Monday, November 28, 2022

Tatar Writer who Forced Moscow to Change 1959 Census Celebrated

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Nov. 27 – One of the most frequent disappointments those of us who began studying Russia in Soviet times have experienced since 1991 is the failure of many more recent researchers to exploit the new information about lacunae of the Soviet past that were inexplicable to us at the time because of censorship and other restrictions.

            That is especially true about developments then which continue to cast a shadow on the present, and among them few are more intriguing than changes in the way in which the Soviet government conducted censuses and how it defined nationality for purposes of such enumerations.

            At the time of the 1959 Soviet census, something remarkable happened; and only now, thanks to research by Milyausha Khabetdinova of the Kazan Federal University, has that event been explained and the person behind it celebrated (  in Tatar; in Russian).

            The philologist gained access to the private archive Naki Isanbet (1899-1992), a remarkable Tatar literary figure often at odds with the authorities because he did was educated in two medrassahs rather than in Soviet schools and defended jadidism at times when that modernist trend in Islam was under attack by the communists.  (For a useful, albeit fragmentary survey of Isanbet’s remarkable career, seeИсанбет,_Наки .)

            In the run-up to the 1959 Soviet census, the first official enumeration of the population since the heavily falsified 1939 count, the Bashkir government conducted a massive campaign to get anyone in the Bashkir ASSR it could to call themselves Bashkirs rather than Tatars or anything else.

            Among the groups put under particular pressure to do so were the Teptars, Tatars who had moved into the region decades earlier and become, according to Ufa, Bashkirs but who retained their separate identity and distinct language, far closer to Tatar than Bashkir. (On the complicated history of the Teptars, seeТептяри.)

            But the Bashkir ASSR CPSU oblast party leadership insisted that the Teptars be counted as Bashkirs and it appears that many if not all of them were regardless of their personal views or even their declarations to census takers. That might have stood had it not been for the intervention of Isanbet, Khabetdinova says.

            At great risk to his career, the Tatar writer sent letters to senior officials in Moscow decrying what was going on. The KFU philologist offers the following quotation from them:

On the eve of the 1959 census, the Bashkir authoriteis carried out a propaganda campaign declaring that people should declare their nationality on the basis of their self-consciousness even if that did not correspond with their language. [Among those told to do so were the Tiptyars] who were told to identify as Bashkirs … I consider it necessary to state the following: there is no such thing as a nation called the Tiptyars. They are Tatars who came to Bashkortostan. Indeed, the word ‘tiptyar’ means just that: people who have come from elsewhere. That shows they aren’t indigenous inhabitants of Bashkortostan and not of Bashkir nationality. Our village Maloyaz is entirely Tatar.


               Remarkably, Moscow officials accepted his argument and overruled the Bashkir obkom, thus blocking the efforts of Ufa to forcibly reidentify Tatars as Bashkirs at least for the time being. According to Khabetdinova, “the example of Naki Isanbekov should inspire us … a single individual who achieved the reversal of an order of an obkom of the CPSU.”


               He was applauded at the time by the limited number of people who knew what he had done, she says; and he should be applauded now because thanks to him, people learned how to conduct a census and not override the views of those being enumerated, a battle that unfortunately continues to this day.

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