Friday, May 22, 2020

Tatar-Bashkir Conflict over Northwest Dialect Parallels Russian-Ukrainian Dispute, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 20 – For students of ethnicity, one of Sigmund Freud’s most important insights was his insistence on “the narcissism of small differences,” the notion that individuals or groups who are close to each other on many measures are more likely to focus only on those differences and to clash with each other on the basis of those, ignoring commonalities.

            That is true among many closely related nationalities in the former Soviet space, and Kharun Sidorov compares the way that works in two pairs of peoples there, the Russians and Ukrainians, on the one hand, and the Bashkirs and the Tatars, on the other (

            Sidorov, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam, is especially sensitive to this process because of his own experiences.  And he suggests that those examining such conflicts need to focus not only on the motives and goals of each side but on the underlying conditions which have given rise to such conflicts.

            In both of these pairs, there is a fundamental conflict over the basis of defining who is a member of one nation and who is a member of the other.  In the Russian-Ukrainian case, most Russians believe that “if an individual speaks and thinks in Russian, was formed in a common cultural and historical space, that individual is a Russian” regardless of his family name.

            For most Ukrainians, in contrast, “an individual of Ukrainian origin who has grown up and lives among Ukrainians is a Ukrainian even if he speaks and thinks in Russian,” because the latter behavior is “a result of the Russification of the Ukrainian people and not a circumstance which defines his identity.”

            That distinction at the level of ideology has its roots in the contrasting ideas of Russian nationalist Nikolay Trubetskoy and Ukrainian nationalist Yuri Lipa who clashed on whether the Ukrainian people were to be viewed as a subgroup of the Russian nation but very much part of it or as a separate nation altogether.

            The current disputes between Tatars and Bashkirs have a similar background, with the Tatars following a logic similar to the Russian while the Bashkirs insist on one like the Ukrainian – that is, with the Tatars insisting that high urban culture is what matters and the Bashkirs focusing on “’blood and soil.’”

            Of course, there are differences as well as similarities, Sidorov says.  Lipa opposed the Russian speaking city, the Ukrainian village “as the source and reservoir of organize Ukrainianism,” while Bashkir nationalists have counterposed families and clans to larger ethnic projects.

            “The difference of these two approaches manifested itself at the beginning of the 20th century” when Tatars promoted the idea of extra-territorial cultural autonomy for all the Muslim peoples of the Russian Empire and the Bashkirs in contrast sought to create a localized but specifically ethno-national republic.

            But just as with the creation of a Ukrainian state, “the appearance of a separate Bashkortostan did not put an end ot collisions of ethnicity among disputes populations and territories. For Tatar-Bashkir relations, these remain the northwestern districts of Bashkortostan, most of whose population considers itself Tatars.

            Those who advocate on their behalf and demand that Tatar be recognized as a state language in Bashkortostan alongside Bashkir and Russian are acting in many ways like Russians who demand that Russian be recognized as a state language of Ukraine alongside Ukrainian, Sidorov says.

            “Backers of the Bashkir project, just like backers of the Ukrainian project, insist on the inviolability of recognized and existing borders” and view linguistic divisions as the project or even invention of those who would weaken the Bashkir state. Many Bashkir activists thus demand that Tatar as spoken in this region be recognized as a dialect of Bashkir.

            That echoes the ideas of some Ukrainians who argue that Russian as spoken in Ukraine must be understood as “Ukrainian Russian” rather than Russian as such. Not surprisingly such notions are rejected by many Russians especially in the Russian Federation.  And Bashkir demands are rejected for the same reason by Tatars in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan itself.

            “Tatar activists just like a section of Bashkir nationalists accuse the Bashkortostan Republic authorities” of conducting a campaign about popularizing the northwestern dialect of Bashkir as helping Moscow by distracting attention from the common threat to Bashkirs and Tatars emanating from the Russian capital. 

            But “regardless of who stands behind this campaign, the projects of northwestern Bashkirs and a northwestern dialect of the Bashkir language are of a kind that today traditional Tatar identity encounters” not only there but among Tatars in Astrakhan, Siberia and elsewhere, the commentator says.

            That Moscow is promoting such divisions is beyond question, but that they reflect some underlying realities and differences is equally true.  “If the Tatar project was formed in the paradigm of high urban culture of a large imperial space which sought to include within itself all its bearers,” those competing with it have a different agenda.

            “The projects of the Bashkirs, Nogays and Siberian Tatars are centrifugal and primordialist which corresponds to the logic of the establishment of post-imperial nations and ethnoses,” Sidorov says. That is the same division which animates the conflicting understanding of nationhood between the Russians and the Ukrainians.

            He notes in conclusion that one of the reasons Russians are so obsessed with denying this alternative understanding is that it could easily play back into the Russian Federation and promote divisions within the Russian nation there, with regional groupings insisting on their distinctive primordial as opposed to state-defined nationality.

            And what makes the situation in the Middle Volga ironic is that the Tatars are employing arguments similar to the Russians in defense of their position while the Bashkirs are employing ones like the Ukrainians, even though neither recognizes that fact and thus often falls into the trap of adopting what to outsiders looks like double standards, Sidorov says.

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