Friday, October 8, 2021

Astrakhan – Where Even Recently Arrived Meskhetians have Their Own Toponyms

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Oct. 4 – Many places in the Russian Federation, including predominantly Russian oblasts and krays and non-Russian autonomies, do not see themselves as multi-national spaces but rather those belonging to the dominant nation; and as a result, they are often less than welcoming to recent arrivals who represent a different culture.

            But there are exceptions; and one of the most important is the area around Astrakhan, a place that from time immemorial viewed by its residents as a multi-ethnic space including Russians, Kazakhs, Kalmyks, Tatars, Nogays and Turkmen, according to IdelUral commentator Todar Baktemir (

            The last group to arrive (so far), the Meskhetian -Turks who left Central Asia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, have in Astrakhan their own toponyms there but not in Rostov Oblast or the Kalmyk Republic because in both of those places the dominant group views control of place names as its exclusive right.

            This multi-cultural identity is found not only in rural areas but in the cities. In Astrakhan itself, there were ethnic quarters in tsarist times, but now, those quarters have lost their ethnic homogeneity. Now, they live among one another, with each adopting words from other languages and cultural values as well.

            This has transformed members of each of the nationalities so that their communities in Astrakhan are often very different from the nation with which they are assumed to be a part. An ethnic Russian Astrakhan resident is different from a Russian in Pskov or Novgorod, and the reason is, Baktemir says, is that the Russian Astrakhan grew up in a multi-cultural milieu.

            Ethnic Russians in the main elsewhere grew up in a mono-cultural one, and thus were less affected by other groups. “The interrelationships of cultures, of course, is not limited to the transformation of Russian identity: this process affects all the peoples of the region to an equal degree.”

            And because of this sharing, people in the region often say: “There is such as nation as the Astrakhan one.” Many of the groups who live there feel closer to others who do than to the nations from which they spring and are assumed to share a common language and culture, Baktemir continues.

            In this, the commentator says, “consists the most important characteristic of Astrakhan regional identity: it is unthinkable without multiculturalism; and this multi-culturalism in a paradoxical way strengthens it, unites its members and does not divide all Astrakhan people.” Indeed, it is stronger than many national identities of groups with their own republics.

            This unique quality is reflected in the following statistic: the total share of the ethnic minorities is higher in Astrakhan than in any oblast and continues to grow. The share of ethnic Russians here is “significantly lower than in Karelia and Khakasiya which have the status of republics.”

            What is surprising, Bektemir says, is that the Soviet authorities, often denounced by Russian nationalists for giving away land to non-Russians, here did just the opposite, holding within Russia an area that could easily have been given to one or another non-Russian nation as part of its homeland.

            And that may be the most important lesson of all: as non-Russians increase in number and move into historically ethnic Russian regions, at least one of the responses of the ethnic Russians may be that of the ethnic Russians in Astrakhan, a response that highlights that the Russian nation is not as unified and with as strong a sense of self-definition as many assume.

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