Staunton, October 15 – As they have done every October for more than 20 years, Kazan Tatars marked the anniversary of Ivan Grozny’s sacking of their city in 1552, but this year there were two major departures from past practice, each of which points to a very different trajectory for nationalism in the Middle Volga in the future.
On the one hand, and in a move that angered the organizers of the Days of Memory and Grief, officials in the government of the Republic of Tatarstan refused to allow the meeting to take place in the Kazan kremlin as it had in the past but instead forced them to hold it in what some of them described as “a ghetto.”
Since the late 1980s, Tatar nationalism, even when it has been denounced by Tatar officials as extremist, has remained relatively moderate precisely because the authorities in Kazan have been relatively supportive. The shift in the position of the latter appears almost certainly will lead to a more radical response by the latter.
In the past, such radicalization might have marginalized the Tatar nationalists by allowing the officials to isolate them from the population, but the rise of extremist Russian nationalism of the kind on view this week in Moscow likely means that nationalisms of all kinds are now entering a potentially vicious circle in the Russian Federation.
And on the other hand, and in a move that probably disturbs more in Moscow than any march even in the Kazan Kremlin might have, the Kazan Tatars were joined by representatives of the national movements of the other republics of the Middle Volga who carried their flags and called for the restoration of the Republic of Idel-Ural.
That short-lived state embraced an enormous region between the Volga River and the Urals Mountains during the Russian Civil War. Breaking it – and it was the site of Stalin’s first major act of ethnic engineering – was critical to the maintenance of Moscow’s rule not over that region but over Siberia and what is now the Russian Far East.
If nationalists in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mari El, Mordvinia and Udmurtia expand their cooperation as Saturday’s demonstration suggests they may be doing, that will present a far greater challenge to Moscow’s rule than any one of them could. Moreover, such a trend may lead the republic governments to reconsider their relations with the nationalists.
Despite rain and cold and the new site, several hundred people attended the Sunday ceremony. Speakers complained about the move. Nail Nabiullin, head of the Azatlyk Union of Tatar Youth, for example, told the crowd: “look what has happened, we’ve been sent to recall the taking of Kazan and our Holocaust where Ivan Grozny sent us 461 years ago: the ghetto” (nazaccent.ru/content/9358-tatarskie-nacionalisty-proveli-shestvie-v-pamyat.html).
Regnum.ru reported “another distinction of the actions of the nationalists this year:” the majority of the slogans were in English. Among those were signs calling for “Freedom for Tatarstan!” and “Freedom for Idel-Ural!” In Tatar in Latin script, there were signs saying “Idel-Ural Will Be Free!” (regnum.ru/news/society/1719075.html).
Also present were the banners of Azatlyk, the Tatar Social Center, Chuvashia and the Chuvash national congress, the Republic of Mari El, the Right Tatars Internet community, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Somewhat incongruously, there was also, Regnum.ru reported, the state flag of Azerbaijan, perhaps a reflection of the Azerbaijani community now in Kazan.
Tatarstan officials said they had changed the site of the demonstration both because the organizers had violated rules on protests in the past and because of concerns that any demonstration in the present environment could trigger disturbances But there may have been another reason as well.
Last week, the Society of Russian Culture of Tatarstan called on the authorities there to erect a monument to all those who died in 1552, both the defenders of the city and those who attacked it, so that such disputes could be left in the past and “Russians and Tatars could be brothers forever!” (nazaccent.ru/content/9346-obshestvo-russkoj-kultury-tatarstana-prizvalo-vlasti.html).
That idea grows out of Vladimir Putin’s push for a single history textbook presenting a seamless history of Russia, but the reaction of both non-Russians and Russians to this idea suggests that in Kazan as in other parts of Eurasia, such an approach will satisfy no one and anger almost everybody.