Staunton, October 11 – For the past 15 years, Cossacks and Russian nationalists in Tyumen have regularly proposed erecting a statue to Yermak, the Cossack who conquered the region four centuries ago. And each time, Siberian Tatars, for whom such a statue is “like a red flag for a bull,” have fought it vigorously, according to URA.ru’s Nikolay Bastrikov.
Now, the issue has been raised again in a way that exacerbates the divide between the indigenous Siberian Tatars, on the one hand, and the ethnic Russians and Cossacks, on the other, and reflects very specific calculations by both about the outcome of the next elections, a reminder of the ways in which ethnicity and elections are linked (ura.ru/articles/1036266029).
This time around, Bastrikov reports, the idea of erecting a statue to Ataman Yermak was offered by Albina Selezneva, a United Russia deputy in the Tyumen Duma. She said she was simply putting forward the ideas of others, “but many in the city are certain” she did it in order to win votes from among the local Cossacks.”
Three things might seem to make her timing especially propitious: next year, Tyumen celebrates its 430th anniversary, also next year, Russia will mark the 435th anniversary of Yermak’s campaign, and already now, Russians are celebrating the annexation of Crimea, thus opening the way for talk and celebration of other annexations.
But not everyone sees the situation that way. Dinar Abukin, a KPRF deputy in the Tyumen Duma and the head of the city’s Siberian Tatar autonomy, spoke out for those opposed. “Any historical monument should bring joy and not a divide in society,” he said. A statue of Yermak would do the latter rather than the former.
Moreover, he pointed out, “we have so many social and economic problems that this is hardly the time to be talking about a monument to Yermak. Moreover, the indigenous people – the Siberian Tatars – on the whole view Yermak as a robber and invader,” and in no way as a glorious conqueror.
Abukin said that Seleneva’s proposal was all about her effort to win votes by currying favor with the Cossacks. But he suggested that such a proposal would not have that effect but would backfire by mobilizing the Siberian Tatars against such a monument and ensuring that they would vote for anyone but her and those supporting her.
Other Siberian Tatars took an even harder line. Maksim Sagidullin, a specialist on Siberian Tatar ethnicity, said that “in our national tradition, Yermak is a negative figure. This is our motherland. We do not want [such a statue]. Don’t offend us and try to show your superiority. If need be, we will organize a meeting.”
He said that the Siberian Tatar autonomy had “already sent” a complaint to the city’s administration about this and that the authorities promise to create a commission “which will consider all opinions.” But so far, Sagidullin added, “there is not a single Siberian Tatar” in it and things will not go well unless there is.
Meanwhile, other Russian officials distanced themselves from Selezneva. The city duma’s nationality affairs committee said it hadn’t approved the idea, and URA.ru sources in the city administration indicated that they weren’t interested in sparking the kind of conflicts that the erection of a statue would ignite.
One official speaking on conditions of anonymity said that were a Yermak statue to go up, his opponents would destroy it “on the very first night.”
Faced with this opposition, Selezneva responded with what she clearly believes is her trump card: How can anyone not celebrate the absorption of Siberia into the Russian state just as Russians now celebrate the absorption of Crimea? And she said the statue would attract more foreign visitors to the city: Last year, she noted, 52 people came to Tyumen from abroad.
The Siberian Tatars are interesting in and of themselves. On the one hand, there are only about 8,000 indigenous Siberian Tatars, making them a relatively small nationality even in that region. But on the other, there are some 500,000 Kazan Tatars who now live in Siberia, the result of Soviet penal and social policies, and many of them line up with the Siberian Tatars.
And that in turn means that what may seem to be a tempest in the teapot of Tyumen city politics could easily spread across a far larger territory, with many of the Tatars of the Russian Federation also objecting not only to Russian conquests of four centuries ago but also to more recent ones.