Right in the middle of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, stands one of the city’s best-known landmarks, the monument to the poet Musa Jalil. Born into a peasant family, he jumped on the social lift provided by the Bolsheviks and spent all of his adult life being paid by the Soviet government to write in his native language and study Volga Tatar culture. Of course, his poetry and prose were heavily influenced by his very genuine communist beliefs.
Just like Otfried Preußler, Jalil was drafted into the army during World War II and ended up in German captivity. Rather than die of hunger or in a gas chamber
like thousands of Soviet POWs, he chose to join the Idel-Ural Legion
, a military unit formed by the Nazis out of Soviet POWs from Turkic and Finno-Ugric minorities of the Volga region.
It was just one of many ethnic “legions” that were set up by the Nazis under the slogan of liberating nations from “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Its name derived from the failed project of a large Tatar-dominated autonomous area in the Volga region, attempted in 1918. Idel is the Volga in the Tatar language.
The promise of “decolonization” was definitely part of the lure for the Tatar POWs, even though Hitler was not really willing to make this dream come true (when Ukrainian fascists tried to set to a pro-Nazi puppet state
in 1941, they were punished).
The Idel-Ural Legion was destined to be remembered by its particular disloyalty to its German imperial masters. Its members fought poorly and deserted by the hundreds to join Belarusian and Polish partisans. This was not least due to the work of a clandestine communist cell of which Jalil became a member. The organization was eventually betrayed and its members were arrested.
Jalil spent the last six months of his life in Berlin’s Moabit Prison, a half-hour walk from where the Heinrich-Böll Foundation stands today. He was guillotined in February 1944, leaving behind several notebooks of poetry that were preserved by fellow inmates. Known as the “Moabit notebooks,” they ensured his immortality as a Soviet Tatar hero. To comprehend the complexity of the story, it is worth noting that two of the fellow inmates who delivered the notebooks to the Soviet government perished in the Gulag, which could have very well been the plight of Jalil himself had he survived in Germany.
The Idel-Ural brand was also immortalized, in a sense, after the demise of the Third Reich. In the wake of the Cold War, many legionnaires were coopted by American and other Western secret services, along with numerous former Nazi collaborators from the Soviet bloc. With them, the American-led Western alliance inherited – directly from Alfred Rosenberg’s Ostministerium – the idea that the USSR (and its post-1991 heir Russia) should be countered primarily by means of promoting anti-Russian ethnonationalism.
Two alumni of the Idel-Ural Legion (and Rosenberg’s ministry) got to lead the Tatar-Bashkir service of Radio Liberty, an outfit targeting the Soviet bloc tasked with winning the information war, from 1954 to 1989.
In 1959, the US Congress adopted the Captive Nations Act, which listed Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Belarus (under the name of White Ruthenia), as well as East European satellites, such as Poland and Hungary, as nations that needed to be liberated from Soviet enslavement. But in a Tolkienite twist, two imaginary countries, Idel-Ural and Cossackia, were also added.
The idea of Idel-Ural did not really take off after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Tatars enjoyed national revival within the political framework of their existing autonomy. But when Radio Liberty launched its website targeting the Volga region, it was named Idel-Realii, a name that was a bit too obviously consonant with that of the Nazi legion.
Idel-Ural resurfaced in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine at various forums organized by the champions of Ukraine’s war effort. Backed by the PiS, the far-right party that ruled Poland until last fall, the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum featured a few Tolkien-style separatist projects, such as Ingria (St Petersburg area), East Krivia (Pskov Region) and Smalandia (Smolensk Region) – in addition to Idel-Ural.
Via such figures as fugitive Russian politician Ilya Ponomaryov, the forum is linked to the effort by Ukrainian military intelligence to set up various “legions,” “corps” and “battalions” with Russian citizens who wish to fight against Putin’s Russia under the auspices of Ukraine’s International Legion. A few of these units represent various separatist projects in Russia.
Ukrainian defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov famously receives journalists in an office decorated with a map of Russia divided into dozens of imaginary states. He also took pleasure in cutting a cake in the shape of that map on his birthday.