Thursday, July 22, 2021

Putin’s Talk about Unity of Russians and Ukrainians Prompts Kazan Scholar to Speak about Unity of Turkic Peoples

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 16 – Vladimir Putin’s essay arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are one people has prompted Rafael Khakimov, a leading Tatar historian and former political advisor to Mintimir Shaymiyev, to consider what applying Putin’s theses means for the future of the Turkic world. Khakimov’s conclusions aren’t what Putin would like anyone to draw.

            “Historically,” Khakimov says, “the Turkic peoples formed on the territory of the Turkic khanate … extending from the Caspian to the Danube.” They were “close in culture and language,” and even borrowings from Arabic and Persian and later Russian did not change that fundamentally (

            Tatars had a written language centuries ago. It served as the lingua franca of the Turkic peoples and as the diplomatic language Russian rulers used with Persia, the historian continues. But despite that, first tsarist Russia and then the Soviets did everything they could to divide this common people into separate groups in order to reduce the importance of the whole.

            After the Bolshevik revolution, Moscow viewed the existence of “an enormous mass of Tatars in the center of the country” as “a threat, especially when the Tatars were able for a brief time to create an Idel-Ural state. Having suppressed that, the Soviets proceeded to divide up the Turkic peoples starting with the division of Tatars and Bashkirs.

            To achieve their ends, the Soviets began to treat “ethnographic and territorial differences … as markers of separate peoples and nations,” even though those had never been important as dividing lines in the past. And having divided these peoples, Moscow moved quickly to strip them of all real powers.

            The center built up Bashkortostan to weaken Tatarstan, but at the end of Soviet times, Tatarstan chose a more independent past and surged ahead, leaving Bashkortostan behind, Khakimov says. But that was not the only and not the most important thing that was taking place at the same time.

            He points out that “the Tatar language which is spoken not only by Tatars but by a significant portion of the Bashkirs was recognized as the western dialect of Bashkir; and the rise of the Internet brought these languages closer together, back to almost the same tongue they had been in earlier centuries.

            As a result, Moscow’s “old and tested policy of dividing the Tatars and Bashkirs” now faces serious challenges because “the development of the Internet is weakening the significance of administrative and state borders,” especially as Tatarstan has a permissive approach to the launching of websites and Bashkirs turn to them increasingly.

            Khakimov notes that “from time to time,” the Russian media is filled with stories about the possibility of combining regions to improve the administration of the country as a whole. This talk hasn’t really taken off, but it certainly could. Forming a Volga-Ural Republic would certainly be appropriate, although that is something Moscow opposes.

            Indeed, he says, the central Russian government uses any talk of such a formation as the next step toward the disintegration of the country. But it could be the basis for the creation of real federalism in Russia, one that in the Middle Volga would rest on a new division of financial powers and the recognition of the commonality of the Tatars and Bashkirs. 

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