Vienna, February 1 – With the retirement of Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, the Kryashens, whom most Tatars view as a component of their nation but who see themselves as a separate people, have stepped up their campaign to gain status as an officially recognized nationality not only from Kazan but from Moscow as well.
And while one of their leaders says that the Kryashens have not received any support from the federal authorities and only “moral” support from the Russian Orthodox Church, this new Kryashen effort will likely strike most Tatars as another Russian effort to gain leverage against them.
That is all the more likely because in addition to the Kryashens, Russian speakers in Tatarstan are also exploiting the departure of Shaimiyev and the resulting interregnum before his successor can consolidate power to press demands both for more support of the Russian language and for less official backing for Tatar.
The Kryashens, the exact number of whom is unknown because most censuses except the one in 1926 included them within the Tatar nation, are sometimes called by those who deny them standing a separate nationality “Christian Tatars,” a reference to the origins they share with the Kazan Tatars in the Bulgar community in medieval times.
By the ninth and tenth centuries CE, there were both Christian and Muslim Bulgars. Indeed, they were sufficiently distinct that historians have documented a clash between them in the city of Bulgar in 1230. After Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1552, the number of “Christian Tatars” increased rapidly because of Muscovy’s russificatory policies.
Not surprisingly, the anger of Tatars toward those living among them who either had long followed or chose to convert to the religion of the conqueror was very great. And Kazan Tatar writers since tsarist times have insisted in the words of Shaimiyev, for example, that “religion does not affect nationality” (www.regnum.ru/news/1215960.html).
The Kryashens, who may number as many as 230,000 according to Moscow ethnographers, attracted attention in the run-up to the 2002 census, when they unsuccessfully sought to be included on the approved list of nationalities, and in 2003, when they appealed to President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Aleksii II to officially recognize them.
Putin and the patriarch did not respond, but Tatar officials were outraged by this effort. Shaimiyev said “the Kryashen problem was an artificial one,” and Tufan Minnullin, a Tatar State Council deputy, said that no one should worry because “30 to 40 years from now, those who call themselves ‘Kryashens’ will disappear among the Tatars.”
Such statements have provoked some of the Kryashens and have prompted them to announce plans for a constituent congress of the Union of Kryashens of Russia, a move that is clearly all the more timely in their estimation because of the departure of Shaimiyev and the possibility of a shift in the policies of both Kazan and Moscow.
In an interview with the Regnum.ru news agency, a service that along with russkayaliniya.ru has pushed the Kryashen issue in recent years, Vitaly Abramov, the head of the organizing committee for that congress and a longtime Kryashen activist, has articulated a much harder line than Kryashens did only a few months ago (www.regnum.ru/news/1248213.html).
Besides insisting that the Kryashens first appeared in the 5th century CE, that they are an independent nationality, and that they have been victims of Soviet, Russian and Tatar oppression, Abramov said that “the Tatar people is an artificially constructed ethnos, consisting of Turkic language peoples who professed Islam and have been united to oppose ‘Russian chauvinism.’”
At the same time, he said, the Kryashens do not want independence or even their own republic. Instead, they want de jure recognition by the state and not just the de facto kind they currently have. That is because they want schools and other institutions in their own language and the opportunity to form their own national-cultural autonomy.
At present, Abramov continued, the Kryashens in Tatarstan find themselves in a legal trap. On the one hand, the Tatar justice ministry refuses to register their national cultural autonomy because Kazan does not see them as an independent nationality, something Russian legislation requires.
But on the other, the federal national cultural autonomy of Tatars is now receiving 200 million rubles (6 million US dollars) every year but refuses to give any of that to the Kryashens, insisting, Abramov reports, that “’You are not ours; go create your own NCA and earn the money you need yourselves.’”
With their opponent Shaimiyev out of the way, the Kryashens and their Russian supporters will try to change that, possibly provoking the Tatars, all the more so because the Kryashen issue seems likely to be linked with an effort by Russians in Tatarstan to strip Tatar of its official status (www.rusk.ru/news_rl/2010/01/27/zawitit_russkij_yazyk_v_tatarstane/).