The term Tatars refers to many distinct ethnic groups in Central Asia and Siberia. However as evident by the 1979 census, the USSR and the rest of the world made no distinction between the Crimean Tatars, Volga Tatars, and Siberian Tatars (Rorlich, xiv). Tracing the ethnogenisis of the Tatars reveals one common intersection for many of the groups: the Mongol conquest. It was the Mongols who first brought the Central Asian in Tatars into Russia’s periphery. The name Tatar is from “Ginghis Khan’s 1260 order that all conquered peopled be called Tatars, where Tatar is synonymous with conquered” (Rorlich, 5). The Tatars are thus frequently identified as Mongolians, but are no more Mongolian than any of the many other ethnicities conquered by the Mongols despite being known as Mongol Tatars.
Although the true origins of the Tatars are disputed, two theses are commonly accepted: the first contends that they are descendents of the Kypchaks, while the second maintains that they actually descended from the Bulgars (Rorlich, 6). After the fragmentation of the Mongol empire, the Tatars were in many different Khanates. In the 1450s Muscovy started to contend to be an heir to the Golden Horde by conquering the khanates. The Nogai Tatars, a nomadic group of horsemen, split into three hordes after Muscovite conquest. One horde joined the Kazakhs, the ‘Small Horde’ crossed the Volga to join the Khan of Crimea and the ‘Great Horde’ remained centrally located in the Volga (Kappeler, 42). The Volga khanates fell to Muscovy, and the internal strife and meddling of Muscovy resulted in the decline of the Great Horde who migrated in the 1630s across the Volga to the Khanate of Crimea (Kappeler, 43).
The Islamic Turkish-speaking Crimean Tatars were unconquered until the eighteenth century (Kappeler, 45). They waged a battle against the Muscovites under the Khan of Crimea and their allies the Nogai Tatars. In 1571, they sacked and burned Moscow. As a result of the violence the Tatar or Mongol “yoke” has often been referenced by historians, a term which conveys the idea that the occupation by the Tatars was horrific for Russia. Halperin, however, refutes this notion and proves in his book that the religious division between the Christian Muscovite and the Islamic Tatar developed the language of hatred and oppression that vilified the Tatars for the rest of history. With the defeat of their ally the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, the Crimean Tatars were weakened, and Crimea fell to the Muscovites. Catherine II wooed the nobility of the Tatars with privileges. She allowed the Tatar peasants to retain their land and had a policy of tolerance toward Islam. Despite this, “many thousands of Tatars voted with their feet and emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. This wave of emigration was destined to continue in the following decades, reaching a climax during and after the Crimean War” (Kappeler, 48). With no political power, the Tatars preserved their religious and cultural identity by moving as Russians came to settle in Crimea.
As many minorities did, the Tatars welcomed the fall of the monarchy in 1917 even though under the monarchy limited political mobilization had occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Kazan Socialist committee organized, and the National Assembly of the Muslims of Inner Russia and Siberia convened (Rorlich, 132). The question of autonomy divided the delegates. Initially there was hope for a large Turkic state in the Middle Volga; however, when the Central Muslim Commissariats organized as their government’s first steps were to prevent a parallel Islamic government (Rorlich, 132). Civil war soon engulfed the region and by 1919 the Volga Tatars were under communist rule as part of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic and, in 1920, as part of the Tatar Autonomous Republic (Rorlich, 142). By World War II the Tatars were displaced as many minorities had been by Stalin’s resettlement programs. Crimean Tatars were resettled to Central Asia, most in Uzbekistan (Aydıngün, 116).
Even though they were subjected to the policies of indigenization, like the rest of the area, the Tatars have maintained a distinct sense of identity. So strong was their identity that, when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate in 1989, thousands of Tatars returned to their homeland in Crimea (Williams, 1). The mass movement showed evidence that despite fragmentation and indigenization challenges the Tatars still have a distinct sense of nationalism and of a fatherland (Rorlich, 175).
If Russia’s periphery has any clear pattern it is that identity is chosen, and the Tatars have chosen to remain Tatars despite current disdain for them. Today Tatar is a common derogatory slang remark applied regardless of actual ethnicity in Russia. This choice may seem counter intuitive, but the history of persecution seems to have been woven into a narrative embraced by Tatars to create an identity.
- Aydıngün I, Aydıngün A. Crimean Tatars Return Home: Identity and Cultural Revival. Journal Of Ethnic & Migration Studies [serial online]. January 2007;33(1):113-128. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 3, 2012.
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History (New York: Longman, 2001).
- Brian G. Williams, The Crimean Tatars: The Disporia Experience and The Forging of a Nation (Boston: Brill, 2001).
- Charles J. Halperin, The Tatar Yoke (Columbus: Slavic Publishers Inc, 1986).
- Azade-Ayse Rorlich, The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1986).