Identification. The Kriashens are an ethnic group inhabiting the middle Volga region in the extreme eastern part of European Russia. Because they ceased being recognized as a distinct nationality by the Soviet authorities after 1930, there is no administratively defined Kriashen ethnic territory.
Location. The Kriashen settlements are located in the Kama Basin of the Tatar Republic, in the Bashkir and Chuvash republics, and in the Cheliabinsk and Kuibyshev oblasts of the Russian Republic. Kriashen villages have tended to be in the forest-steppe zone or in the steppe zone itself. The climate in the Kriashen ethnic territory is Continental, with long cold winters and hot dry summers. The growing season is from late April or early May until mid-September.
Demography. In 1910 the Kriashens numbered 122,000. No demographic information on the Kriashens has been published since the Soviet census of 1926, according to which they numbered nearly 100,000. Bennigsen and Wimbush (1986, 234) estimate the current Kriashen population to be at most 250,000. The Kriashens fall into three culturally distinct subgroups. The largest of these is the Kama Basin subgroup, which chiefly inhabits the Tatar and Bashkir republics. The second is the Nagaibak subgroup, which inhabits Cheliabinsk Oblast and which numbered approximately 6,000 at the end of the nineteenth century. The third subgroup, the Molkeevsk Kriashens, inhabit the Chuvash Republic. They speak a Mishär Tatar dialect and are integrated into Chuvash society. At the end of the nineteenth century the Kriashens were 98 percent rural dwellers, inhabiting their own Kriashen villages. Information on the contemporary degree of urbanization of Kriashens is not available.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Kriashens speak differing dialects of the Volga Tatar language, which is part of the Kipchak Branch of the Turkic Language Family. These dialects differ considerably from one another but are all mutually intelligible and are distinguished mainly by phonetic and lexical peculiarities. The languages most closely related to Volga Tatar are Bashkir and West Siberian Tatar. The Kriashens use the Kazan dialect of Volga Tatar and Russian as their literary languages. Before 1930, however, there were attempts to create and employ a Kriashen literary language. At the very end of the nineteenth century various religious texts were published by the Russian Orthodox church in a modified Cyrillic script. From 1927 until 1929 a Kriashen newspaper was published in Kazan.
History and Cultural Relations. The history of the Kriashens as such begins with Ivan IV of Muscovy's conquest of the Islamic Kazan Khanate in 1552. The incorporation of large non-Orthodox populations into the Muscovite state resulted in the attempt by that state and ecclesiastical authorities to Christianize the Muslim and animist communities of the former Kazan Khanate. Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, employing financial and more coercive incentives, the Muscovites managed to effect nominal conversions of Islamic Tatars and various animist Chuvash and Finnic groups. Indeed, Nagaibak tradition tells of their forced conversion by Ivan IV. Presumably, the level of Islamicization in these Tatar communities was quite low. These converts formed the basis of the first Kriashen communities and are referred to in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Russian sources as "Novokreshchenye" (new converts). These communities considered themselves distinct from the Islamic Tatars; the Kriashens gradually became known in Russian sources as "Starokreshchenye" (old converts). Those Tatars who converted after 1740 failed either to integrate into Kriashen society or to form their own communities; as a result, these Novokreshchenye became Russified or apostatized. Before the early eighteenth century the Kriashens were listed in Russian tax registers as iasachnye liudi (payers of iasak, "tribute"). The imposition of enserfment, which immobilized the Kriashen peasantry and imposed taxation upon them, resulted in the flight of Kriashen and other peasants to the Bashkir and Kazakh steppes, where state control was more tenuous. The Kriashen serfs were emancipated in 1861, as were all serfs in the Russian Empire. There is little information on the Kriashen peasantry during the Soviet period. After 1930 the Soviet authorities tended to determine nationality according to linguistic, rather than religious, affiliation.
The very existence of a distinct Kriashen culture has been predicated on their separateness from Islamic Tatar culture at large. In the middle Volga region religious practices have been the criteria for communal distinctions, not only among the Tatars, but among the region's Finnic and Chuvash populations as well, even to the present. Furthermore, in the nineteenth century some Kriashen communities used religious practices as the basis for distinguishing their community from other Kriashen settlements. As a result of the isolation of Kriashen communities from one another, Kriashens maintained close relations with neighboring villages and marriages between Kriashens and Chuvash were especially common. Islamic mullahs or Russian priests were also frequently invited to officiate at Kriashen religious rituals.