An intense debate has broken out among the Volga Tatars that is likely to spread to other non-Russians now within the borders of the Russian Federation: should they or even can they reject the Soviet nation-building project that helped give them their current form as they seek a continuing role for themselves in the future?
The debate was joined by Alfrid Bustanov, 31, a Siberian Tatar from Omsk who now teaches at the University of Amsterdam. In Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, he makes three interrelated and highly provocative arguments about the Kazan Tatars, their past, present and future (Business Online, August 18, 2019).
First, he says, the Tatar nation in its current form was created by the Soviets. A Tatar culture existed before that time, but the Tatar nation took shape as a result of the actions of the Bolsheviks, a project that significantly and tragically transformed and distorted that more vibrant and diverse culture in favor of a one-size-fits-all Soviet paradigm.
Second, Bustanov maintains, “if pre-Soviet Tatar culture was by definition urban even if its bearers lived in rural areas, then Soviet culture was the culture of the village in the city with its songs, folklore, language and mentality,” a shift that threw the Tatars back centuries and kept them from becoming a modern people.
And third, he argues, the Tatars today are entering into a post-national world in which ethnic divisions of the kind the Soviets imposed are not only less significant but fated to pass away or at least become less important, a process that Tatars must recognize and decide how to respond to if they are going to integrate themselves int the modern world.
For all these reasons, the Amsterdam-based scholars says, “the future of the Tatar people (as by the way of the other peoples of the former [Soviet] Union) can be connected only with the appearance of new alternative conceptions, which are not connected with the Soviet project.”
The basis for that conclusion is “very simple: that empire which created and supported these nationalisms no longer exists. One of the ways out of the current crisis could be a real rejection of the Soviet conceptions of the nation and perhaps of the idea of the nation in general.”
Not surprisingly, all three of these ideas and the especially the suggestion that the Tatars emerged as a nation only under the Soviets and are now fated to disappear have infuriated many in Tatarstan and more generally. Damir Iskhakov in an even larger Business-Gazeta article rejects all of them and the ideas behind them (Business Online, September 1, 2019).
First, the senior Tatar historian argues that the Tatar nation existed long before the Soviets appeared and will exist far after they have ceased to exist. The Soviet period is part of its history and should be examined with the good accepted and the bad rejected but should not be made as central to Tatar nationhood as Bustanov does.
Second, he says Bustanov’s argument about the relationship of urban and rural populations in pre-Soviet times and Soviet ones is simply ahistorical, that is, wrong. Pre-Soviet Tatars were predominantly rural and while connected to the world via Islam were not the urban civilization Bustanov seems to believe.
Moreover, even if the Soviets sought to reduce the Tatar nation to rural practices, they also created the infrastructure that helped them become more urban and more connected with the world than they were before, albeit in different ways and with an ideological definition that needs to be examined and rejected. But the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater.
And third, while the world is growing more interconnected, the role of national identities is strengthening rather than weakening. Iskhakov doesn’t use the term here, but what he is referring to is the process of glocalization that head-long globalization has been generating in response.
It is thus far too soon to declare that “the end of the Tatar nation” is approaching or that everything that was achieved under the Soviets should be rejected, the Kazan historian concludes. But the debate has now been joined and will intensify given the attacks on the Tatar nation coming from those in Moscow who do not want a distinctive Tatar culture to survive.
Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia