Tatarstan as an Ethno-National Territory Must Serve as ‘a Noah’s Ark’ for All Middle Volga Peoples, Galeyev Says

Over the last few months an intense debate has taken place between two prominent Tatar historians, Damir Iskhakov and Alfrid Bustanov, with the former focusing on the centrality of the territory of Tatarstan for maintaining the Tatar nation and the latter arguing that Tatars must move beyond that Soviet framework and become “a post nation.”

Kamil Galeyev, a Tatar journalist studying in the United Kingdom, suggests that both have something to offer but argues that each fails to see the way in which Tatarstan as an ethno-national territory can serve not only to ensure the survival of the Tatars but, as “a Noah’s ark, also help the other nations of the Middle Volga do so as well.

While he does not use the term “Idel-Ural,” Galeyev’s argument is part of the tradition which views the six nations of the Middle Volga – the two Muslim Turkic (Tatar and Bashkir), the Christian Turks (the Chuvash), and the three Finno-Ugric peoples (Erzya, Moksha, Mari, and Udmurt) – as a collective whole that will sink or swim depending on how much they cooperate.

Before making his own proposals, Galeyev takes up the arguments of the other two. Bustanov, he suggests, presents a magnificent analysis but his practical recommendations are anything but convincing. The senior historian is correct in highlighting something many Tatars forget, the historical diversity of identities grouped under the name “Tatar.”

Moreover, Bustanov is correct in pointing out that “sovietization meant for the Tatars a civilizational catastrophe and a total downfall. For the second time after 1552, urban Tatar culture was destroyed physically along with its bearers,” and Tatar culture was reduced to a more primitive rural variant, one that was made even more primitive by the actions of the Soviet state.

“In short,” Galeyev says, “Soviet Tatar society was headless, in both its urban and rural parts,” an outcome that led to the accelerated assimilation of its more educated strata.  All that is correct and important to point out, but when Bustanov turns to practical recommendations, he falls short and the analysis of Iskhakov, his opponent, appears far more convincing.

Bustanov says nations are withering away and that the Tatars must become “a post-nation,” one not tied to a state formation. Both parts of that argument are wrong.  In Europe now, Galeyev says, “we are seeing the weakening of old imperial identities like ‘the British’ or ‘the Spanish’” but “at the same time, an enormous strengthening of regional identities, like the Scots or Catalan.”

And what is critical is that “these intensifying identities of ‘numerically smaller’ peoples have a territorial link.  It is impossible to overrate the importance of this factor.”  Neither they nor the Tatars would survive without a territorial dimension. Indeed, those beyond the republic’s borders are rapidly assimilating now. Eliminate the republic, and even more will.

“The Tatars lost a very great deal in the years of Soviet power,” Galeyev continues. “They lost their own intellectual elite both secular and religious. They lost to an enormous degree their old culture. [But] they received a certain compensation for their losses by acquiring their own statehood, the Republic of Tatarstan.”

It is “the only place on earth where an average Tatar conformist (and not the few passionate ones) can be socially successful while remaining a Tatar.” But that will only work well if the diversity of Tatar identity is recognized and restored and if the role of the republic is viewed more broadly than it typically is today.

“We must recognize that the Tatar people includes within itself not only a Turkic but a Finno-Ugric substrate” and, because that is so, we must “position Tatar statehood not as a purely Tatar ethno-state – here I absolutely agree with Bustanov that such a formulation is set to fail – but more broadly as a Turco-Finnic symbiosis, based on ancient traditions of cooperation.”

At least in one way, Tatarstan is already playing that role: between the 2002 and 2010 census, the number of Maris fell “in all regions of the Russian Federation” including Mari El itself “with the exception of Tatarstan” where their numbers went up. Thus, despite “the sad situation” of today, Tatarstan can become “our common Noah’s ark.”

That means that the republic must be maintained and defended but not as a narrowly Tatar project but rather as a place for all the peoples of the region.

Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

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