Sunday, February 3, 2019

Could Russian-Speaking Tatars Become the Irish of the Middle Volga?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 3 – One of the operating assumptions of the Kremlin and one of the greatest fears of non-Russians is that nations who lose their language will soon cease to exist. But that is not necessarily the case: those who give up their native languages may in fact become more committed to the survival of their nation than those who do not.

            The Irish are a classic case of a people that did not become nationalist until they stopped speaking Gaelic and began speaking the language of the English occupiers. And in Soviet times, non-Russians who learned Russian well found out first hand that Moscow’s discriminatory policies against them were based not on language but on ethnicity.

            That is not to say that any nation should want to see its language be supplanted by an imperial one. Such a position would be absurd. But committed nationalists need to reflect on their relationship with those of their people who have stopped speaking their native language and started using the imperial one.

            Otherwise, such nationalists will be conceding the loss of such people to the nation and make the task of those at the imperial center who want to destroy their nationhood all the easier. And they should be inspired by some historical examples. The British did not lose India because of Hindi-speaking peasants but because of an English-trained lawyer named Gandhi.

            Not surprisingly, talking about such things is rarely easy for nationalists who would prefer to see their national language survive along with their nation and who aren’t going to give up that idea. That makes a new article by Tatar activist Rustam Batyr about this issue especially important (

            In Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, Batyr says that the future of the Tatar nation depends booth on language and Islam. Without them, its future is highly problematic. But at the same time, “the death of the language does not equal the death of the people … Therefore, the question, ‘What is to be done with Russian-language Tatars?’ must not be avoided … but put among the first.”

            Unfortunately, he continues, that is not happening. The Strategy for the Development of the Tatar People does not address it, and those behind the strategy in the Tatarstan government dismiss the importance of Islam to the nation’s survival and make language not only a key but the only basis for the Tatars to continue to exist.

            “Beyond doubt,” Batyr says, “language is important for our people. Rephrasing Heidigger, one can say that the Tatar language is the national form of existence of the Tatars.” But “to focus exclusively on language by transforming it into the key criterion of ‘Tatarness’ is extremely shortsighted.”

            And “if we are talking about a strategy to secure the future of the Tatar people, putting all our eggs into one basic is dangerous and even criminal,” the activist says. “Besides language, we must have other bases for our existence. Islam is the chief among them.”

            According to Batyr, “the death of a language does not mean the death of a people. The Jews are confirmation of this. However, our secular nationalists are so occupied with ritual dancers around the Tatar language that they do not notice the obvious.” Many Tatars don’t speak Tatar now and even fewer will do so in the future.

            “For the devotees of the cult of language, Russian-speaking Tatars are an anomaly which shouldn’t exist, a terrible dream from which they want to turn aside.” But that is to ignore that “already now, an enormous share of Tatars does not speak Tatar. Scholars put their number around 20 percent of the total number of the people.”

            In fact, Batyr says, the real number is likely higher.  “Therefore, the question, ‘what to do with Russian-speaking Tatars?’ must not be avoided but put among the very first for Russian-speaking Tatars are nothing other than the future of Tatars. And this means that we must hink about how to retain them within the nation.”

            Language is important, “but let us be honest: if we in the republic are not able to keep the language in the schools … then we have even fewer possibilities of doing so beyond its borders where the major part of Tatars now live.” And if we reduce identity to language, we put ourselves on the direct path to “self-destruction.”

            Calling for families to promote Tatar are nothing more than “beautiful rhetoric which does not have any relationship to real life for in the majority of mixed Russian-Tatar families, the children speak Russian exclusively.” Such mixed families are a fact of life now, making up perhaps a third of all families; and nothing can be done to stop their appearance.

            But none of this means that the nation is lost. There is a powerful basis for its continuation, and that basis lies in Islam. Participation in Islamic religious life is “like an umbilical cord” which links an individual with his people, history and culture even if he does not speak the language.

             Many Tatars, of course, are secular or even atheist; and there are many worthy people among these groups.  But many Russian-speaking Tatars are Muslims, something many who push language above everything else find impossible to imagine. They forget that “religion even without language can support national self-consciousness.”

            To be sure, Batyr says, “not just any conception of Islam serves the goal of the self-preservation of Tatars. Part of the Muslim theologians openly speak against national modes of life.” But Islam understood properly can serve as the basis for the continued existence and even growth of the Tatar nation, even if parts of it speak Russian rather than Tatar.

            The emergence of that kind of Islam needs to be promoted, but the new Strategy document doesn’t even mention religion.

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