforts to gain more control over Tatarstan positively. As we have seen, a variety of factors are at play in Tatar-Russian relations. Despite many historical reasons for antagonism and numerous small controversies in recent years, the inertia of cultural tolerance between Tatars and Russians has held strong. Buoyed by strong religious commitments to tolerance, broad economic freedom and prosperity for the Tatar minority, and a common Soviet foil, ethnic Russians and Tatars have been able to stay on good cultural terms with each other. Vagapova quoted an old Tatar saying when asked about the prospects of the future, “I’m not good if my neighbor feels bad.” Tatars and Russians have lived together in peace for a long time. Of course, all Tatars are different, and all Russians are different; but economics and politics connect them to each other.

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