Origins of a Non-Conflict: Rough Draft

May 17, 2010

This is a rough draft of the first chapter of my dissertation. As such, it kind of… leaves off a whole chunk I’m not confident enough to actually write about yet. Still, I think there’s some interesting stuff in here, so enjoy if you want.


The Volga Tatars and Russians have a long co-history, and they share prominent places in each other’s national psyche. No attempt to understand the current peaceful relations between the two groups would be possible without first understanding their history. In many ways, it is a story that could have all too easily led to long simmering hatred and conflict. This is a story of conquest, forced conversion, land grabs, and repression– on both sides. The peace in Tatarstan is made even more remarkable for the fact that within Russia’s borders there are areas that are emphatically not at peace. Chechnya, Inigushetia, and Dagestan are frequently in the Russian news because of fresh violence and conflict. This chapter will outline the various ways that Russian and Islamic relations have seemed ripe for conflict, the ways that Dagestan, Chechnya, and Inigushetia and Tatarstan differ, and the impacts on collective psyche that Russian and Tatar actions have had upon one another.

Russia and Islam have been intertwined since the founding of Kievan Rus, indeed when founding the state one of Vladimir’s first real decisions of import was his choice of state religion. In the course of his deliberations he considered Islam, but ultimately rejected it because of the prohibition of alcohol consumption. His ultimate choice of Orthodox Christianity shaped Russia in ways Vladimir probably could not have conceived of. From the beginning, Russians were aware of their surroundings, then. They knew of neighboring religions and tribes, and Kievan Rus lasted for a long while as a strong trading power in Eastern Europe. The coming of the Mongols changed that rubric and threw Russian self-conception into question.

Shireen Hunter explains that Russian culture tends to have a siege mentality. It is them against the world. In some respects this is correct. Excluding the fact of weather, the Russian heartland is very easy to invade. The invasion of the Mongols served as a decisive breaking point, “a point of no return in the branching of the Russian people into Belorussians in the east, Ukrainians in the southwest, and the Great Russians in the northeast,” because the ensuing weakness of Russian institutions was taken advantage of by Lithuanians and Poles. The broad Russian plains rendered the land vulnerable to the Mongol style of conquest, and vast swathes of the countryside were taken by the invaders. Today Some Russians consider that the conquests of the Mongols in the Russian heartland blunted the Mongol army making it possible for the rest of continental Europe to turn the Horde away.

Often lost in the story of the “Tatar Yoke” is the fact that the Tatars themselves suffered conquest at the hands of the Mongol Horde. The Tatars did not exist as they currently conceive of themselves. When the Mongols moved through in 1228 the Tatars existed as a group called the Bulgars. The annihilation of their state spurred the Bulgars to move up the river towards the confluence of the Kazanka and the Volga, site of present day Kazan. At this time the Mongols had not yet converted to Islam; that came in the middle of the 13th century, but the Bulgars were already Muslim. It was at this point that things conspired to fix the image of the Tatar as the aggressive “other” in the mind of ethnic Russia.

In the conquered Russian territory the Mongols took the same approach to governance as they did elsewhere; regional powers were delegated and groups were generally allowed a large degree of latitude in the execution of their affairs. So long as “efficient support of the complex state bureaucracy and the army through taxes” was accomplished the Khans of the Golden Horde cared little for the personal lives and beliefs of their subjects. Likely because they were already Muslim the Bulgar/Tatars were chosen to administrate the region also occupied by the Russians; at this point they were essentially the taxmen of the Khans, and it is not for nothing that taxmen are nearly universally scorned in history. This is the point at which the Tatars became identified as the oppressor by the Russians.

The Tatar administration of the authority of the Golden Horde had the effect of entrenching the idea of Islamic culture as the “other.” This led, in turn, to the creation of a solidly “Russian” culture in opposition, centered around Orthodoxy. “The process of collective, including national, identity formation entails the need for communities not only to determine who they are and what they value, but also to decide who they are not and what they do not value.” This process is at work in most societies applies to both the Russians and to the Tatars. Particularly nationalist Russians may identify the fate of the Orthodox church with the fate of Russia and see Moscow as the “Third Rome.” This view is particularly durable, and has persisted despite four hundred years of imperial expansion and dilution of a “perfect Russia” with other ethnic groups and religions. Hunter quotes Samuel Huntington as saying, “We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.”

It was in this interaction– as the conquered– that the Russians became truly Russian, doubling down on Orthodoxy. 1445 marked the height of Kazan/Tatarstan’s control over Russia. Russia at this time was nowhere near the imperial power it would later become, and at this point was roundly beaten by the Tatars, who captured their Tsar and ransomed him. These setbacks had the effect of convincing an already pious Russian hierarchy that they were being subjected to divine refining. Well before the conquest of Kazan the Tatar Yoke was explained by Russians in an Old Testament fashion: as punishment for collective sin. Russia took on an Israeli character in this reading, the Russians an exiled but still faithful remnant who would be restored. This growing religious conviction among Russians coincided with a reversal of position between the two powers. From the high point of 1445 things deteriorated fairly quickly for the Tatars, and the rest of the 1400s were a period of decline for the Kazan Khanate.

Ravil Bukharaev sees the failure of Islam and the political structures to change of the Astrakhan/Kazan khanates as the primary reasons for their failure and subsequent conquest by the Russians. Whereas Christianity was a dynamic faith at the time, with many competing ideologies, Islam stagnated. By 1480, the Kazan Khanate had been sufficiently weakened that the leadership of Moscow felt confident enough to stop paying tribute to their nominal rulers. By the end of the century it was clear that the tables had turned, and was perhaps surprising that it took Russian rulers more than half the century to expand and conquer the Tatars.

The period immediately before the Russian conquest of Kazan saw a concentrated program of propaganda not unlike that used during the Crusades employed by the secular and religious leaders of Russia. Russian historians of the time take a uniformly dim view of the moral standing of the Kazan Tatars, accusing them of all manner of atrocities against the consciences of the ethnic Russians “trapped” in Kazan and Tatarstan. Some of this propaganda remains in the Russian popular imagination today, as a friend in Nizhny Novgorod once explained to me that, “When the Tatars were in charge, they acted like monsters. They stole from the Russians.” Kazan was seen as the “lair” from which anti-Christian religions launched their attacks upon ordinary Russians. In the view of many within the church at the time, this made the city a target. Only the conquest of Kazan would make Russia safe and Christian. Obviously this conflation of the Church and the state is nothing new (or old, in fact), and many, many clergy members actively politicked within the Russian court to get rid of Muslim influence in Kazan.

Jaroslaw Pelenski’s book, Russia and Kazan: Conquest and Imperial Ideology, is a particularly useful resource when considering this period in Russian-Tatar relations. Russian writers engaged in an absolutely massive reframing of every issue. When it suited them, disputes were couched in religious terms; when religious rhetoric was inappropriate, they refrained. In examining the records on the subject, Pelenski notes that most observers say that the relations were “unaffected by national and religious hostilities.” Pelenski rightly notes that if this were completely true they probably would not have fought at all, which plainly did happen. He does not, however, push back significantly against this assertion on the part of the primary sources except to say that one former Tatar leader was “probably” executed in Moscow for refusing to convert to Christianity.

In 1502 the Ivan III decided that the puppet ruler he had installed on the Kazan throne was no longer serving his best interests and had him replaced by the man he had originally usurped. From 1480, when Ivan III stopped paying tribute to the Tatars up until 1552 when Ivan IV conquered Kazan the Khanate went through a succession of bewildering power struggles, with rulers enthroned and deposed seemingly at random. Behind more of these moves was the Russian monarchy, which was by and large abetted by the Russian church. During this period the Russians lacked the military strength to attack and subdue the Kazan Khanate, but they possessed enough political and economic clout to exercise a significant amount of control over domestic events in Kazan and Tatarstan. Negotiations with the Tatars led to Moscow pulling it’s commercial interests out of Kazan and moving them to Nizhny Novgorod. This had the effect of weakening the Tatar state since it was heavily dependent upon trade, and it created Nizhny Novgorod as a regional power– letting it be the city it is today.

Almost immediately after his coronation in 1447 Ivan IV began his wars against the Tatars. Ivan IV connected his conquest of Kazan to explicitly Vladimir’s Christianization of Rus, demonstrating that as the primary aggressor in this fight he saw his role in a religious light. It is difficult to overemphasize the influence of the Russian clergy at this point in the story, as nearly every royal proclamation regarding Kazan and the Tatars had, at the very least, a Biblical allusion, if not an outright quotation or co-optation in order to serve the interests of the Russians. But it is important, however, not to fundamentalize this period of activity. It would be dangerous to assume that this episode was solely due to inflamed religious passion. Kazan was, after all, strategically located. Securing it would give the Russians control over more of the Volga, putting them in a stronger economic position relative their neighbors. Additionally, it is possible that some in Russia saw Ukraine, most importantly Kiev, as coming under the influence of foreign powers, specifically of the Catholic church. They saw, then, the need for Moscow to take Kiev’s place, and for Ivan to take the place that Vladimir had all those years ago, Christianizing the area. This helps to explain his conquesting, particularly in Kazan.

In 1552 the Russians finally captured Kazan, having fought a concentrated campaign for most of the year to achieve victory. This signaled the end of Tatar independence, and from then on they were to be subjects within the border of an imperial Russia, Ivan IV having established the the patterns of Russian rule over its Muslim subjects for the next four and a half centuries. Both Moscow and Kazan hold lasting monuments to this conquest, with St. Basil’s in the Red Square of Moscow being built to commemorate Ivan’s victory, and the buildings of Kazan’s kremlin rebuilt to reflect Russian sensibilities. Between 66,000 and 100,000 Russians– by default, “Christians”– were “liberated” from Kazanian hands during the course of the conquest. Providing for their safety had been another motivation for the fighting, at least outwardly.

The period directly after Russian conquest was not exactly easy for the Tatars. Modern day Kazan boasts a beautiful canal running through the city near the Kremlin. Today this canal is a quaint, romantic walk near the bustling economic heart of the city. Its construction, however, was akin to the “Peace Walls” of Belfast, with the canal signifying the line between the area the Russians lives and the “Tatar suburbs.” From the beginning, despite Imperial pro-Orthodox/Russian policy and rhetoric, the Tatars and the Russians enjoyed a good deal of cooperation after the Russian conquest, at least among the elites. Before too long Tatar elites had assumed fairly powerful roles within Russian society. The attitude towards common Tatars was considerably less magnanimous, though. Some were even deported, to the north to work on Russia’s naval fleet.

The Russians made a concerted effort to convert and Christianize the Tatars. Those who did convert were called Kryashen, and over time came to be seen as an entirely different people group within the region. Still, though, the Tatars did not convert en masse. Bukharaev thinks that part of the reason Kazanians did not convert is that they had no real economic or political incentive to do so. Russians were given the most important jobs in the region regardless, and those jobs that were made available to the Tatar elite were available regardless of religion. Over the course of the next two centuries things remained difficult for the Tatars. Catherine the Great eased the restrictions on the Tatars somewhat, and even allowed an assembly to form with jurisdiction over religious and civil matters. Things weren’t perfect, and even after the emancipation of serfs, some Tatars chose to emigrate to Turkey rather than stay in Russia.

Widening our focus further to the south of Russian territory muddies the picture considerably. For one thing, Alexander Bennigsen and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay are at pains to demonstrate that Islam in Russia was hardly a unified thing. The different nationalities didn’t think of themselves as unified in any real way. There was even a slight hierarchy of Islam among the truly faithful groups (Tatars, Bashkirs, etc.) and the slightly newer converts who tempered their Islam with traditional beliefs (Balkars, Kirghiz, Kazakhs, etc.). This absence of pan-Islamic identity in Imperial-, and subsequently Soviet-, Russia doesn’t mean that individual nationalities didn’t have strong identities. It did lessen their ability to leverage their numbers to their benefit, though. The Russians were able to use this disunity to their advantage as their Empire expanded over the years. The Russian hierarchy took the conquest of Kazan as a sign of divine favor and used it as justification to continue to subdue Islamic territories adjacent to its ever expanding empire.

Despite the fact that it has been nearly five centuries since the conquest of Kazan by the Russians, it is the Russians who seem to bear the most bitterness about their past history. The years of the “Tatar Yoke” are considered to have three major consequences by most Russians:

(1) “the Mongol invasion and later Mongol-Tatar dominion sapped Russia’s energies and greatly contributed to its backwardness; (2) Mongol-Tatar domination severed Russia from the West for centuries, thus preventing the country from benefiting from the scientific and economic changes that transformed Europe from the time of the Renaissance onward; and (3) Russia inherited the dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies of the Mongols, and, therefore, democracy did not flourish in Russia.”

Meanwhile, my discussions with Tatars in the Nizhny Novgorod region seem to indicate that the greatest and most painful memory of their shared past is the forced conversions that created the Kryashen. This is seen by the Tatars as a splitting of their nationality, and as such they are no longer complete.

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