Sunday, February 28, 2016

Russianization Doesn’t Equal Russification, Russian-Speaking Tatars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – Many Russians assume that if a non-Russian stops speaking his own language and uses only Russian that such an individual is well on his way to re-identifying as a Russian. But that is not the case, and many Russian-speaking members of non-Russian nationalities remain closely attached to their non-Russian ethnic identity.

            Indeed, just as the Irish did not become Irish nationalists until they stopped speaking Gaelic and just as Indian nationalism took off when the leaders of its many ethnic groups began speaking English, many non-Russians who no longer speak their own language are among the most passionately interested in their nations and their national history.

            And thus it may even be the case that some members of a nationality who lose their native language and speak only Russian may be in a better position to defend their nations against Russian imperialism and the threat of national extinction than are those who speak only the national languages.

            Consequently, it is a mistake for either Moscow officials or Western observers to think that the Russian language is so powerful that it can by itself transform the identities of non-Russians who go over to speaking it. In fact, it may have just the opposite effect and lead to more nationalism rather than less.

            Rabit Batulla, a Kazan Tatar commentator, even goes so far as to declare that “the fate of the Tatar nation is not in the hands [of those who speak only Tatar and loudly proclaim today their Tatarness] but rather in the hands of Russian-speaking Tatars” (

            “Among Russian-speaking Tatars, there are many who are vitally interested in the past, present and future of the Tatar people. Typically such Tatars have European or Russian first names and Tatar family names.” But in almost all cases, they are proud of their Tatar background and consider themselves Tatars.

            One of them told him, Batulla continues, that while he may speak Russian, he is “not Russified,” but instead “a Russian-language Tatar.” And he insists that “language is not the main component of the definition of the nation, and not religion forms the basis of the nation. Instead, knowledge, science and national character form the history and face of the Tatar people.”

            “If knowledge is absent, then history disappears,” Batulla’s interlocutor continues; and “those who have [only] Tatar, often are illiterate” and thus not capable of preserving and promoting their national identity.

            But Russian-speaking Tatars like himself, he says, “are saving the history of the Tatars by sacrificing their native language and Islam.  At the foundation of a bright future of the Tatar nation lies its national character.”  Anyone who doubts that should look at the history of the Jews since ancient times.

            “For centuries,” he says, “Jews were forced to move around the world, they were driven out from everywhere, they were persecuted, they were killed in large numbers and finally they settled in Russia. They forgot their native language and were transformed into Russian-speaking Jews. They even in fact began to forget the religion of their forefathers.”

            “But,” he continues, “the Jews preserved their national character” despite that. Those Tatar nationalists who denounce Russian-speaking Tatars should remember this and remember as well that Russian-speaking Tatars are often more effective defenders of the Tatar nation than are Tatar-speaking Tatars.

            To be sure, “overt and covert assimilation of Tatars is taking place. Many of them are being russified. But [Russian-speaking Tatars] are not.” Instead, they “love and study Tatar history.” No one is going to be able to stop the spread of Russian. “That train has left the station. And there is no way back.”

            Insstead, “there remains only one single path, the path of the Russian-speaking Tatars.” And because that is so, all Tatars must view Russian-speaking Tatars not as the enemy but as a key component in the formation of a new Tatar nation. In some ways, it might be better if this were not the case; but this is the best strategy for the future.

            Failing to remain united regardless of language only pours “water on the mill of anti-Tatar forces” and allows them to successfully pursue their “divide and conquer” strategy. And to promote such unity, he calls for establishing in each region “a society of young Russian-speaking Tatar intellectuals and to invite to join it successful Tatar businessmen."

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