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Volga Tatars

Дата публикации: 20 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
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Ethnonyms: Bulghar, Kazanlï, Mishär, Mösälman, Tatar



The Volga Tatars are the westernmost of all Turkic ethnic groups living in the former Soviet Union. Among them, there are two major groups, the Kazan Tatars and the Mishars, who share a common literary language and culture despite ethnogenetic and linguistic particularities. The Volga Tatars live mainly in Tatarstan and Bashkirstan in Russia, but they can also be found in large numbers in other areas of Russia as well as in the republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in particular. As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, Volga Tatars preferred to identify themselves and to be identified by others as "Mösälman" (Muslims), in addition to using ethnonyms such as "Kazanlï," "Bulghar," and "Mishär." The Russians and other peoples identified them simply as "Tatars," a practice which often led to confusion, since Russians used the ethnonym to designate any Muslim of Turkic ethnic background living in European Russia and the Caucasus. The ethnonym "Tatar" was less than universally embraced because the popular as well as official identification of the Volga Tatars with the Mongol Tatars of the thirteenth century was at the root of the stigma attached to it. The ethnonym "Tatar" was controversial then, a quality it retained into the 1990s, when glasnost and perestroika made possible the renewal of the ethnonymic debates. The name of their homeland has changed since the tenth century from "Bulghar" to "Kazan," "Idel-Ural," and "Tatarstan" or "Tataria." In the Soviet system, their titular republic was called Tatarstan Avtonomiyale Sovet Sotsialistik Respublikase. Tatarstan is presently part of the Russian Federation formed in 1992.


Most Volga Tatars live in the middle Volga's forest and forest-steppe zone (Tatarstan) and in the southern Ural Mountains (Bashkirstan), an area encompassing 211,600 square kilometers. The ecology, economy, culture, and history of the region have been shaped to a great extent by the rivers that cross it: Volga, Kama, Viatka, Sura, Sviaga, Belaia, and Samara.


According to the 1989 census data, there were some 6,645,588 Volga Tatars in the Soviet Union, a 7.4 percent increase compared to their numerical strength in 1979. Of these, less than 50 percent live in their historic homeland, the middle Volga-Ural region. The average population density per square kilometer is approximately 50.5 in the middle Volga region and 26.8 in the southern Ural area. Volga Tatars are one of the most urbanized ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union: 62.1 of those Volga Tatars who live in Tatarstan proper live in cities, compared to 50.3 of those Volga Tatars who live in other parts of Russia. Those who live in the republics of Central Asia enjoy levels of urbanization below 30 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation

Volga Tatars speak a language belonging to the West Turkic, Kïpchak, or Kïpchak-Bulghar Group. Volga Tatars have a single literary language, based on the Kazan dialect, but there are three main dialectal divisions based on lexical, phonetic, and morphological differences: Central (around Kazan), Western or Mishar (spoken by Tatars outside Tatarstan), and Eastern or Siberian. Regardless of dialect, Volga Tatar retains a Persian and Arabic influence in its vocabulary, in addition to the strong influence of Russian. The Arabic script, which the ancestors of the Volga Tatars adopted when they chose Islam as their religion in 922, was for more than a millennium the vehicle for the development of a rich literature, and indeed, the backbone of Tatar culture and civilization. In 1927, in the aftermath of the decision of the 1926 Turcological Congress held in Baku, it was replaced with a Latin script, which was, in turn, replaced with a Cyrillic script in 1939. Today Volga Tatars still use the Cyrillic script, but recent debates in the press have challenged the wisdom of the two previous alphabet changes.

History and Cultural Relations

The Volga Tatars are the descendants of the Kïpchak Turkic peoples who inhabited the western wing of the Mongol Empire, the ulus of Dzhuchi. Despite the fact that the issue of their ethnogenesis is still being hotly debated among scholars, Soviet and Western alike, there is agreement that by the sixteenth century, Volga Tatars were living in the area of the middle Volga River, which included the northern lands of the former Muslim state of the Turkic people called "Bulghar." Displaced from the Azov steppes by frequent Arab campaigns, the Bulghars had penetrated the middle Volga and lower Kama river regions in the first half of the eighth century. When their territory was conquered and devastated by the Mongol army of Batu Khan in 1236, most of the survivors moved north, to the land beyond the Kama River. The Mongol conquerors, who organized their possessions north of the Black and Azov seas into a state that came to be known as the Golden Horde, never aimed at transforming the conquered lands in accordance with a Mongol weltanschauung. As a result, the area became a veritable melting pot and the ancestors of the Volga Tatars, the Bulghars and the Kïpchak Turkic tribes inhabiting the lands of the Horde, participated in the ethnic and cultural syntheses that emerged.

The people of the khanate of Kazan that emerged in 1445 after the disintegration of the Golden Horde, were the product of these syntheses, and they wrote an important chapter in the history of the Volga Tatars. Despite the brevity of its life as a free political entity, (1445-1552) the khanate of Kazan exhibited socioeconomic dynamism and cultural vitality. It was during this period that the process of the ethnogenesis of the people we identify today as the Volga Tatars entered its final stages, and their language took shape as a distinct branch of the Turkic languages.

Ivan's conquest of Kazan in 1552 brought about the demise of the khanate as an independent political entity. The assimilationist policies imposed by the Russian state on the population of the khanate between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries ranged from forced conversion to economic coercion and cultural assimilation through education. The Tatars responded by fueling the social unrest of their homeland with their discontent, joining peasant rebellions such as those of S. Razin (1667-1771) and E. Pugachev (1773-1775).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Volga Tatars were articulating new responses to the Russification policies of their government: they embarked upon a multifaceted movement of cultural reform and renewal called jadidism (from usul-u-jadid, "the new method of teaching"). The main goal of the movement was to achieve a harmonious balance between secularism and religion and between isolation and integration in their search for solutions and correctives to the socioeconomic, political, and cultural problems that preoccupied their communities. This movement received an added impetus during the years of political pluralism that followed the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. It was further aided by the emergence of a dynamic Tatar-language press and book-publishing businesses. Journals such as Shura and newspapers such as Vagt were known among the Muslims of the Russian Empire and beyond. Religious reformers such as Sh. Merjani, M. J. Bigi, R. Fahreddin, A. Bubi, and others sought to bring about a renewal from within by returning to the pristine purity of the dogma, whereas poets such as A. Tukay--the national poet of the Volga Tatars--and intellectuals and politicians such as Y. Akchura and S. Maksudi addressed issues concerning Volga Tatar identity and political life. In the brief intermezzo between 1905 and 1917 the Volga Tatars actively participated in the political life of the empire, providing the bulk of the Muslim deputies for the four Russian dumas, becoming the main force behind the emergence of a Muslim political caucus (Ittifak-al-Muslimin), and joining parties that belonged to the entire breadth of the Russian political spectrum.

The revolutions of 1917 brought about hopes of establishing a Volga Tatar state. Their attempt to set up an independent Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural) state as a federation of the Turkic peoples living in that region failed, however. Instead, on 27 May 1920, the territory at the confluence of the Volga and the Kama--where only approximately 40 percent (1,169,342) of the Volga-Ural Tatars lived--was organized as the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the constituent units of the Russian Federation. The bulk of the remaining Volga Tatars were placed under the jurisdiction of the Bashkir Republic, organized on 23 March 1919, and others under those of the adjoining territories of western Siberia, beyond the Urals and Central Asia.

The demise of the plans for a Volga-Ural federation, as well as the renewal of Russification policies under the guise of proletarian internationalism, contributed to the emergence of national communism in the 1920s. The theoretician of national communism was M. Sulvan Galiev (purged in 1928); one of its most remarkable cultural manifestations was the defense of Tatar national culture (language, Arabic script, religion, traditions).

The purges of the 1930s eliminated national communism as a political issue among the Volga Tatars, but in the post-World War II years its cultural manifestations endured in scholarship, as well as literature and the arts.

Today, the Volga Tatars participate actively in the economic life of their region, which is rich in gas and oil resources and a leader in the heavy machinery and chemical industries. Since 1985 they have been actively using the openness of the Gorbachev era in an attempt to both reclaim their past and participate in the decision-making process that will affect their future. Some of the most spectacular developments since 1985 are an upsurge of interest in Islam, coinciding in 1989 with the celebration of 1,100 years since the adoption of Islam by their ancestors; rehabilitation of major cultural and political figures such as M. J. Bigi, A. Ishaki, and M. Sulvan Galiev; defense of the national language, which unfolded in the campaign to make Tatar the official language of Tatarstan; and sovereignty for Tatarstan.


The rural Tatar population of the Volga-Ural region resides mostly in the 1,659 villages of Tatarstan and Bashkirstan (807 and 852 respectively). Today there are no villages with an exclusively Tatar population. Even as only one of the components of the physiognomy of multiethnic villages (usually of the strip-and-cluster type), Tatar houses are easily identifiable, however, because of their architecture and decoration. The main construction material, for rich and poor alike, is wood. Stone gained popularity with the well-to-do peasants only in the nineteenth century. The houses of the Volga Tatars are built according to two main floor plans: simple one-room dwellings with an attached planked porch (average size: 6 by 8 meters, including the porch); two-room, hexagonal-shaped dwellings, actually constructed by linking with a corridor two traditional one-room houses. The room used by the family every day faces the street and is called kara yak (the black side), whereas the room reserved for guests is called ak yak (the white side). Houses were surrounded by high fences and gates.

Well-to-do peasants built two- and even three-story houses, observing the same floor plan. The houses of the rich were distinguished not only by their size, building material (sometimes stone), and the lavish decorations, but also by the fact that they were laid across the property, rather than being parallel to the street. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the distance between the houses (of rich and poor peasants alike) and the streets began diminishing, and today there are many houses whose walls stand on the property line facing the street.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities

Agriculture, crafts, cattle breeding, hunting, fishing, and trade represented the backbone of the economic life of the Volga Tatars for centuries. Beginning with the second half of the nineteenth century, and most dramatically after 1917, the traditional economic patterns changed: collectivized agriculture and industrialization were responsible for changes in rural areas and cities alike. As Tatars acquired industrial skills, entered the professions in larger numbers, and took white-collar jobs, the ratio of the urban population grew.

The Volga region has rich soil, suitable for agriculture, and rich oil and gas resources. Modern agricultural technology penetrated the area only in the twentieth century. Until then, the basic implements were the heavy metal plow with a single blade (saban), effective for the chernozem, and the light wooden plow used for podzol. For centuries, the traditional crops of the area were barley, wheat, and millet, and these continue to be the main crops today. Domestic animals include chickens, geese, sheep, and large cattle.

Industrial development accelerated in the Volga-Ural region, particularly after World War II; in addition to the oil and gas industries, and related to them, strong petrochemical and auto industries emerged. The Volga Tatars were known throughout their history for their active involvement in trade. Besides trading regionally, they acted as intermediaries between the Muslim states on the eastern and southern frontiers of the Russian state and the Russian merchants. Tatar merchants sold leatherwork, furs, fish, honey, and, until the sixteenth century, slaves. In the nineteenth century they became involved in the book trade, in addition to participating in the grain, soap, and candle trades.

Industrial Arts

The ancestors of the Volga Tatars (the Bulghars) were experts in processing the hides and pelts that were abundant in a hunting/agricultural economy. A certain type of leather even came to be known as "Bulghari." Leather craftsmen, along with potters, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, jewelers, tanners, and tailors, remained a fixture of Tatar rural and urban communities into the twentieth century. Most of these crafts survive today.


All types of commercial enterprises were represented among the Volga Tatars. There were merchants of the first guild and large firms such as those of Saidashev, midsize and small enterprises, itinerant traders in rural areas, and peddlers of used clothing and food in large cities.

Division of Labor

The traditional division of labor assigned home tasks to women. They cooked and were in charge of producing the cloth to cover the personal and household needs of the entire family. They also tended vegetable gardens and were involved in preserving and preparing meats and dough products for winter consumption. Tending babies and raising the female children of the family until marriage was exclusively the domain of women. Men usually plowed, harrowed, engaged in trade and industry, and took charge of the education of male children. The division of labor is no longer rigidly observed, but most traditional approaches still endure.

Land Tenure

Land was collectively owned in the former Soviet Union. Agricultural land was either organized in kolkhozy or sovkhozy. Peasants working in these units were either members of a collective enterprise or state employees. Today, private ownership of land, industrial and commercial enterprises, and natural resources is one of the major issues in Tatarstan.


Kin Groups and Descent

Volga Tatars traditionally lived in extended-family, multihousehold units. In these hexagonal-type dwellings, parents and their sons, or at least one of their sons, shared work responsibilities, as well as wealth. Today, even in villages, the nuclear family is becoming more prevalent.

Kinship Terminology

The kinship terms of the Volga Tatars resemble those of other Turkic peoples in at least two ways: the emphases on age and on the male/paternal line of the family. Thus, there are separate terms for older and younger sisters--apa and senel respectively--and special terms to distinguish patrilineal and matrilineal kin.

Marriage and Family


Tatar culture and society have been shaped by the imperatives of Islamic laws and traditions. Hence, Sharia, which sanctions polygamy, has governed the sphere of marriage and family life. Despite the fact that a man was permitted to marry up to four wives, until the end of the nineteenth century most men had no more than two wives. At the onset of the twentieth century, monogamous marriages were gaining ground, but religious endogamy was strictly observed until 1917. Today, monogamous marriage is the norm and arranged marriages are rare, but ethnically mixed marriages are no longer an exception, although their number has been decreasing in the last decade. Housing shortages in the cities are responsible for the fact that more and more often young couples reside with one or the other of their two families for an extended number of years.

Domestic Unit

All those who share the same ancestry, usually including the members of three generations, are considered a family, regardless of their place of residence. A family unit is usually comprised of those individuals belonging to either a nuclear or extended (including grandparents) family who reside together, share responsibilities, and pool their resources.


Male children traditionally received a larger share of their parents' property, and the responsibility of caring for the parents usually fell to one of them. Girls received a dowry, which, according to Islamic law, they continued to control fully, even after entering the families of their husbands. Although the laws of the former Soviet state applied to all citizens and provided for equal division of property, the force of tradition endured in many Tatar communities.


Children are raised by mothers and female siblings. During the Soviet period, government-owned nurseries and kindergartens were available. In the family, emphasis is placed on respect for and deference to the opinion of the elders, whereas in the nurseries and kindergartens emphasis was on the importance of the collective and deference to its needs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Tatarstan and Bashkirstan--the lands where most of the Volga Tatars live--were autonomous republics (they received this status in 1919 and 1920) of the Russian Republic, which in turn, was one of the fifteen republics that comprised the Soviet Union. Today, following the demise of the USSR, the Russian Federation is comprised of eighteen of the twenty former autonomous republics. Tatarstan has chosen to remain independent.

Political Organization

In the Soviet era the major political-administrative units of the Volga-Ural area within the autonomous republics were districts (raions), cities, urban settlements, and villages. The local branches of the Soviet government and institutions were in charge of all aspects of life, from law enforcement to education and health services. What characterized them all was the still-strong level of centralization, despite promises of increased local autonomy.

Social Control

There were two levels of social control: official (through a set of Soviet institutions that promoted the socialist value system) and unofficial (through the family unit, which emphasized the traditional values of Tatar society).


Family conflicts are usually arbitrated by the elders. Marriage conflicts that could not be solved within the family had to be submitted to the arbitration of Soviet organs, however.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs

Islam, which the ancestors of the Volga Tatars adopted in 922, has been the religion that shaped their lives and culture for more than a millennium. Volga Tatars belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, and within it, to the Hanefite legal school. In the Soviet era they were under the jurisdiction of the Religious Board for the Muslims of European USSR and Siberia. The seat of the Board (Muftiat) was in Bashkiria, in the city of Ufa. The head of the Muftiat, Talgat Tadzhuddinov, was appointed to this post in 1980 and was actively involved in using the opportunities offered by the era of openness to secure more freedom of worship for the Volga Tatars. The celebrations of 1,100 years of Islam in the middle Volga that took place in the summer of 1989 mark the high point of this new era. Other developments include opening new mosques, returning to the use of the believers old mosques that had been given secular uses, teaching the Arabic script and the fundamentals of religion, and printing new editions of the Quran and prayer books, as well as rehabilitating some of the leading religious figures of years past, such as M. J. Bigi. At the parish level, the most prominent figures are the mullahs and imams who are responsible for the performance of rituals and the religious education of their parishioners. Women cannot occupy these positions, but as in years past, wives of mullahs and imams or older women conversant in the ritual and dogma lead prayers for women and instruct them in the dogma and ritual. They are called abïstays.

Strict adherence to monotheism is required of every Muslim, and this fundamental obligation is expressed in the Shahadah (the profession of the creed): there is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet. While adhering to this creed, Volga Tatars also honor saints and holy places, tombs associated with people whose lives were marked by special deeds and religious devotion. Some beliefs in supernatural forces still endure as remnants of the pre-Islamic history of the Volga Tatars, but overall, their influence on everyday life is minimal. One of these pre-Islamic traces is belief in the evil eye and the power of various amulets worn to annihilate its effect.


The religious calendar of the Volga Tatars includes several major events: the month of Uraza (fasting [one of the most important ceremonial obligations of all Muslims]); the feast that follows it, Uraza Bäyram (the feast of sacrifice); and Gait Kurban; as well as the celebration of the birth of the Prophet, marked by prayers called Mäwliud. In addition, Volga Tatars celebrate two other festivgals, both echoes of their pre-Islamic culture: Navruz (New Year), the celebration of the arrival of spring on March 21, and Sabantui, the Festival of the Plow. This festival is held before the beginning of the spring agricultural cycle and consists of a week-long ritual that culminates with a day of athletic competitions, song, and dance.


Religious prohibitions were responsible for the absence of representative art among the Volga Tatars. Until the end of the nineteenth century, calligraphy and applied arts were the only forms that Volga Tatars embraced and developed. Of the calligraphers who specialized in the production of a religious art form--shämail (ornamented verses from the Quran)--the most famous in the nineteenth century was Ali Makhmudov.

Representational art had its beginnings at the beginning of the twentieth century when Volga Tatars were engaged in the jadidist reform movement. The main thrust of this movement was to forge a symbiosis between tradition and modernity without altering the essence of the religious creed. The Volga Tatars emerged from this search with a restored sense of their identity and dedicated their efforts toward renewal of their educational system, art, and literature. Hence, their first representational artists emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were M. Galeev and G. Gumerov. With every decade, new names were added: S. S. Akhun, N. K. Valiullin, B. M. Al'menov, F. Sh. Tagirov, I. V. Rafikov, G. A. Rakhmankulova, L. A. Fattakhov, I. M. Khalilullov, Kh. A. Iakupov, and B. I. Urmanche--painter and sculptor, the doyen of Tatar art, who was active into the ninth decade of his life.

Volga Tatar music differs drastically from the music of other Turkic peoples because of its monophonic structure that traditionally lacked instrumental accompaniment. Its modal basis is the pentatonic scale. Several genres of folk songs exist: ozïn koi (lyric-epic), qïsqa koi (dance songs), avïl koe (village song), shekher koe (city song), and bäit (narrative epic). Twentieth-century singers, however, have opted for musical accompaniment. The instrument of choice is the accordion (garmun' or baian); some Volga Tatars also play the mandolin.

Before the appearance of professional music at the beginning of the twentieth century, folk music dominated the musical life of the Volga Tatars. Tatar folk songs were first written down by Tatars such as G. Kh. Enikeev and G. G. Saifullin and Russians such as S. G. Rybakov in the nineteenth century. They have been collected and published since the 1930s, although some of the best collections, such as that of M. N. Nigmetzianov, were published in the 1970s.

The first Tatar opera (saniya) was staged in 1925, but the operatic art has blossomed only since the 1930s. Ballet and symphonic music also developed, particularly after World War II. Among the most prominent Tatar composers are M. Z. Iarullin, A. G. Valiullin, F. A. Akhmetov, and D. I. Iakupov.

Tatar literature developed along two lines, oral folk literature and a written literature. Islam influenced both, but the Arabic script was the vehicle for the development of written literature, whether religious or secular, until the end of the 1920s.

Some of the earliest monuments of Tatar written literature are Kol Gali's narrative love poem Yusuf and Zuläikha (thirteenth century) and Mukhammediar's didactic poems (sixteenth century). The literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was dominated by the religious (Sufi) poetry of Mävliya Kulï, Utïz Imäni, and Shamsetdin Zäki. In the nineteenth century, writers such as A. Kargalï and G. Kandalïy introduced themes of everyday life but also continued the tradition of religious odes.

The Tatar learned men of the nineteenth century were responsible for triggering the movement of reform and renewal that came to be known as jadidism. They were critics of scholasticism and some advanced anticlerical ideas, but all had an appreciation for enlightenment. Of these, A. Kursavi (1776-1818), Sh. Märjani (1813-1889), and Kayyum Nasiri (1825-1902) can be called the founders of modern Tatar culture. In the first decades of the twentieth century the Tatar national poet G. Tukay (1886-1913), romantic poets such as S. Ramiev (1880-1926) and Z. Ramiev (1859-1921), and revolutionary poets and writers such as G. Kulakhmetov (1881-1918), G. Ibragimov (1887-1937), and others flourished.

The literature of Socialist Realism, which dominated the Soviet literary scene from the 1930s to the 1980s, did produce, despite the confining imperatives of ideology, some enduring names in Tatar letters: G. Bashirov, Sh. Mannur, F. Khusni, and I. Gazi.

Musa Jalil, whose World War II experiences were recorded in his Moabit Notebook, may be the best-known writer of the war period but there are many others such as S. Khakim, Isanbet, Sh. Mudarris, and N. Fattakh.

The most notable developments of the post-World War II literature were the emergence of the "thaw" literature of the 1960s, represented by poets and writers such as I. Iuzeev, R. Kharisov, I. Aminov, T. Minnullin, and Zölfat, and the cultural explosion of the perestroika period, characterized by an effort to revitalize and retrieve the cultural values of the past and by a determination to save from extinction the main vehicle for the transmission of Tatar culture--the Tatar language.

-- Rorlich, Azade-Avse



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Опубликовано 20 сентября 2007 года

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