Tatarstan, an autonomous, ethnic republic in the Russian Federation, declared its sovereignty from the former Soviet Union in 1990. Its citizens' efforts to cultivate a strong national identity and culture have taken different turns over the past twenty-one years. At a 24 January 2011 Kennan Institute event, Helen Faller, independent scholar, Philadelphia, expounded on the past, present, and future of the Tatar self-identity and the Tatarstan sovereignty movement.
Faller began her discussion with a brief history of Tatarstan and its quest for sovereignty. Before Tatarstan declared its sovereignty, Kazan was the provincial capital of the Tatar SSR of the Soviet Union. Tatar culture was largely repressed by Soviet nationalities policies; as a result, the ethnic language was only spoken by the elderly, and only one mosque was in operation. However, Faller explained that the post-Soviet transformation provided ethnic Tatars the opportunity for cultural expression, and also helped to create a "Tatar public sphere".
Since the 1990s, the local populace's promotion of Tatarstan sovereignty and national identity has largely been presented in opposition to what citizens perceived as the Russian state's prejudice against their national culture. Perhaps as a result of this dynamic, Tatar sentiment toward Russians is simultaneously accepting, yet skeptical.
The sovereignty movement sought to promote Tatar culture and gradually establish national independence. However, Tatar sovereignty as a political movement diminished once Putin rose to power in 2000, particularly after he consolidated the power of the Russian state in the central government. Consequently, increased restrictions from social and political institutions prevented Tatarstan's sovereignty initiative from reaching its full potential.
Despite the Putin administration's policies, certain local government projects aimed at bolstering the quality of life in Tatarstan have continued. For example, the Tatar government invested $9.5 billion into renovating and modernizing Kazan in preparation for the capital's millennial celebration. This project was part of a larger initiative that Faller described as the regional government's attempt to "make Tatar culture attractive." Notable renovation projects included laying the first 5.4 miles of track for one of the world's most expensive metro systems in Kazan; restorations of historical and public spaces; and major renovations to Kazan's main pedestrian thoroughfare, Bauman Street, which developed into a commercial and social hub of downtown Kazan.
As Faller illustrated, by 2006 Kazan was no longer a provincial, Soviet town—indeed, it had a new spirit, cosmopolitanism, and energy. She cited numerous changes as evidence of this post-Soviet transformation and urban rebirth: cell phones were ubiquitous; the number of cars increased; and old customs gave way to modern trends in terms of style and self expression. Although youth spoke Russian fluently, a "marked Tatar speech genre" reflected their self-identification as Tatar. Such changes, which Faller described, characterize the new 21st century Kazan.
The All World Tatar Youth Forum, an annual conference designed to promote awareness of Tatar culture, served as an ideal lens through which Faller further examined the recent changes in Tatar culture. The forum she attended, held in Kazan in 2006, included young student participants from around the world who were either of Tatar ethnicity or simply interested in Tatar culture. Despite the general amiability and harmony of the group, there were moments of disconnect and outright division, particularly between the dozen or so conservative Muslim Tatars and everyone else, said Faller. Some of the participants found that normative "Tatar behavior" conflicted with their conservative Muslim values during certain aspects of the forum. Withdrawal from the group's activities by the conservative Muslims is incongruous with habitual Tatar social behavior, Faller explained, which is based on a need for openness and connection to the people in one's surroundings.
Indeed, the conflict between religious and cultural values was not limited to the World Tatar Youth Forum, Faller noted. She extrapolated on a significant cultural development among Tatars: increased religiosity. Although young people were once the most visibly religious, Faller noted that religiosity was increasing among people raised under Soviet rule as well.. The heightened presence of Muslim religiosity affected culture, daily life and social norms, Faller noted. Further, religion emerged as a popular topic among those invested in nation-building in Tatarstan, as it was integral to constructing Tatar national identity.
Faller concluded that the attention of the Tatarstan sovereignty movement has shifted away from political discourse, in which Tatars see less hope, towards religion. The inability to make lasting and significant political change—in large part because of Tatarstan's location in the heart of Russia—has caused Tatars to turn to their Muslim faith as a means of expressing their ethnic identity and making sense of out the world in which they live. According to Faller, although the Federation Council has recently reapproved Tatarstan's special status, sovereignty has been greatly limited under Putin and is all but dead as a political movement. Shortly before finishing, the speaker raised an important question for the Russian state, which affects both Russians and Tatars alike: what is the role of Tatarstan in understanding Russia as a multinational state? Until that question is answered in a way that is culturally respectful and satisfies both groups' interests, Tatars will continue to look uneasily at the current government in Moscow and remain uncertain about their future sovereignty.
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute