ALTERNATE NAMES: Tartars
LOCATION: Russian Federation
POPULATION: 6.6 million
RELIGIONS: Islam (Sunni Muslims, majority); Orthodox Christianity; Sufism; Old Believers; Protestantism; Judaism
There are many Turkic-speaking ethnic groups living throughout the Russian Federation. These diverse groups lie scattered from the Caucasus and Ural mountains to eastern Siberia, and include the Tatars, Chuvash, Bashkirs, Sakha, Tuvans, Karachai, Khakass, Altays, and others. This article focuses on the largest Turkic group in the Russian Federation, the Tatars.
Historically, the Tatars lived farther west than any other Turkic nationality. As Mongolian control over the Volga River region weakened during the 1430s and 1440s, several successor states emerged. During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Kazan khanate became the most prominent of these states, and its people became known as the Tatars. The Kazan Tatars were conquered by imperial Russian forces during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV in 1552, becoming the first Muslim subjects of the Russian Empire.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, the Tatars took advantage of the chaos and immediately formed their own home-land, the Idil-Ural State. The Soviet government, however, did not tolerate the independence movement and instead formed the Bashkir Autonomous Republic (Bashkortostan) and the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Tatarstan) on the same soil. When the Soviet government took over these regions, it redrew the boundaries and gave neighboring Russian provinces the best lands. By changing the boundaries, about 75 percent of the Tatar population found itself living outside the borders of Tatarstan.
In the 1920s, most Tatar leaders and intellectuals who wanted independence were eliminated through execution or exile. This policy against the Tatars continued to some extent until the early 1950s. Tatar culture was also affected until the 1970s through the policy of Russification, where the Russian language and culture were legally forced on the Tatars and other ethnic groups. During the Soviet era, economic hardship and job preference given to Russians in industrial areas caused many Tatars to leave their homeland.
In August 1990, the Tatar parliament declared Tatarstan's independent authority and in April 1991 declared that Tatar law had dominance over Russian law whenever the two were in conflict.
The Tatars are a very diverse group, both ethnically and geographically. The Tatars formed the second largest non-Slavic group (after the Uzbeks) in the former Soviet Union. There are more than 6.6 million Tatars, of whom about 26 percent live in Tatarstan, an ethnic homeland that is located within the Russian Federation. Tatarstan, with about 4 million inhabitants, is about the size of Ireland or Portugal. It is considered the most northern frontier between Muslim and Orthodox Christian cultures. The capital of Tatarstan is Kazan, a city of more than 1 million people and the largest port on the Volga River.
After Russians and Ukrainians, the Tatars are the most populous ethnic group in the Russian Federation. About 15 percent of all Tatars live in Bashkortostan, another ethnic homeland in the Russian Federation that lies just east of Tatarstan. There are also smaller Tatar populations in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and in the regions to the north and west of Tatarstan. Small Tatar communities are also scattered across Russia. A unique group of Tatars are the Krym (also called the Crimean Tatars), with a population of around 550,000. The Krym are from the Crimean peninsula of present-day Ukraine. The Tatars were one of the most urbanized or city-dwelling ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union, especially those who lived outside of Tatarstan.
In 922, the Tatars' predecessors, the Bulgars, converted to Islam, and the old Turkic script was replaced by the Arabic alphabet. A famous old Tatar saying is Kilächägem nurlï bulsïn öchen , utkännärdän härchak ut alam , which means "To make my future bright, I reach for the fire of the past." Another well-known Tatar proverb is Tuzga yazmagannï soiläme , which means, roughly, "If it's not written on salt, it's wrong to even mention it." The proverb refers to the ancient method of keeping records on plaques made of wood and salt, and commends the practicality of keeping written records.
A Tatar legend about the city of Kazan tells of a rich man who was a beekeeper and would often take along his daughter to visit his hives in the woods near Jilan-Tau ("snake hill"). When his daughter got married, she lived in an older part of Kazan, where it was a long walk to get water. She complained about the poor planning of the town to the khan (ruler), and suggested that Jilan-Tau would be a better place for the city, because it was close to a river. The khan ordered two nobles to take one hundered warriors to the site and to then open his sealed orders. According to the orders, they were to cast lots (draw straws) and bury the loser alive in the ground on the spot where the new city was to be built. However, when the khan's son lost, they buried a dog in his place. When the khan heard the news, he was happy for his son but said that it was a sign that the new city would one day be overtaken by the "unholy dogs"—a term referring to those of a different religion.
Most Tatars are Sunni Muslims, with the exception of the Kryashan Tatars, who are Christian. In Tatarstan, along with Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, there are some other religious communities such as Old Believers, Protestants, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, and Jews. Islam has played an important role in strengthening the Tatar culture, because the imperial Russian government repeatedly tried to limit the spread of Islam from the Tatars to other peoples. This approach, however, usually pushed Tatar Muslims closer to their faith, and there is generally a devout observance of rituals and ceremonies among Muslim Tatars.
Tatars typically observe some of the Sovietera holidays and also Muslim holidays which, to a large degree, are the same as those elsewhere in the Muslim world. The Soviet celebrations include New Year's Day (January 1), International Women's Day (March 8), Labor Day (May 1), and Victory Day (May 9—commemorates the end of World War II). Since the Tatars are widely scattered across Russia and Central Asia, different communities have regional holidays as well.
The Islamic holidays include Milad al-Nabi (the birth of the Prophet Muhammad), Eid al-Adha (celebrating the story of Abraham offering his son for sacrifice), and Eid al-Fitr (celebrating of the end of the Ramadan month-long fast). The dates of these holidays vary due to the rotating nature of the lunar calendar. The Kryashan Tatars celebrate Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas.
Circumcision and other rituals associated with birth, as well as those associated with death and marriage, and even certain Muslim dietary restrictions, are practiced by many Tatars today.
For centuries, there was tension between ethnic Russians and Tatars. As a result, the Tatars suffered from discrimination, which affected how they came to interact with Russian society. The Tatars of today typically live in small communities and often rely on a network of friends and business contacts from within the Tatar community.
Living conditions are similar to those of neighboring populations (Russians, Bashkirs, and Ukrainians). Tatar houses are often surrounded by low fences to keep in their animals.
Tatars often encourage endogamy (marriage to other Tatars) out of the belief that it will help keep the Tatar identity from being lost. Family size is usually larger than that of neighboring populations and is often an extended family of three or more generations.
Tatars, as one of the most urbanized minorities, wear Western-style clothing, and occasionally, mostly in rural areas, include fragments of traditional clothing such as the headscarf for women and skullcaps for men.
Lamb and rice play a prominent role in the traditional Tatar diet, as in those of many other central Asian peoples. The Tatars are known in particular for their wide array of pastries, especially their meat pies, which, besides beef or lamb and onions, may include ingredients such as hard-boiled eggs, rice, and raisins. Another traditional dish is chebureki , or deep-fried lamb dumplings. A recipe for the basic Tatar meat pie called peremech is included in this article.
During the Soviet era, the required Russian language exam served to keep many Tatar youths out of institutions of higher learning.
It is believed that Tatar prose dates back to the twelfth century, but scholars disagree about its origin. During the early part of the Soviet era and immediately after World War II (1939–45), Tatar literature was largely confined to praising communist ideology. Since the 1960s, however, Tatar literature has often emphasized the role of the artist in voicing the ideals of the Tatar people.
Traditional occupations of the Tatars include agriculture, hunting, fishing, crafts, and trade. Under Soviet rule, many jobs were in state-run agricultural and industrial collectives. The Tatars have held an increasing number of white-collar and professional jobs since World War II.
The Tatars enjoy many traditional and Western-style sports. Soccer became popular during the Soviet years and is perhaps the most widely played sport among young men. Horse racing is also very popular, as the horse has long been an important part of traditional Tatar culture.
Tatars enjoy many of the same leisure-time activities as neighboring populations in the former Soviet Union, such as watching television and visiting with friends and neighbors. Prominent among the traditional entertainments in rural areas is the week-long Festival of the Plow, or Sabantui, held in spring, which ends with a day of singing, dancing, and sporting events.
The ancestors of the modern Tatars were skilled in crafting jewelry of gold, silver, bronze, and copper. They also were known for making pottery with engraved ornaments, as well as for crafting metal decorations and bronze locks in the shape of animals.
The Tatars in general suffered discrimination under the imperial Russian government, as well as during the Soviet era. Large deportations of Tatars fragmented the culture, and the loss of lives and property from those days still has an impact on modern Tatar society.
Problems with Crimean Tatars are much more complicated because of forced deportation from their homeland in the Crimean peninsula. Now that almost half of the Crimean Tatars have returned from Central Asia, they are facing problems with employment, housing, and schooling.
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