Monday, December 3, 2018

Only Orthodox Church Can Save Kryashens as a Nation, Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – The issue of whether the Kryashens are a separate nationality or simply Volga Tatars who have converted to Russian Orthodoxy is a longstanding one. Many who identify as Kryashens insist that they are a nation because their culture is distinct from the Tatars, while many Tatars say they aren’t but rather a religious subgroup of their own nation.

            In the last two decades, the Tatars have had a particular reason to insist on that view: Some in Moscow have sought to promote the existence of the Kryashens as a separate nation in order to reduce the size of the Tatars, the second largest nation within the current borders of the Russian Federation.

            And many Tatars have pointed to the fact that in many cases, those who insist that the Kryashens are a distinct nationality work closely with Russian ethnographers and Russian national activists rather than participating in more independent non-Russian organizations and activities.

In the 1926 Soviet census, the most open enumeration in the history of the country but one in which many groups not subsequently counted as nationalities were, 100,000 people identified as Kryashen. In the 2010 Russian census, 35,000 did so, although some ethnographers in Moscow and some Kryashens in the Middle Volga insist there are more than 200,000 in all.

            Because the Kryashens exist at the intersection of ethnicity, religion and politics, this debate isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, leaving open whether the Kryashens will ultimately gain official sanction as a nation or whether they will view themselves as part of the Tatar nation instead.

            Now, a Kryashen leader, Arkady Fokin, the president of the Council of Veterans of the Kryashen Movement, has weighed into the debate but in a manner that will likely intensify the debate rather than resolve it. Indeed, while he insists the Kryashen are a separate nation, Fokin gives Tatars more reasons to say they are not (

                At the end of last month, the Kryashen activist spoke at the Society of Russian Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan, a group that is committed to promoting the Russian language, Orthodox religion, and Russian identity there rather than one noted for its tolerance and support of ethnic diversity at least among those who are Orthodox.

            In his speech, Fokin repeated many of the arguments that Kryashens and their supporters have made in the past: the censuses don’t fully count the Kryashens because of the machinations of the Tatars, the Tatars are engaged in the Tatarization of the Kryashens, and the Kryashen language is more different from Tatar than Tatar is from Bashkir.

            Moreover, he says that “the Nagaybaks are a Cossack stratum of the Kryashens. They do not deny that,” he says; “they call themselves Kryashens. But now it turns out that [in the view of the Tatars] that the [roughly 8,000] Kryashen-Nagaybaks are a people but the Kryashens are not.”   In fact, that is a matter of dispute among Cossacks, Russians and Tatars.

            But the most interesting concession Fokin made, one that might have pleased his Russian Orthodox audience but that provides support for the Tatar view about Kryashens, is the following. He says that the issue of getting Kryashens to join Orthodox parishes is more difficult for them than for Russians because there are only six churches using the Kryashen language.

            Fokin says that Kryashen activists like himself “consider that the chief condition for the survival of the Kryashens as a people must be their inclusion in parish life. If we Kryashens are cut off from the church and from Orthodoxy … this Orthodox people will cease to exist 20 to 30 tears from now” because it will be absorbed either by the Tatars or the Russians.

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