Monday, December 10, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Again Preparing to Play Religious Card in Tatarstan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 10 – The Kazan Tatars increasingly define themselves not just as a Turkic nation but as a Muslim one; and consequently Moscow must come to the defense the Kryashens, Christian Tatars whom most Tatars view as a religious subgroup of their community but who see themselves as a separate nation.

            That argument, which Moscow has accepted at various points in the past, has just been made yet again by Kryashen activists and by Rais Suleymanov, the head of the Volga Center of Regional and Ethnographic Research, whose commentaries over the last several years have been a bellwether of Moscow’s policy toward Kazan (

            In an article posted on the portal last week, Suleymanov reports on a conference held in Kazan at the end of last month by the Russian Institute of Strategic Research of which his center is a part on “National Self-Determination of the Kryashens: History and the Present Day,” and on both his remarks to that meeting and those of other researchers and activists.

            Suleymanov told the meeting that “up to now” no one had properly discussed “the problem of the national self-determination of the Kryashens,” a statement that presupposes that they are “an independent Orthodox Turkic ethnos” of some 300,000 people, of whom 250,000 live in the Republic of Tatarstan.

            Except in the 1926 census where they were listed separately, the Kryashens were treated in Soviet times as a religious sub-group of the Kazan Tatars. But in the two post-Soviet censuses, “thanks to the federal center,” they had the opportunity to declare themselves Kryashens in the 2002 and 2010 censuses, something that both reflected and helped power their identity.

            The Kazan researcher says that this provoked anger among the Tatar “national separatists” who viewed it as Moscow’s way of cutting the numbers of Tatars to under half of the republic’s population and dividing the Tatar nation and who frequently referred to the Kryashens as “agents of Ivan the Terrible” and “a living reminder of the times of the Orthodox inquisition.”

            This Orthodox people, Suleymanov continued, was even dismissed during the run-up to the 2002 enumeration as “the appendix of the Tatar nation” by several journalists, a term that suggested both that they were an integral part of the Tatars and that they could be amputated from the nation without any serious loss.

            Since that time, some Tatars, he said, have sought to promote the Kryashens’ “return to Islam,” something a few have down out of “careerist considerations” but a shift that reflects the more profound shift among the Tatars themselves from a self-definition as a “poly-confessional” nation to a purely Muslim one.

            Suleymanov, who describes himself as a Tatar Muslim, says that as a result, other Tatars are “attempting to ‘push’ the Kryashens into a mono-confessional Tatar ethnos completely failing to understand that the future of the Kryashens is only in Orthodoxy because a Kryashen who adopts Islam ceases to be a Kryashen.”

            According to the researcher, there are only 26 Kryashen priests, down from 78 in 1917, and only five parishes where services are conducted in the church-Kryashen language: the villages of Bolshiye Aty, Chura, Kryash-Serda, and Melekes and in the republic capital of Kazan.

            Other speakers at the meeting weighed in with the same message.  Yevgeny Petukhov, a “Kryashen Cossack” from Chistopol, said that Muslim Tatars had introduced mullahs in Kryashen religious celebrations. One can only imagine, he continued, how Muslim Tatars would react if Orthodox priests and literature were present at their rites.

            Arkady Fokin, the president of the Couuncil of Veterans of the Kryashen Movement, noted that the Kryashens were “the only people in Russia who have two different ethnic statuses” under Boris Yeltsin, the Nagaybaki, historically a stratum of the Kryashens living in the Urals received the status of ‘a numerically small native people,’ but the Kryashens in Tatarstan, where the majority of them live, have the status of a sub-confessional group within the Tatar ethnos.”

            Vasily Ivanov, an ethnic Russian who works at Suleymanov’s center, pointed out that “for the self-identification of any ethnic community, there is the need for the image of ‘the other.’” For Tatar nationalists, that “’other’” includes the Kryashens and thus their negative attitude toward that community is part of efforts to boost their own identity.

            Ivanov said that this has had a curious result.  Many young Kryashens now have “a dual ethnic identity” and declaring themselves for official purposes to be ethnic Russians “because of the Christianophobia of the Tatar nationalists.” Their re-identification as Russians helped boost the number of Russians in Tatarstan between 2002 and 2010 by about 8,000.

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