Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Is Stalin’s First Major Act of Ethnic Engineering About to be Reversed or Exacerbated?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 21 – As Harvard historian Richard Pipes documented a half century ago, Stalin’s first great act of ethno-political engineering was the division of the Tatars and Bashkirs of the Middle Volga as part of a broader effort to weaken Kazan’s influence and that of the Muslim national communists led by Sultan-Galiyev.

            Now, that 1920 action which divided two closely related peoples one of which had largely completed the transition to a sedentary life (the Volga Tatars) and one of which was still primarily nomadic and thus far more divided by clans (the Bashkirs) may be either reversed or exacerbated by rising tensions between the two nations.

            Those tensions have been stoked in recent months by the call of the All-Tatar Social Center (VTOTs) for a referendum in northwestern Bashkortostan where ethnic Tatars constitute a local majority and want to become part of Tatarstan and by complaints in Bashkortostan that the Tatars continue to play a disproportionate role in the political life of Ufa.

            Depending on how these events, which Vladimir Putin’s use of a pseudo-referendum in Crimea and his talk about the overriding importance of nationality over citizenship have intensified, ultimately play out – and Moscow is certain to seek to use them to its advantage – Stalin’s creations of two republics could either be reaffirmed or overcome.

            As reported yesterday, even as Moscow struggles with issues related to the Crimean Tatars arising from Russia’s annexation of their homeland, the Tatars of Bashkortostan’s northwest are calling for a referendum on transferring that area from Bashkortostan to Tatarstan (

            At a recent meeting of VTOTs, the Tatars declared that they wanted in the words of the Russian news agency “to resuscitate the referendum declared by Soviet power already in 1920 and raise the issue about the joining of part of the territory with a Tatar population to the Republic of Tatarstan” (

            “Tatars, living on the territory of the Republic Tatarstan, represent the second largest (after those in Tatarstan) group of the Tatar nation and form more than 20 percent of the total number of Tatars,” the declaration said, arguing that the rights and interests of this community were not being adequately supported by Ufa.

            The authors of the declaration said that “Bashkir Tatars, the number of which is comparable to the number of Tatars in Tatarstan, enjoy “practically no government or other support of their national development,” something they said was forcing them to seek a referendum about changing the borders between the two Middle Volga republicsc.

            Some Tatars have talked about this possibility for several year, according to an article by Gleb Postnov, a longstanding critic of Kazan, in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” ( But only with Moscow’s use of a nominal referendum in Crimea has the issue come to a head.

            What makes this issue so sensitive from Moscow’s point of view is that if the Tatars of Bashkortostan were united with Tatarstan, that republic would not only become an even more influential center of the second largest nationality (after the ethnic Russians) in the Russian Federation.

Moreover, such an action could spark similar demands by other non-Russian groups like the Circassians, the Kalmyks, and many others who view themselves as victims of similar kinds of Soviet ethnic engineering, and it could also in the current climate spark demands by ethnic Russians living compactly in non-Russian areas to do the same.

The results in either case would almost certainly prove explosive.  Consequently, the Russian government will do everything it can to prevent such a referendum, but its actions in that regard will only open the Kremlin to more charges of “double standards” and further exacerbate relations among the nations within the borders of the Russian Federation.

A commentary on the Tatar-Centr blog today lays out these issues more fully.  The author says that most people think that the national interests of the titular nations in the non-Russian republics are threatened “in the first instance by ethnic Russians living there or more broadly the Russian speaking population” (

            “But in Bashkortostan, this is not the case,” he writes. There, the main problem in this sphere revolves around conflicts between Tatars and Bashkirs.  “In the republic, Bashkirs are fewer than Tatars, Tatars live in compact settlements in the northwest districts bordering Tatarstan,” and the cultural similarities between the two in language and culture make it “simply impossible to draw a precise border between them” as Stalin sought to do.

            Many Bashkirs are thus concerned about “the gradual ‘swallowing up’ of the Bashkirs by the Tatars, the domination of the Tatars in the Republic of Bashkortostan, and the subordination of the Republic of Bashkortostan to Tatarstan or to Tatar separatism.” Thus Tatar demands for equal or special status generate an angry reaction in Ufa.

            The issue of where the border between the Tatar and Bashkir nations should lie has long been the subject of academic and political debate, and in recent years and especially in the last few months, it has been elevated to a question of  which of these peoples has been where the longest.

            Some Bashkirs say that their nation has been subject to assimilation by the Tatars since the 17th century, the writer says.  And they see ethnic Tatar officials in Bashkortostan continuing this process today by entering in censuses and other documents people who speak Tatar but have a Bashir national consciousness as Tatars rather than Bashkirs.

            Bashkir intellectuals and officials, he continues, now speak about “’Tatar cultural expansion’ into Bashkortostan” because Kazan supplies textbooks and teacher’s guides for Tatar language, history and literature classes, something they see as a conspiracy against themselves. And they point to the widespread dissemination of Tatar nationalist writings as well.

            At the same time, Tatars in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan say that those in Bashkortostan who speak Tatar but consider themselves Bashkirs do so only as a result of what they call “intensify Bashkirization.”  And those who take that view see a transfer of Tatar regions in Bashkortostan to Tatarstan as the only way out.

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