Alternative names: Volga Tatars (Kazan, Astrakhan, Kasymov and Mishari), Crimean Tatars, Siberian Tatars, Lithuanian Tatars, Kryashen
Location: Tataria (West Central USSR); other parts of USSR (especially Central Asia, Kazakhstan, south-west Siberia), Eastern Europe, Turkey, China
Population: 6.3 million (USSR census 1979), 6.7 million (est. 1989)
% of population: 2.4% (1979), 2.3% (est. 1989)
Religion: Sunni Muslim, Orthodox Christianity (minority)
Language: Tatar, Crimean Tatar, Russian

The Tatars are by far the largest national minority in the USSR not to have its own Union Republic, being the sixth largest grouping in the USSR (thus being more numerous than nine peoples having their own SSR). In practice, all Union Republics share borders with foreign countries whereas Tataria (on the Middle Volga) is surrounded by Russian territory and could not secede from the USSR. Moreover, only 26% of Tatars live in the Tatar Autonomous Republic where they constitute under half of the population, the other 74% being dispersed throughout the USSR.

In fact, it is wrong to refer to a single Tatar people for the various groups on the Volga, in the Crimea, Siberia and Lithuania, have developed quite separately since the fourteenth century and retain only the most tenuous of links with one another. To add to the confusion, all Turkic peoples in European Russia until recently were referred to as Tatars (for example, many Armenians still call the Azerbaidjanis Azeri Tatars).

History and background

All Tatars in the USSR are remnants of the Golden Horde, the Turkic tribes led by the Mongols under Batu Khan that subjugated Russia from 1237 in an empire that stretched from the Polish to the Chinese borders and from the Black Sea to Siberia. The ending of the Mongol-Tatar yoke in 1480 and the fall of the two great Tatar khanates of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556) to Ivan IV reversed 300 years of oppression, although the separate Crimean Khanate retained a measure of independence until 1783.

Empress Catherine II regarded Islam (to which the Tatars had been converted in the fourteenth century) a reasonable religion and much better suited than Orthodox Christianity to the task of civilizing her Asian realms. The Volga Tatars were to become the undisputed leaders of Russian Islam and from then on played a crucial role in the development of the Empire’s more backward regions. This led to the emergence of a prosperous Tatar merchant class, a high rate of urbanization and assimilation and a mobilized diaspora throughout the Empire. After fierce fighting in the Russian Civil War, Soviet power was finally consolidated in Tataria and the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed in 1920.

Constitution and law

The Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (population 3.6 million in 1989) is a constituent part of the RSFSR, which belongs to the USSR federation. In theory, the Soviet Constitution of 1977 allows Tataria to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court). However, in practice, control is exercised through the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union through its Republican branch. As an autonomous republic, Tataria elects four deputies to the Council of Nationalities (whereas Estonia as a Union Republic elects 11) and has a tiny proportion (usually two or three) of the 146 deputies elected in the RSFSR to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities are equal is severely compromised by the domination of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, economic and social norms. Thus, the 74% of Tatars that live outside Tataria do not have the same provision, in terms of schools and publications in their native language, as the Russians (although the latter would argue that Russian is the lingua franca of all Soviet peoples).

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

The Volga Tatars are one of the three main “target” groups of Soviet Muslims (the others being the Uzbeks and Azerbaidjanis). They dominate the European and Siberian spiritual directorate (one of four in the USSR) based at Ufa, in the neighbouring republic of Bashkiria. In August 1989 they celebrated in this city the 1,100 years since the conversion of the Volga Bulgars to Islam.

Dispersed throughout Central Asia, Siberia and the Lower Volga, the Tatars are highly urbanized. As a result they have a much lower birthrate than other Muslim nations in the USSR (between 1970 and 1979 it was 6.5%, the same as the Russians). The high degree of assimilation is shown by the fact that 69% of Tatars are fluent in Russian (compared with 49.8% Ukrainians and 26.7% Georgians) and 82% speak it well (compared with 49.3% Uzbeks and 25.4% Turkmen). The Tatars’ apparent readiness to accept Russian culture has been rewarded in that they have the highest per capita membership of the CPSU amongst all major Turkic groups (2% of the Party in 1982). By contrast, the 150,000 Siberian Tatars (descendants of the so-called White Horde and also called the Tobolsk, Chulimsk and Barabas Tatars) are predominantly rural, culturally isolated and shamanistic.

Having been instrumental in spreading Islam throughout the Russian Empire (even among the predominantly Christian Mordvinians, Udmurts and Chuvash), the Tatars have been overtaken numerically and in influence by the Uzbeks. The lack of unified homeland has hampered the Tatars in articulating demands for autonomy and self-determination, although the resurgence of Islam has had a considerable impact. Ecological issues have also been a source of discontent and in 1989 there were mass demonstrations on the banks of the Kama River in Tataria to protest at the construction of a nuclear power station at Kamskiye Polyany.

Migration and diaspora

Surprisingly, the Tatars constitute the second largest nationality in the RSFSR (five million or 3.6% in 1979) concentrated mostly in Tataria (1.6 million or 26%) and Bashkiria (940,000 or 15%). A further 1.2 million (18.3%) reside in Kazakhstan and Central Asia and there are small communities in Azerbaidjan (31,000), Lithuania (5,000) and every major city in the USSR.

Tatar minorities

The long exposure to Slavic culture inevitably led to a proportion of Tatars becoming Orthodox Christians. It is estimated that about quarter of a million (4%) Tatars are Kryashens (or Christian Tatars).

(See also Deported Nationalities; Other Muslim Peoples

1 Target groups are those with which other groups tend to identify and look to for initiatives.