Saturday, October 15, 2016

Moscow, Kazan Share Blame for Deepening Divide over 1552, Tatar Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 15 – Moscow by promoting Ivan the Terrible as a hero and supporting the erection of a statue in his honor this week and Kazan by deferring to Moscow and not promoting the celebration of the anniversary today of Ivan’s sacking of Kazan in 1552 share responsibility for the way in which 1552 is becoming increasingly divisive in Russia.

            For Russians, Ivan’s destruction of the Kazan khanate 564 years ago marked the beginning of their history as a powerful empire, a theme which is part and parcel of the increasingly nationalist, imperialist and militarist rhetoric of the Kremlin that willy-nilly is dividing the ethnic Russians and the non-Russians of that country.

But for the Tatars and others, Ivan’s victory was their defeat, an event they believe that they should mark with respect for the victims as part of their national history and one that the effort of officials to play down this anniversary is allowing some nationalists to promote an anti-Russian and even anti-Kazan agenda.

                That is the thrust of an article by Ayrat Fayzrakhanov, a Tatar historian, in today’s issue of Kazan’s “Business-Gazeta,” who says that the failure of Kazan, under pressure from Moscow, to mark this anniversary puts Tatarstan and Russia in a position that contrasts sharply with those of other countries whose pasts contain divisive events (

                For the last 28 years, Tatars have assembled in the middle of October to commemorate the fall of the Kazan khanate, an even that “for some became a victory but for others was abitter defeat and of eternal historical trauma,” the historian says. But it is also an event that did not have to become as divisive as it has.

            Other countries have complicated histories where the national narrative of the central government and dominant nation is at odds with that of regional groups and minorities.  Among them are Spain and Catalonia, the United Kingdom and Scotland and Wales, and the US and Australia and their respective native peoples.

            “In several states of the US and in Australia, where the local autochthonian population was destroyed almost completely,” Fayzrakhanov points out, “nowadays are conducted their own local memorial measures connected with the tragedy of conquest.” The Australians even have an official holiday for this. They thus haves something the Tatars don’t.

            In the 1990s, the commemoration of the anniversary of the sacking of Kazan attracted more than 10,000 participants each year and it had “a direct influence on the politics of the republic.”  But now, because the authorities don’t want to appear to be supporting this, the event attracts only a few hundred.

            But if the commemoration has been marginalized, “the events of 1552 remain in the memory of the people even if neither Moscow nor Kazan want to talk about it. And because they don’t, the event and the memory are increasingly being “’privatized’ by the oppositionally inclined Tatar intelligentsia.”

            “In the ‘official field,’” the historian continues, “the events of 1552 have become an inconvenient history which those in power try not to remember,” even though that has the effect of obliterating much of the Tatar nation’s history.

            “Otherwise how can one explain that in Kazan now there is not a single memorial connected with the history of the Kazan khanate?” And that is the case even though there are “three plays in the city where the memory of Catherine the Great is recalled.” One tsarina but “not one Kazan khan.”

                Many Russians are quite pleased with this just as they were with the argument of Yana Amelina seven years ago that “there is no sense in bringing up the past because the majority has already forgotten about it.” Of course, for her and those who share her views, there are two pasts: the Russian one which is to be remembered, and that of everyone else which is to be forgotten.

            Such a policy of “historical amnesia” opens the way for radicals, especially when one group is encouraged to remember its past and another is forced to forget it.  And it does nothing to help overcome the divide among the population between those who see 1552 as “an act of geocide and the victory of absolute evil over absolute good” and those who think it was “a gift of God and the triumph of ‘holy greatpowerness.’”

            Some on each side of this divide even now are saying things for which they could be subject to criminal penalties. “Thanks to the efforts of Tatarstan historians, Russian history textbooks have moved away from ethnic confrontation.”  They treat the events of 1552 in a more balanced way.

            But, Fayzrakhanov argues, “the monument to Ivan the Terrible dedicated yesterday in Oryol has become the first signal tht there is a willingness in public politics to speculate on blood and on divisions,” to make claims without facts and to forget anything that doesn’t fit with current political needs.

            The erection and celebration of such statues, he argues, “clearly is not the path to the consolidation of Russian society about which people love to speak in recen times.” Instead, it is a case where the majority is trying to dominate the minority and to establish “the dominance of one ethno-cultural paradigm in a multi-national country.”

            Tatars who want to see a monument to those who fell in the defense of Kazan have good arguments: “it is necessary to restore historical justice, all the more so because on one of the most visited places of the city is situated a [Russian Orthodox church] honoring those who fell in the course of taking Kazan.”

            But it is important that errors in one direction not lead to equal but opposite errors in the other, the historian says, and he suggested that the proposal that the European Tatarstan group has come up with and promoted in social networks may provide a useful way out and way forward.

            The group has proposed that “it is necessary to establish … a memorial to the Muslims who died in the Kazan war … and o change the name of the Orthodox memorial church to ‘the memorial of the Orthodox who died in the Kazan war.” That would be a balanced approach, one that would reflect Tatarstan’s general approach. 

            Unfortunately, Fayzrakhanov concludes, “the official silence [of Kazan] is giving birth to a basis for unofficial contradictions. This is not a call to forget one’s own history and then one’s own language and culture.” Rather it is to ensure that the tragedies of the past not be repeated in the future.

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