When Vladimir Putin visited Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, for the celebration of the city’s millennium in 2005, he gave the kind of speech typical of such occasions, full of praise for the city’s long and diverse history.

“In Kazan, one can see all the advantages of Russia’s statehood – its ancient history and its multiethnic and multiconfessional nature. Kazan has played a unique role in the formation of a united people of Russia,” Putin said.

Only the Tatars had apparently gone too far down the road to uniqueness in one way at least, because three years earlier Putin had put his signature to a law making Cyrillic the only alphabet permitted to be used for official languages in all Russian provinces, thus nipping Tatarstan’s ongoing conversion to the Latin alphabet in the bud. Tatarstan and neighboring Bashkortostan had already been banned from printing one of their official languages, Tatar, in Latin script in 2000 on the grounds that Tatarstan’s adoption of the Latin alphabet posed a threat to national security.

In her book Nation, Language, Islam: Tatarstan’s Sovereignty Movement (Central European University Press, 2011), Helen M. Faller devotes much time to the fascinating twists and turns of Tatar orthography, and more time dissecting the interplay between Tatar speakers and Russian speakers in Kazan. Her book is less about the sovereignty movement (which she pronounces dead) than about how the world view of the Tatar-speakers in Tatarstan has transformed radically since the late Soviet period. This transformation

“has caused them to see the world in ways profoundly different from Russian-speakers.”

The drive for sovereignty may be dead, but nation-building goes on although perhaps at a slower pace than in the 1990s. Faller draws a useful distinction between nation-builders and ethnicity-based nationalists. Where the standard model of nationalism theory stresses belief in a unified, geographically limited community bound together by a common language, Faller writes that she didn’t find this among the Tatars she got to know during many visits to the country. (Most of her sources were women; if there are heroes in her book, they are the resourceful Tatar-speaking women.) There are no “average” Tatar-speakers, and the boundaries between “Tatar culture” and “other cultures” are “permeable and shifting.”

And no wonder, any culture whose language underwent the manipulations suffered by Tatar over the past century would almost have to learn to shift with the tides of history.

After centuries of neglect after the brutal Russian invasion of 1552, the Tatar language, like others, become a lab specimen for Soviet cultural scientists. The Arabic script used to write all of Russia’s Turkic languages was regarded as difficult and anti-modern, so in the ’20s planners inspired by Lenin’s theory of national self-determination made the Tatars, Azeris, Turkmen, etc., adopt the Latin alphabet, which they saw as more progressive than Cyrillic. In the ’30s Stalin’s Russo-centric views became the fashion, and the Turkic languages were ordered to use only Cyrillic. One linguist put the view that as Tatar came more and more under the influence of Russian it was beginning to transform from an agglutinative language (representing a lower order of progress) to a modern, inflected one, like Russian, and should now undergo changes in orthography, phonetics, and morphology.

Another language lurch was in the offing as the Soviet system began to collapse in the 1980s, but this time it was pushed by the Tatars themselves. Like other Turkic-speaking regions in the Soviet orbit, the Tatars re-embraced the Latin script as a means to embody their newly liberated dreams of self-determination. However, most of the other Turkic areas on the outer ring of the old Soviet boundaries were now independent countries, leaving the Republic of Tatarstan marooned deep in the Russian heartland. Even so, in 1992, 61 percent of voters supported a referendum measure to establish the republic as a sovereign state – while remaining within the Russian Federation.

That may have flown during the heyday of Boris Yeltsin, but later, after Chechnya exploded and Putin emerged as Yeltsin’s successor, the Kremlin was having none of it. The Russian Constitutional Court ruled against sovereignty declarations by Tatarstan and other republics. (Historical note: the Soviet Union comprised 15 union republics possessing, on paper, the right to self-determination. Every one of them is now a separate, independent state. None of the second-level republics within the Russian Federation became independent; only one that I know of seriously tried to do so: Chechnya.)

Alongside Faller’s study, another recent book looks at the Kremlin’s sustained campaign to whittle away Tatarstan’s sovereignty and even control the alphabet used in its schoolbooks. Katherine E. Graney’s Of Khans and Kremlins: Tatarstan and the Future of Ethno-Federalism in Russia (Lexington Books, 2009). The two authors draw dramatically differing conclusions. For Graney, Tatarstan’s nation-builders grew if anything stronger under the withering fire led by Putin.

“In fact, Tatarstan used the Putin-era attacks by Moscow to defend even more forcefully its right to possess sovereignty, and to position itself even more directly as the chief guardian of federalism … and the rights of non-Russian peoples in Russia.”

Indeed, “[T]he vigorous response that Tatarstan mounted to the Putin administration’s equally powerful challenge to regional sovereignty actually generated a federation-building process that has powerful positive implications for Russia’s future development. … Tatarstan’s spirited defense of regional sovereignty forced Moscow to adopt a more flexible and responsive attitude towards federalism and the regions in general …”

Faller’s vision of Tatarstan, and Russia, is much bleaker.

“… Tatarstan sovereignty no longer exists as a political movement. The majority of Tatar-speakers have lost hope in the possibility of changing their society into one more equitable than that which existed during the Soviet period,” she writes in conclusion. Anxiety and despair are pulling Tatars in two directions – toward religiosity and, for younger people, toward digitally-based cultural and language activism. “What these two trends mean for Russia’s future development as a multi-national state is unclear, though it is unlikely that a peaceful transition towards inclusive pluralism will occur in the foreseeable future.”

Regretfully, I incline more to Faller’s than Graney’s conclusion.

Image: The logo for the “I speak Tatar!” actions held by the Tatar youth group Üzebez. Source: uzebez.org/

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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