Before Dismantling the Federation: A few things to know about Tatarstan
September 20, 2022
  • Gulnaz Sibgatullina
    Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam 
Gulnaz Sibgatullina warns against assumptions that regions like Tatarstan univocally support the idea of complete independence from Russia as a means of protecting their minority rights. Profound decolonization for Tatars implies a long-term process of relearning their own history and agency.
Map of the Republic of Tatarstan. Source: Wiki Commons
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived the notorious image of the Empire as a prison of nations: not only neighboring Ukraine but also non-Russian ethnic groups within the Russian Federation are increasingly seen through the prism of colonialism. All subjects of Moscow’s dominance – within and adjacent to Russian borders – should have the right of self-determination, the decolonization argument goes. Such a step, which could arguably lead to the immediate dissolution of Russia along regional borders, is deemed necessary if Russia is to become a reliable partner in future European security frameworks.

The disintegration of the USSR and the decolonization framework

The decolonization debate portrays the ongoing war in Ukraine as Russia’s “third chance” to redefine itself in more egalitarian terms: the first window of opportunity opened in 1917 with the fall of the Russian empire, while the second appeared in 1991, the year that marked the end of the Soviet Union. Through such a historical prism, the disintegration of the USSR is seen not so much in terms of the Cold War but as part of a colonial struggle: amid political and economic uncertainty, nationalism among ethnic minorities was a potent force in 1991 that could have unleashed the decolonization-through-dissolution that had been postponed for decades.

When the Soviet Union crumbled along the borders of constituent republics, Russia became one of the 15 independent states. Concurrently, regional units that had been Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics within Russia, now reinvented as the Russian Federation, declared themselves sovereign political entities, demanding autonomy and resolute federalization. The 1992 Treaty of Federation – accepted by all but two of Russia’s ethnic republics – boosted the decision-making powers of these autonomous areas but prohibited secession.

Tatarstan was one of the two regions where tangible nationalist movements demanded even greater independence from the federal center. The republic eventually negotiated a special power delimitation agreement with Moscow in 1994, which granted Tatarstan substantial independence in local affairs. (Chechnya was the other region that refused to sign the 1992 agreement; its bid for independence resulted in two bloody wars in the North Caucasus.)

Today, with Russia’s war against Ukraine and the possibility of a power vacuum emerging in Moscow, observers forecast a comeback of ethnic minority nationalism; some expectTatarstan, 30 years later, to be again among the leaders of the separatist movements.

What would the genuine emancipation of Tatars entail?

The conversation about the need to decolonize Russia by freeing its ethnic minorities from Russian imperialism – not only institutionally, but also by a geographic separation – justly brings public attention to the country’s complex ethnic composition. However, such debates tend to have several inherent flaws, which risk turning decolonization plans, however well-intended, into top-down constructions that will do ethnic minorities in Russia more harm than good.
First, advocates of defederation assume that regions like Tatarstan univocally support the idea of complete independence from Russia as the only viable means to protect Tatar minority rights. Whether authored by Russian or Western authors, such assumptions are at best an appropriation of the ethnic minority opinion and at worst an act of depriving a minority of its agency and voice.

Secondly, the image of Tatars as a homogenous ethnic group, hermetically sealed within the existing regional borders, feeds into an essentialized definition of Tatarness, which risks reproducing deep-rooted colonial generalizations. Direct parallels to 1991 (and even 1917) presume that Tatars’ self-consciousness hasn’t changed (and never will) – in fact, this ignores the significant transformations in Tatarstan over the decades.

Finally, there are substantial differences between Soviet-shaped and post-Soviet generations that many observers tend to ignore but that prevent the persistence of ethnic nationalism à la the 1990s.
"To foster the genuine emancipation of Tatars, we should not look for signs of ethnic separatism on the rise but instead pay close attention to the existing grassroots movements."
Some of the latter advocate creative redefinitions of minority identity that have the potential to decolonize on a much deeper level.
Bilingual guide in Kazan Metro. Source: Wiki Commons
Tatarstan: Frustration is real but not uniform

In its current form, Russian federalism is defective. The existing inequality across the federal subjects, as well as regional elites’ current lack of autonomy to independently resolve local issues, visibly fuels social frustration in the regions. In the case of Tatarstan, this frustration has been building up, particularly over the last 10-15 years, as many Tatars have become increasingly embittered by the repeated attacks on minority rights and dissatisfied with the inability of Tatarstan’s political elites to offer resistance.

These political elites – in their vast majority ethnic Tatars – were brought to power by the national movement in the early 1990s. After the successful 1994 agreement on power delimitation with Moscow, they opted for good relations with the federal center; even if that meant a gradual but steady relinquishing of previous gains. When he was building the “power vertical” in the 2000s, Putin began curtailing rights granted to regions under Yeltsin, yet official Tatarstan hardly lodged a protest.
Over the years, neither Mintimer Shaimiev, Tatarstan’s first president, who continues to be involved in regional politics but mainly behind the scenes, nor his henchman Rustam Minnikhanov, the incumbent head of the republic, showed resistance to Moscow as Tatarstan’s special privileges were chipped away. In 2017, Moscow didn’t prolong the power-sharing agreement, effectively revoking Tatarstan’s right of self-governance; a 2021 decree prohibited Tatarstan from using the term “president” for its executive leader – though a symbolic move, it left no doubt that Putin isn’t interested in sharing control with regional heads.

Tatarstan has not only let go of symbols that marked its special status among the federal subjects. It also seems to be losing the struggle for the Tatar language. Officially, both Tatar and Russian are state languages in the republic; in practice, however, the use of Tatar has continuously declined. There are internal reasons for poor language acquisition. Language revival programs sponsored by Tatarstan’s government after 1991 have failed to achieve real bilingualism in the republic: Russian continues to be the language of upward mobility, whereas Tatar is limited to the cultural sphere and informal communication. Still, Moscow decided to speed up the language decline and recently delivered painful blows.

First, under pressure from the center, in 2016 the major university in the republic closed its Department of Tatar Language and Literature, which had curated a program to train Tatar language teachers; a year later, Tatar ceased to be a mandatory class at schools in the republic altogether. Local protests against the decisions didn’t bring any change.

It is the case that the invasion of Ukraine has further antagonized those Tatars who were already critical of Moscow’s policy toward the ethnic minority. For them, the fact that the Parliament of Tatarstan unanimously approved the Russian army’s operations in Ukraine wasn’t unexpected; however, the support for the war expressed by the World Congress of Tatars – an organization that claims to represent all Tatars, including diasporas worldwide – caused some discontent. (At this year’s congress, prominent foreign participants were absent, while the endorsement of Moscow’s foreign policy by the Congress leadership was supposedly articulated without prior consultations with Congress members.)

However, the Tatars who regard this war as another manifestation of Russia’s imperial project constitute only a share of the ethnic minority. Others feel the need to root for Tatars (and Russians) fighting in Ukraine. Some openly support the “special operation” – out of conviction or under pressure; some, driven by economic or ideological reasons, join special battalions of Tatarstan residents to fight in Ukraine. There is no reliable data on the views among Tatars toward the war, but anecdotal evidence suggests that antiwar sentiment in the republic is less deep than observers suggest.
Mind the generational gap

The existing differences across the Tatar population are an important factor to take into account when judging the likelihood of a separatist mobilization. In Tatarstan, like in Russia as a whole, the war has further deepened existing social cleavages, especially those running between generations. It is primarily young urban Tatars who have spoken out against the war. In the current circumstances, they are likely to face state repression for their civic activism. Meanwhile, those with the means are more inclined to leave the country. Rural youth in Tatarstan, more limited in terms of their economic and mobility opportunities, finds itself under pressure to follow the official line.

Reactions to the war among the older, Soviet generation of Tatars are probably in line with the general trends. Older respondents are more likely to voice support for the invasion, though attitudes vary depending on the timing of the survey and types of posed questions. A few available interviews reveal that even those Tatars whose children have joined the Russian army in Ukraine may internalize the official media discourse or be indifferent to the political reasons for the conflict. In other words, also among ethnic minorities there exists a share of war supporters and those who prefer not to think about it.

Portraying Tatars as a unified, anti-imperialism-driven group means ignoring the generational divide, which in turn leads to the misrepresentation of the Soviet generation’s grievances. Older Tatars are likely to regard the talk about the dissolution of Russia as another sign of the West’s intervention in Russia’s internal affairs and would resist revisiting the trauma of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The Russian state, in fact, has been successful in constructing an inclusive civilizational identity that exists on a supranational level. Yes, the Russkii mir ideology may not be liked by ethnic minorities within Russia, but its appeal comes from the promise of protection against attacks from foreign forces militarily, economically and most importantly culturally.
"The fear of the 'godless' and 'liberal' West among ethnic minorities can often be more potent than the fear of familiar Russian chauvinism."
In discussing the regional struggles for self-realization and protection of minority rights, we should not project the decolonization framework as the only possible way to perceive the brutal conflict in Ukraine. For many, critique of the pressure to Russify and support for the Russian army are not mutually exclusive standpoints.

Advocacy for more autonomy, not so much for independence

As discussed above, there is a group of Tatars who do actively oppose the shrinking autonomy of Tatarstan and are concerned about preserving the minority language. Yet, even in this group, not everyone views separation from Russia as the only possible solution to minority problems.

Among those who advocate for Tatarstan’s complete independence is Free Idel-Ural (Svobodnyi Idel-Ural). Created back in 2018 in Kyiv, it positions itself as a “civil movement of the peoples of the Volga region” and demands complete autonomy for Tatarstan along with the other ethnic republics in the Volga-Ural region: Mordovia, Chuvashia, Mari El, Udmurtia and Bashkortostan. The organization received media visibility after February 24 as a leading decolonization initiative headed by non-Russians. Its declaration, adopted in July, states the need for a “complete, controlled” dissolution of Russia into at least 34 independent states.

However, it is unlikely that the organization can steer any nationalist mobilization in Tatarstan from the bottom-up. Rafis Kashapov, who within the Free Idel-Ural speaks on behalf of Tatars, is a well-known figure. A relentless, veteran advocate for minority rights, he is the deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Tatar government in exile.” The “government in exile” has existed since 2008 but represented only a marginal group among the older generation of Tatar nationalists who advocated Tatarstan’s independence since 1991 and never fully accepted the 1994 power delimitation treaty. Currently run by émigré Tatar nationalists, the “government in exile,” similar to Free Ideal-Ural, lacks political legitimacy and hence real influence in the republic.

Other Tatar activists are more cautious with advocating Tatarstan’s independence, anticipating the inevitable challenges that would follow the separation from Russia. First, Tatarstan is an inland republic that, if it alone seceded, would become a landlocked enclave. Secondly, about 40% of the population in the republic is ethnic Russians. The nation-building process after independence is likely to endorse exclusive Tatar identity through de-Russification, which would pressure non-Tatars to leave Tatarstan (not unlike the case of Kazakhstan, where as a result of a slow but steady de-Russification policy the sizeable Russian population has dropped by almost a half over the last 33 years and continues to decline). In Tatarstan, where the reality is that Russian villages coexist next to Tatar ones and a third of marriages registered each year in the capital are mixed, this would lay the foundation for prolonged ethnic tensions.

Finally, political independence doesn’t guarantee economic freedom, and close economic integration with Russia has been an essential argument against secession. Hedgehog Way (Kerpe yulï), a civic organization under the leadership of Lenar Miftaxnïqï, advocates a new redistribution of powers between Moscow and Tatarstan; ideally it would be a return to the status quo reached in 2000 when the republic had autonomous rights to make decisions related to domestic affairs.

According to Miftaxnïqï, Tatarstan should remain part of the federation but demand more political autonomy. Within a rebalanced federation, Tatarstan could defend its economic and political interests jointly with other federation subjects – ethnic and non-ethnic regions – thereby keeping the federal center in check, he argues. Regional autonomy, when granted as a result of broader democratization processes, would also imply more freedom in minority culture and language policy, a development in line with the current demands of many Tatar activists.

A move toward independence has neither been a majority position in Tatarstan before February 24 nor does it reflect popular opinion today. For regions like Tatarstan, which geographically and economically, as well as in terms of ethnic composition, have been deeply intertwined with Russia for centuries, decolonization through secession would inevitably bring severe ruptures and escalate social tensions. And those advocating such a development should speak openly about the real risks linked to the creation of new ethnic states.
Volga Tatar retired professional tennis player Marat Safin, 2008. Source: Wiki Commons
“Tatar” is not a static identity

Another problematic aspect of the current decolonization rhetoric is that it uses “Tatar” as a self-explanatory notion. It assumes there exists a homogenous ethnic group that is different from ethnic Russians, without providing much further explanation. However, these differences between Russians and Tatars do matter for the emancipation cause.

Official interpretations of Tatarness promoted in the post-Soviet period both in Tatarstan and elsewhere have practically recreated Soviet symbolism of the minority culture: the focus of “permitted” Tatar nationalism has been on cultural issues, such as ethnic dress, music, food and festivities – the symbols stripped of any political connotations. Those attempting to redefine Tatar identity beyond Soviet cliches, for instance by challenging official interpretations of Tatar history, have risked persecution for “inciting ethnic hatred.” Nevertheless, there has been a growing realization that the revival/preservation of ethnic Tatar identity can’t be limited only to the struggle against Moscow. Political freedom is impossible without intellectual emancipation – unlearning self-perception models imposed by the colonial ruler – something that needs to originate from within the community.
"Profound decolonization for Tatars implies a complex and importantly long-term process of relearning their own history and subjectivity outside of the Russian gaze."
And it is not a fact that ethnic nationalism would be the most effective framework to achieve this goal. Deputy Director of the History Institute in Tatarstan and Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam Alfrid Bustanov, for instance, has suggested going beyond the concept of nation (natsiia) and rethinking Tatarness in terms of “post-nation.” For him, the Soviet construction of the Tatar and Bashkir ethnic identities wiped out the wide variety of local subjectivities that had been shaped by a common Turkic-Islamic culture. By insisting on simplified ethnic identities, he argues, Tatars and Bashkirs amplify differences that were minor before the Soviet period (while these differences are currently defining identity markers for the two closely related ethnic groups).

Exclusive Tatar nationalism risks alienating not only other ethnic groups in Tatarstan and neighboring regions but also those Tatars who find it difficult to fit into narrowly defined ethnic boundaries because of their birthplace, language skills or religion. In Russia, many Tatars, especially outside Tatarstan, are unable to communicate freely in their native tongue, let alone teach their children. Even in the largest Tatar diasporas in Turkey, the US and the UAE – about one million in total – parents are likely to teach their children local languages and global lingua francas at the cost of minority Tatar. Ruslan Aisin, a Tatar activist and creator of the TatPolit media channel, has argued that to preserve the Tatar ethnic group in a globalizing world, it may be necessary to rethink Tatarness. This step may even require going beyond language and grounding Tatar identity instead in a unique kind of self-consciousness (though what specifically this would entail he doesn’t articulate). Equally problematic is an emphasis on religion (Islam) as the defining element of the ethnic group. Kriashens, who identify themselves as Tatars but profess Orthodox Christianity constitute a historical community (albeit created as a result of the Russian conquest) on the territory of Tatarstan. They risk becoming pressured to assimilate either as Orthodox Christian Russians or as Muslim Tatars if exclusive nationalism is to be practiced.

The discourse on decolonization, under the premise of advocating minority rights, should not simplify Tatarness as something singular and static. The top-down imposition of ethnic identity – defined primarily through “traditional” markers, such as language and religion – can do little to undo coloniality and in some cases may even reaffirm colonial structures. It also requires an honest self-awareness on the side of decolonization advocates, who often continue to operate from a position of authority, on how they portray ethnic minorities and how much agency they ascribe to them.


Being Tatar was a complex identity before 1991, shaped not least by various political regimes in Russia, interruptions caused by the changes in Tatar writing scripts – from Arabic to Latin and then to Cyrillic in a matter of 12-15 years – and continuously revisited historical narratives about Tatars’ origin. The trauma of 1991 and the tumultuous post-Soviet transition have only added to the already conflicting, almost patchwork collective memory. There is a desire to reconcile but also a real fear of another break. Emancipation through decolonization would mean recovering and piecing these disordered memories together and helping Tatars to come to terms with the past – a slow and tedious process that will require caution.
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