Friday, March 10, 2023

‘The Wolf will Eat What is Divided’ – Tatars Outraged by Moscow’s Decision to Declare Siberian Tatar a Separate Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 8 – Moscow is undoubtedly pleased that the total number of Tatars fell by 600,000 since 2010, but the Russian authorities can’t be pleased by the fact that one of the primary tactics they used in the past to reduce the number of Tatars completely failed during the last inter-censal period.

            That method consisted in pushing members of sub-national communities within the Tatars to identify as members of those groups rather than as Tatars, an effort most notoriously deployed with the Kryashens, Siberian Tatars, and Astrakhan Tatars (

            But according to the results of the latest 2021 census, only one Tatar in twelve in Siberia chose to declare himself or herself a Siberian Tatar. Had more done so, the number of Kazan Tatars, the largest non-Russian nation in the Russian Federation would have fallen by far more than it did.

            Now, Moscow has decide to counterattack, with the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences declaring the language of the Siberian Tatars to be not a dialect of Tatar but rather a separate language, the first step given Moscow’s linguistic-centered approach to nationality to making the Siberian Tatars a separate nation.

            That decision was taken on February 22 after two Tatar scholars made a three-hour presentation in which they insisted that Siberian Tatars speak a dialect of Tatar but that their literary language is Kazan Tatar. Moscow scholars rejected that, sparking outrage in Tatarstan (

            Among the most outspoken critics of what Moscow has done is Mileusha Khabutdinova, a literature specialist at Kazan Federal University. She described the Moscow decision as “dangerous” and complained that the government of Tatarstan not spoken out forcefully against it.

            “I was just shocked” by the decision, she says. Moscow “declares to our faces that ‘there is no Tatar nation; it was simply invented by the Soviets.’” No one responded at the meeting to this outrage and Tatarstan to this day remains largely “silent.” Officials don’t want to talk about it at all.

            According to Khabutdinova, “the state should stand behind our scientists. One of the branches of the Tatar language is being taken away. Will Mishar be next? Will we wait until that happens?” Of course, languages need to be studied. “But the Russians don’t divide their language into dialects lest they destroy it.”

            However, she continues, Moscow insists on dividing up Tatar. As people in Tatarstan say, “belenganne bure ashar,” Tatar for “the world will eat what is divided.”

            Damir Iskhakov, a senior Tatar historian and member of the council of the World Congress of Tatars, says that Moscow’s decision has led some Siberian Tatars to leave organizations Moscow has clearly sponsored. They don’t want the Tatars to be divided as a nation or by language.

            According to the historian, “now we must bring to the attention of society that the Tatar language is at risk of being broken into pieces and collect the views of the people.” Kazan linguists and officials must have an opinion on this; and if they don’t already, they need to come up with one.

            And the chairman of the World Congress of Tatars, Danis Shakirov says bluntly: what has just happened is “a manifestation of the policy which has been carried out for many years.” The Siberian Tatars are against it, and they need the support of all Tatars wherever they live – and they need it now.

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