Monday, December 26, 2016

Moscow Scholar Backs Down after Tatars Challenge Efforts to Root Ethnicity in Genetics

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 26 –Moscow researchers who earlier wrote that the Volga Tatars, the Siberian Tatars and the Crimean Tatars are separate peoples because of differences in ethnicity havebacked down in the face of serious criticism from Kazan scholars who point out that ethnicity is defined by self-consciousness not by genes.

            Earlier this month, a ussian geneticist published research showing that the Volga, Siberian and the Crimean Tatars are separate peoples regardless of their self-consciousness because the three groups vary in terms of theirs genetic makeup, something publicists in the Russian capital quickly jumped on to weaken Kazan and any connections among the three  (

            That genetic definition of ethnicity quickly drew fire from scholars in Tatarstan who said that “we study a nation not according to its genes but according to its self-consciousness” and denounced the genetics-first approach as being a handmaiden for Moscow’s longstanding divide-and-rule approach to the non-Russians (

            Lidiya Sagitova, a senior ethnographer at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, said that “the study of the genetics of the Tatars recalls the search by Hitler for pure Aryans” and pointed out that “nationality is translated from one generation to another not by genes but via a common history, culture and worldview.”

            Specifically, she said, “the Crimean and Volga Tatars do not live together but they consider themselves Tatars. There are differences in culture and dialects but both these groups call themselves Tatars.”  Siberian Tatars overwhelmingly feel exactly the same way, Sagitova continued.

            Rafael Khakimov, the vice president of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences and the former political advisor to former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev, said that Moscow’s use of genetics to try to divide non-Russian peoples in the empire has a long and anything but distinguished history.

            Prior to World War I, he noted, Russian Prime Minister Stolypin “said that “it is impossible to transform Tatars into Russians and therefore one must find differences within them and divide this people into groups.’ Stalin continued this. But genetics is one thing, and the people is something completely different.”

            The current use of genetics by Moscow writers is part of this tradition, Khakimov, a conclusion justified by her remark in one interview that “there are no Tatars; there are only Northern Turks.”  But five million people feel themselves to be Tatars, he continued, something only those paid to deny that reality do.

            And Damir Iskhakov, a senior ethnographer at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, also pointed to the political undertone of the new research. “From a biological side, the results of the genetic investigation are correct, but defining nations by it can lead to mistakes because a nation is born in the course of linguistic, cultural and political processes.”

            The Tatarstan scholars were ready to pounce on the Moscow geneticists because she has earlier said things that are offensive not only to Tatars but to all non-Russians. In 2007, Elena Balanovskaya and her husband Olge Balanovsky published a book “The Russian Genetic Fund in the Russian Lowlands” (

                At that time, they declared said that the Tatar-Mongol conquest “did not have great influence on Russian genes and that ethnic Russians are thus a genuinely European nation.” And Elena Balanovskaya even asserted that “if you scratch a Tatar, you’ll find a Finno-Ugric.”  Even Moscow ethnographer Valery Tishkov dissented from that point of view.

                Now in an article for Kazan’s “Business-Gazeta,” Oleg Balanovsky acknowledged that “ethnic self-consciousness is in no way connected with genetics” but that some of the criticism directed at his research missed the point because genetics properly used can tell a great deal about the history of this or that people (

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