The Volga Tatars under Russian domination

Essay, 2001

12 Pages, Grade: 1.7 (A-)


Assess the extent to which Russian domination has damaged the Volga Tatars and comment the extent of their success in re-building their nation.

In 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the Tatar ASSR declared the sovereignty of the Tatar state. Since then the political leaders of Tatarstan have pursued a self-conscious, but moderate national policy within the Russian Federation that has become a leading example for many other national republics. A constitutional guarantee of the sovereignty by the RF as envisaged by Tatarstan would officially bring to an end some 450 years of Russian domination of the Tatars and their country: a situation that could at best be compared with first attempts of independent statehood that followed the Revolution. Is this, then, the story of a nation that at last is peacefully liberating itself from the Russian yoke that for centuries had threatened to bring indigenous national integrity to its knees? How severe was the damage done to the Volga Tatars, and has it been repaired? To answer these questions, I shall first of all consider two early phases of independent statehood and thereby come to a general understanding of the term "Volga Tatars" for this essay. Secondly, I shall distinguish several phases of Russian domination and discuss their respective effects on the Volga Tatars. Special attention will be devoted to the Soviet period, so that finally an assessment of the national efforts in the 1990s can be made.

The kingdom of the Kama-Bulgars and the Khanate of Kazan are closely linked to the Volga Tatars' national claims today: they are seen as the cradle of the Volga Tatar nation which as such has remained the same to the present day.[1] The Tatars' "myth of common descent"[2] relating to these states is stressed by the fact that they have some aspects that are similar to contemporary Tatarstan: the geographical location along the Volga with Kazan as capital, the Turkic ethnicity of large parts of the population including the ruling elite, and Sunni Islam as the dominant or official religion.

However, the idea of a national identification of the Tatars and the existence of a Volga Tatar nation (seen here as a socio-cultural unit claiming the "right to political identity and autonomy as a people"[3] ) has to be questioned for this early stage in history. The above mentioned states were far from being ethnically or linguistically homogenous as different Turkic and Finnish tribes populated the region.[4] Assimilation and intermarriage - also with Slavs - do not only undermine the ethno-national idea today that a Volga Tatar is Turkic, but particularly at the time in question these must have reduced the ethnic component of a corporate identification to a minimum, thereby leaving room for the other vertical bonds of common religion and language.[5] But these bonds linked rather sub-national (local or tribal cults and dialects) or supra-national (the 'umma of Islam) groups of people than the nation; and there were also strong horizontal identifications (class, profession) that did not add to the vertical ones, but competed with them. In short, the Volga Tatars (or their "ancestors") cannot be regarded as a nation before the Russian invasion and for a long time afterwards. When I now turn to the discussion of the effects that Russian domination had on the inhabitants of the conquered Khanate of Kazan and their descendants, I shall use the term "Volga Tatars" in a wider sense: I will regard them as a "nation in the making", i.e. those people with different ethnic, linguistic, religious, even geographical (due to migration) origins who gradually merged into the Volga Tatar nation. Since this nation defines itself today as mainly Muslim and Turkic (both in ethnicity and language), these aspects can be seen as the core features that became dominant over time. As I will argue, this was due to a process in which the several phases of the "Russian yoke" probably played the most important role.

The first phase[6] of Russian domination of the Volga Tatars began in 1552 when Ivan IV conquered Kazan. Until the 1560s the aim of establishing of Muscovite rule was pursued by means of coercion. Apart from the men in arms that were killed during and shortly after warfare, Russian violence was directed against two main targets: the official religion of the Khanate, and its urban population. Mosques were destroyed, churches built in their place, and the citizens of Kazan were expelled to the countryside. Although this certainly damaged the Volga Tatars' economic and cultural life, it also had the effect that Islam was carried into the rural areas and was spread among the mainly animist peasants. Further damage was done to the integrity of the Volga Tatars as the tribe of the Teptiars fled eastward and settled among the Bashkirs: it remained a Turkic sub-group distinct from both Bashkirs and Volga Tatars until the present day.[7]


[1] GÖTZ/HALBACH, p. 306. The rising interest of Volga Tatar intellectuals in the Kama-Bulgars is described by RORLICH, p. 75.

[2] SMITH (1988), p. 9.

[3] HASTINGS, p. 3.


[5] LANDA, pp. 35f.



Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Volga Tatars under Russian domination
University of Leeds  (POLIS)
1.7 (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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427 KB
Volga, Tatars, Russian, Russland, Wolga Tataren
Quote paper
Christopher Selbach (Author), 2001, The Volga Tatars under Russian domination, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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