Saturday, October 28, 2017

When Putin Spoke Tatar – and Why He’d Be Smart to Do So Again

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 28 – There are two kinds of imperialists, Igor Yakovenko says, the clever ones and the foolish ones. The clever ones know that they will find it easier to maintain their empires if they show themselves willing to make at least some concessions to the populations they want to control.

            The foolish ones, in contrast, the Russian commentator says, assume that they can hold things together by being brutal and nasty, forgetting that such policies not only breed hatred and resentment among the subject populations but plant the seeds of demands for ultimate independence (

            Lenin was a clever imperialist who restored Moscow’s control over the borderlands precisely by making concessions to the non-Russian peoples through the provision of state structures and deference to their languages. Putin, however, is, like Stalin, a foolish one who thinks he can hold everything together by force alone.

            The current Kremlin leader is wrong, and his repressive anti-non-Russian policies almost certainly mean that his empire will not last nearly as long as did Lenin’s Soviet one. Indeed, events taking place in Tatarstan, Putin’s primary target in his current campaign, suggest that the end may come far sooner than anyone expects.

            Two articles in Kazan’s Business-Gazeta show why this is so, with the first showing how Putin’s shift from “smart” imperialism to its “stupid” variant is costing him support there and elsewhere and the second underscoring how that process is giving rise to new and much more radical Tatar organizations than those he seems to think are a threat now.

            In the first, Ismagil Shangareyev, a Kazan activist and television personality, offers his reflections about the language fight by taking as his point of departure, Rasul Gamzatov’s 1968 book, My Daghestan, in which the Avar writer underscored the importance of his native language alongside Russian (

                Bilingualism, Shangareyev says, as Gamzatov understood is becoming the norm, especially in multi-national and federal states. It is something that must be encouraged not feared because it serves a powerfully integrative function especially for members of the numerically smaller peoples who interact with others. 

            “When so-called small peoples encounter respect for their culture and especially their language, a powerful process of real integration arises. They open their hearts and are full of a desire to share all that they have with those who show this respect to them, the Kazan activist continues.

            “I have seen,” he says, “how, in an Uzbek bazaar, a Russian youth when choosing an apple talked to the seller in good Uzbek. The entire bazaar was ready to give him their apples without taking any money. Yes, for them, this was a priceless gift!”

            And I recall, Shingareyev continues, “how gladdened were the people in Tatarstan when Vladimir Putin, when speaking in Kazan, began his speech in Tatar. Only a few sentences, of course, but what a warm response these found in the souls of his listeners, what a wave of simply and popular gratitude.”

                Now, however, Tatars are concerned by Putin’s insistence that no Russian be required to learn Tatar if he or she doesn’t want to. At one level, that is entirely reasonable. But the implementation of his proposal is leading to serious problems because Russian officials are racing to show themselves more Orthodox than the patriarch.

            Or better, as the Turkish saying has it, “’Tell him to bring a tyubeteika and he will bring a head along with it.”

            Take away the Tatar language from the Tatars would mean that “no such nation would remain on earth.” And today there is a sense that “the current language policy is an attack on the national existence of the Tatars similar to that which occurred with the sacking of Kazan” in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible.

            “Only now,” Shingareyev says, “they are cutting off not heads but tongues.”

            Shingareyev’s words underscore the reasons why Putin’s policies as they are being implemented are radicalizing Tatar opinion.  In the second Business-Gazeta article, commentator Ruslan Aysin suggests that this radicalization is leading to the rise of new and dynamic groups beyond the reach of the authorities (

                These groups are convinced, he says, that the attack on the Tatar language is only the first step of a stratagem being orchestrated by Igor Sechin and the oil lobby to undermine first the leadership of Tatarstan by provoking ethnic conflicts that Moscow will then insist only it can solve and by force and then move to eliminate the republic entirely. 

            That will drive official and semi-official Tatar groups into the hands of the regime, Aysin says; but it will have a very different impact on the new outsider groups.  He suggests that Tatarstan and Russia have seen all this once before – at the end of the 1980s – and everyone knows how that turned out for the Soviet system. 

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