Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kryashens Again a Flashpoint on Russian Federalism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 25 – Russians and Tatars are again arguing about who the Kryashens are and how they are being treated, with Russians and some Kryashens saying their 250,000-strong nation is being abused by Kazan and ignored by Moscow and Tatars insisting that the 18,000 Kryashens (according to the 2010 census) are a well-treated subgroup of the Tatar nation.

            The Kryashens have a long and much disputed history. Some of their number and many Russian nationalist and Orthodox writers insist that they are a Christian people with a history that extends far more distantly than the Kazan khanate. But others, including most Tatars, see them as members of the Tatar nation who were forcibly Christianized after 1552.

            There is evidence for both these positions.  But the Kryashens seldom attract much attention except when Moscow and Kazan are at odds.  That happened most prominently in 2001-2002 when some Russians sought to promote the Kryashens as a nationality for the census in order to reduce the number of the Tatars, the largest ethnic minority in the Russian Federation.

            Now, the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian commentators have taken up the Kryashen issue again, apparently as part of a broader effort to undercut the reputation of Tatarstan as an island of ethnic and religious harmony and to justify intervention by Moscow possibly up to and including the abolition of that republic.  

            The dispute, which has been bubbling in church and nationalist sites over the last few months, was joined at a conference in Moscow on Monday at the Human Rights Center of the World Russian Popular Assembly on the subject of “Whence Comes the Threat to Orthodoxy in Tatarstan?” (

                Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for church-society relations, opened the meeting by observing that the Church is especially concerned by developments in Tatarstan given what he called “the mass burning of churches and the murders of representatives of traditional Islam.”

            If Chaplin spoke in the most general terms, Father Dimitry (Sizov), a Kryashen priest from the Pestrechinsky district of Tatarstan, argued that the Kryashen issue was central to the fate of Orthodoxy and Russians in Tatarstan and urged that Moscow devote more resources than it has up to now in supporting his community.

            He said that there were only seven Kryashen priests for the 192 places in the republic where Kryashens live, and only six of them conduct services in the Kryashen language.  The other 12 Kryashen priests in Tatarstan were serving in non-Kryashen parishes. And many Kryashen churches built before 1917 need reconstruction.

            According to Father Dimitry, there are 250,000 Kryashens in Tatarstan, a number far larger than any census has shown.  He added that they are subject to the most intense discrimination and said “as a result of what is happening regarding the Kryashens in Tatarstan, we can lose an entire Orthodox people.”

            From his seat in the presidium, Chaplin intervened with the statement that “if the Kryashens consider themselves Kryashens, then that means that they are!”

            Other speakers took up this call. Anatoly Yeldashev, an instructor at the Kazan Theological Seminary, told the meaning that “the Kryahens are a separate people, a separate nation.” Suggesting otherwise and that the Kryashens are baptized Tatars is “stupid” because “the Kryashens never adopted Islam.”

            And Roman Silantyev, currently director of the Human Rights Center which hosted the meeting and infamous in many quarters for his attacks on Islam and Muslim leaders, said that “in terms of the level of inter-religious stability, Tatarstan today is in Russia in last place and can be compared only with Daghestan.”

            One Tatar specialist at the meeting and a senior Tatarstan official after it took issue with both the general claims that the religious situation in that republic is unstable and that the Kryashens are suffering.  Aleksandr Terentyev, head of the domestic policy department in the office of the Tatarstan presidency, acknowledged that Tatars had encouraged Kryashens to declare themselves Tatars in the census but denied that Kazan has mistreated them.

            And Farid Mukhametshin, chairman of the State Council of Tatarstan, reiterated those points. He acknowledged that there are disputes about the ethnogenesis of the Kryashens but said that there was no need to continue them and no basis for asserting that Tatars were discriminating against them (

            Mukhametshin pointed out as well that many Orthodox and Kryashen spokesmen overstate the size of the Kryashens.  According to the last census, there were only 34,000 Kryashens in the Russian Federation and only 18,760 in Tatarstan – less than one percent of the republic’s population.

            Within Tatarstan, there are a total of 152 Kryashen villages which are located in 23 of the republic’s 43 districts.  And Mukhametshin noted that four of these districts have Kryashens as their heads and that the official organization of Kryashens functions in 14 different cities and districts.

“We are doing a lot to help the Kryashens,” he continued, and there is no basis for using them to suggest, as Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin has, that there is religious intolerance or instability in Tatarstan.

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