Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Do the Tatars Have a Past? Do the Russians Have a Future?

Paul Goble

Baku, May 15 – Two new articles – one casting doubt on the past of the Kazan Tatars and the other on the future of the Russian nation – sharpen a long-running debate between those who say the Tatars have no choice but to take their place within a Russian nation and others who insist they must go their own way because Russia now lacks the capacity to absorb them.
This week, the Moscow Agency of Political News (APN) carried an article by Rem Latypov on “The Myth of Tatar Nationalism” ( and a second by Rafael Khakimov entitled “Intellectual Extreme: Russia Has Nothing More to offer the Tatar Intellectual” (
The two articles and their two authors could hardly be more different.
Latypov, 26 and until 2004 known as Denis Akhmetzyanov (using his mother’s last name), says he is “on the right flank” of the National Bolshevik Party and once as “Gauleiter” of its Khabarovsk section. He has frequently been in trouble with the law but now writes frequent commentaries on ethnic issues (
In his essay, Latypov argues that the Tatars did not exist as a nation before the Soviet Union created them, that they are a “Russian non-Russian people,” and that, regardless of what “Tatarists” like Mintimir Shaimiyev or his former advisor Khakimov do, they are fated to disappear back into the Russian nation in the future.
In tsarist times, he notes, the word “Tatar” referred to all Turkic Muslim peoples. Those called Tatars now were Bulgars, but after 1917, Sultan-Galiyev and the national communists artificially created a Tatar identity and Tatarstan, two things with little or no basis in reality, physical or psychological, and thus fated to disappear.
The wisest Bulgars have always understood that, Latypov says. In his 1903 book, “Death after 200 Years, Gayaz Iskhaki predicted that “the terrible disease of Tatarism which the Bulgar people had become infected at the end of the 19th century would lead to its complete disappearance after 200 years.” He was wrong, however, in thinking it would take that long.
But Latypov argues that Russians should not celebrate that, given that the Bulgars are an important component in Russian life. Instead, they should help the Tatars escape from the disease of Tatarism and return to Bulgarism by sponsoring the abolition of “Tatarstan” and supporting the creation of an “Idel-Ural kray.”
The other essay by Khakimov suggests that many Tatars who reject that view, not only because they see the history of their people entirely differently but also because they do not believe that Russia currently represents an attractive endpoint for the Tatars or has the kind of absorptive capacity writers like Latypov assume.
Khakimov, 61, whom Latypov calls one of the leaders of the “Tatarists” today, is the director of the Kazan Institute of History, negotiated power-sharing accords between Kazan and Moscow, and served for many years as political advisor to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev until he was fired at Moscow’s insistence.(For his remarkable career, see
The Kazan historian and activist begins by quoting Fyodor Tyutchev’s classic lines about Russia being unmeasurable by “an ordinary yardstick” but rather being something in which “one can only believe” and then pointing out what many choose to forget: that nineteenth century writer believed in: “a Russia that does not exist.”
Tyutchev, Khakimov notes, “with all his love for Russia did not live in it, visited only occasionally, and could not bear the real Russia. He almost never left Germany, but he loved a certain invisible Russia which existed in his soul” -- but not the Russia which existed and exists in the real world.
After making that observation, Khakimov suggests that “perhaps the time has come to try to understand with one’s mind not [some kind of] fantastic Russia but the real one and not from afar, from somewhere in the Alps, London or Canary Islands but out of the depths of the country where the people live.”
Such an approach is especially necessary now because all too often, Russia’s “intellectuals barricade themselves in Moscow institutes and apartments. They discuss the weather and the trials they face. They use their minds for criticism – the main thing is to find an object and the best of all is to find an enemy. And the most concerned write manifestos.”
“They believe in Russia’s great future. Why? Well, they simply believe and that’s all. And try to say that you don’t believe. You become an enemy or a separatist. Any thought that is not kept within the customary framework is dangerous. Why? Because it is different and something they are unaccustomed to.”
It was not always so, Khakimov points out. “The intellectual wealth of Russia in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was impressive.” But over the course of the 20th century and even now, some of this wealth has been lost, and little new wealth of that kind is being created. “Today there is nothing to put alongside the great creations of the past.”
“Detective novels have replaced Pushkin and Turgenev; soap operas, Chekhov and Ostrovsky. Pop songs instead of the great music of Musorgsky. Ideas concerning the development of statehood are simply lacking.” And while “Solzhenitsyn is an outstanding writer,” he is not at the level of Berdyaev or Trubetskoy, Checkhov or Sholokhov.”
The Novel laureate is, like his country, “a pale shadow” of the past.
This very grayness, Khakimov continues, is driving people to extreme sports, events in which they can feel something, even if it is a momentary fear. But the same grayness reflects the sad reality that today “intellectual extremes” are no longer in fashion, with people, using the internet to give them ready-made answers, “preferring to live by stereotypes.”
“If something in life does not correspond with the textbook, then so much the worse for reality; if some author or other expresses an opinion different from what most people think, then this means” he is wrong and should be either ignored or attacked rather than taken seriously and discussed.
The Tatars, Khakimov continues, have suffered from such inertia of thought but are now escaping it, although even now, while “there are many universities” in Tatarstan, “scholarship there is not at the level of Lobachevsky and Butler.”
But the situation is incomparably worse in Russia. In the past, Russian thought was dominated by nihilism, by skepticism and the rejection of all values, including religion. With all its limitations, that had a certain value. “Today this has been replaced by cynicism,” which can be summed up in the question: “’If you are so smart, then why aren’t you rich?’”
That attitude is destroying the country. And Russia needs to escape by means of an “intellectual” extreme, but one “without chauvinism or a struggle with Tatars, Jews, or ‘persons of Caucasus nationality’ (a more miserable or evil term it would be difficult to conceive), and without nationalism and religious fundamentalism.”
To do so, he argues, it will first of all be necessary to escape “the idolatry of the state. This is difficult for Russians to do because in all centuries it has been the state that has formed the nation. For the Tatars it is easier [because] although our people by its character always was loyal, even to the authorities who destroyed Tatar culture.” But “450 years of living in an empire has taught them how to survive without the help of the state and sometimes in spite of it.”
As an example of the kind of breakthrough he believes is necessary, Khakimov describes his own ideas about EuroIslam, a concept that calls on Islam to display “tolerance and openness to other cultures, the absence of militancy, and the like.” Literally “everyone condemned me,” Khakimov writes, “but the articles were published in various countries.”
And such criticism, he says, is in itself valuable.
Another area in which Russia must change is to develop “parties of a new type, as Lenin expressed it. Not centralized, not bureaucratic, not copied from the rules of the CPSU, and not for struggle with political opponents, but reflecting the interests of people. They can be without a leader and without a television station or newspaper.”
“The times of classical social democracy have passed. New technologies that are transforming the political map of Russia are coming,” whatever anyone thinks. “The future,” Khakimov adds, “will be in ideas, and not in money, arms or state structures,” again despite what many Russian leaders appear to think.
Many Tatars understand that, and they also know, Khakimov concludes, that “ideas must be mad because, as physicists like to say, that is a precondition of their being true.” Among such “mad” ideas, of course, is a separate future for Tatarstan, one that Russians cannot imagine but that their own attitudes if as disconnected from reality as Tyutchev’s were may make possible.

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