The idea of an Idel-Ural autonomy, he points out, was a compromise between two groups within the political elite of the region, the terekcheler, who supported the idea of national cultural autonomy, and the tufrakchylar, who wanted to achieve territorial autonomy. This compromise was by its nature inherently unstable.
The advocatess of national cultural autonomy, who drew upon the ideas of the Austro-Marxist theorist Otto Bauer, feared that territorial autonomies would tear about peoples who were so intermixed as to make the achievement of a common future impossible and undermine economic development.
Moreover, they were attracted to the idea of national-cultural autonomy because of its popularity “among European intellectuals of that time, in the first instance, the Austrian social democrats, as a kind of ‘moderate’ variant of solving the nationality question, Garifullin continues.
In their minds, “national-cultural autonomy presupposes that national minorities not having a separate territorial unit would have self-administration in the framework of their own national formation institutions (not just schools), institutions of culture and so on, in which the nominal center would not interfere.”
Their opponents, the Tufrakchylar, feared that national cultural autonomy would be insufficient to protect the nations involved. “From the heights of the present day,” the Tatar historian says, “one can boldly assert that they on the whole correctly evaluated the situation,” at least in comparison to the other side.
The compromise between the two simultaneously called for the formation of five states: Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, Turkestan, Idel-Ural and Crimea and for Idel-Ural to become a federative republic led by the Tatars and Bashkirs but open to others, including the Finno-Ugric groups in the region.
Thus, both the territorial and the extra-territorial cultural autonomy models continued for a time in “a parallel co-existence,” with each at one and he same time supporting the other and making it more difficult for either to be achieved. The idea of an Idel-Ural Republic thus allowed for the self-determination of several peoples of the region and not just the Tatars.
“The Tatar-Bashkir population would have constituted more than 40 percent of the population of the state,” Garifullin says. But it was agreed that each of the others should be proportionally represented in all collective bodies. Not surprisingly, the Maris, Chuvash, and Udmurts came out in support of this “without vacillation.”
The most important divisions were within the Tatar and Bashir community, with those backing the territorial solution often clashing with those favoring an extra-territorial cultural one. But while larger events in Russia prevented either from achieving its goals, their combined ideas remain suggestive.
In essence, Garifullin says, “the Idel-Ural state by its form was not a classical national republic bur rather a multinational territorial formation. A kind of federal republic inside the federation.” It might have become an analogue to the Turkestan Republic in the 1920s or “even to the RSFSR as a whole – the single non-national union republic of the USSR.”
The ideas of the Idel-Ural generation lived on in the Tatar and Bashkir emigrations; and while they have seldom attracted much attention from others, they remain powerful among the peoples of the Middle Volga. They also have support from what may seem to many an unexpected quarter – the United States.
The 1959 public law establishing Captive Nations Week lists a large number of nations that were suppressed by communism. Within the borders of what was the USSR, all but two have now achieved independence. One of those is Cossackia, the land of the Cossacks; and the other is Idel-Ural.
That law has never been repealed, and as the nations of the Middle Volga think about their futures, that fact along with the intellectual flowering of a century ago that produced the ideas collectively known as Idel-Ural may take on ever greater importance, regardless of what Moscow would prefer.