The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience

The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience

by Azade-Ayse Rorlich

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This is the first Western language study that investigates the history of the Volga Tatars since the Tenth Century A.D. The central theme of the book is the shaping and evolution of the identity of these people, focusing on the history of the first non-Christian and non-Slavic people incorporated into the Russian state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817983932
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Professor Rorlich has spent many years investigating the history of the Volga Tatars and of the Turkic and Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and is today a member of the Department of History at the University of Southern California.

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The Volga Tatars

A Profile in National Resilience

By Azade-Ayse Rorlich

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 1986 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-8392-5


The Origins of the Volga TatarsTatar or Turk?

Tatarmï, torekmä?

(G. Gubaidullin)

The Volga Tatars are the westernmost of all Turkic nationalities living in the Soviet Union. Among them, there are two major groups — the Kazan Tatars and the Mishars; although each is characterized by linguistic and ethnogenetic particularities, their differences have not hindered the emergence and development of a common language and culture.


As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, Volga Tatars preferred to identify themselves, and to be identified by others, as Muslims. In addition to this, however, they used such ethnonyms as Kazanis (Kazanlï), Bulgars, and Mishars, as well as Tatars, and were identified as such by Russians and other peoples. Preference for ethnonyms other than Tatar may have represented a reaction to the popular, as well as scholarly and official, identification of the Volga Tatars with the Mongol Tatars of the thirteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, enlightened Tatar thinkers, such as Kayyum Nasiri and Shihabeddin Merjani, played a major role in the rehabilitation of the ethnonym Tatar. Merjani urged the Kazanis not to be ashamed to call themselves Tatars. He noted that, because Russians employed the name Tatar as a curse, "some have regarded being a Tatar a shortcoming, hated it, and insisted 'we are not Tatars, we are Muslims' ... If you are not a Tatar, an Arab, Tajik, Nogay, Chinese, Russian, French ... then, who are you?" challenged Merjani.

Apparently, the guilt and shame the Russians inspired in the Tatars in connection with their identity has endured to this day among some. Giuzel' Amalrik recalls in her memoirs: "I was ashamed of my nationality, even though I did not want to be Russian either, but I was ashamed of what seemed to me Tatar primitivism and lack of culture." Particularly relevant to this discussion are the remarks the father of a friend made to the thirteen-year-old Giuzel': "You tormented us 300 years, Tatar-mator, yes, and now repeat, how many years you tormented us."

What is the origin of the ethnonym Tatar? Although there is no consensus on this issue among scholars, little has changed in their positions since the nineteenth century, which makes the task of identifying the basic theses less forbidding than the task of determining the ethnogenesis itself. Two theses stand out: the Mongol and the Turkic.

Proponents of the first accept the etymology of Tatar as deriving from the Chinese TaTan or Da-Dan (a term of contempt applied to the Mongols by the Chinese) and believe that it refers to one group of Mongol tribes subdued by Ginghis Khan. According to V. Thomsen, V. Bartol'd, and others, the name Tatar in the Orkhon Inscriptions refers to these tribes.

The Mongol Tatars lived amidst Turkic tribes that had survived the demise of the seminomadic Turkic kaganate of the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. After their conquest by Ginghis Khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century (1202-1208), the Mongol Tatars, as well as the Turkic tribes of the southern Siberian plains and Central Asia, were included in the army headed by Ginghis Khan's grandson, Batu. In 1236, Batu, in the company of his sons Chagatai, Ogotai, and Tului, set out to conquer the eastern European ulus (lands) bequeathed to him at the 1235 kurultai (council). Conquering the lands beyond the Ural mountains and the Aral and Caspian seas, the Mongols came into contact with the Turkic Kypchaks, who had reached the zenith of their political power in the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D. as rulers of Dasht-i Kypchak, the huge territory between the Irtysh and Danube rivers.

The Mongols and the Mongol Tatars, who were minorities in Batu Khan's army and even smaller minorities among the peoples of the "Golden Horde" that had emerged after Batu's conquest of the ulus beyond the Urals, underwent a process of assimilation by the Turkic peoples among whom they settled. This assimilation was both biological and cultural, as Al-Omari commented in his fourteenth-century account:

In the old times this state [the Golden Horde] was the country of Kypchaks [Cumans], but when the Tatars [Mongols] conquered them, the Kypchaks became their subjects. Later, they [the Tatars] mixed with them [Kypchaks], and the land had priority over their racial and natural qualities and they [the Tatars] became like Kypchaks, as they were of the same origin with them, because the Tatars settled on their lands, married them, and remained to live on their lands.

The unification of all Mongol tribes under Ginghis Khan would not have been possible without eliminating the resistance of the Mongol Tatar tribes. A lasting sign of this victory emerged in Ginghis Khan's 1206 order that all conquered peoples be called Tatars, where Tatar is synonymous with conquered. Gradually, however, the Mongol conquerors were assimilated by the peoples they had conquered, and in 1246, Plano Carpini, an Italian traveler, noted that "even the Mongols themselves, especially since they have been cut off from their homeland, have come to be called 'Tatars.' Thus, the name Tatar has become synonymous with Mongol." It seems that most of the peoples of the Golden Horde accepted their new ethnonym without significant resistance, yet the ancestors of the Volga Tatars were still reluctant to embrace the name in the sixteenth century.

The Turkic thesis, which is not as widely accepted as the Mongol thesis, was advanced by scholars who rely heavily on the Diwan-i Lugat-it-Turk, a dictionary of the Turkic languages compiled by Mahmud al-Kashgari during the period 1072 to 1074.In this book, al-Kashgari mentions that west of the Irtysh river there existed a Tatar branch of the Turkic languages. Ahmet Temir interprets this information as a testimony to the existence of a Turkic people called Tatars long before the Mongol conquest bestowed the name on the peoples of the Golden Horde. Broadening his interpretation of the information provided by the dictionary, Temir also suggests that the name could apply independently and equally to two different peoples: the Mongol tribe of Tatars and a Turkic tribe that inhabited a territory west of the Ural mountains.

It is more likely, however, that in his dictionary al-Kashgari was referring to the language of the Mongol Tatar tribe, a tribe that, as a result of its territorial and cultural contiguity with the heirs of the Turkic kaganate of the sixth and seventh centuries A.D., might have spoken a Turkic language.


The issue of the origins of the Volga Tatars is still being debated among scholars, both inside and beyond the borders of the USSR. However, even if the opinions of scholars seem still to be divided on the issue of the origins of the Kazan Tatars, there is no disagreement over the fact that, by the sixteenth century, the Kazan Tatars were living in an area that included the northern lands of the former Bulgar state, which despite the fact that western European maps of the period still identified these lands as Bulgaria Magna, practically coincided with the territory of the Kazan khanate. Although the Kazan khanate could hardly claim firm borders, the 700 settlements mentioned in the pistsovye knigi (population registers and tax records) make it possible to identify the homeland of the Kazan Tatars with reasonable accuracy (see Map 1). They lived in an area bounded on the north by the Ilet and Viatka river basins. On the east, the Viatka provided a natural border beyond which, however, they did have villages along the Izh and Toima rivers. The southern and southwestern limits of their territory were marked by the Malaia Cheremsha, Utka, Maina, and Sviaga rivers. The Sviaga river basin was the most densely populated, with 150 villages recorded in the pistsovye knigi.

The existence of a densely populated rural and urban network might be interpreted as a measure of the degree of economic and cultural continuity the settled Kazan Tatars enjoyed, distinguishing them from their nomadic and seminomadic neighbors to the east. The issues of territorial, economic, and cultural continuity have played a significant role in the discussions on ethnogenesis, but no single argument has carried enough weight to mold a universally accepted thesis.

The two main lines of thought that have emerged concerning the origins of the Kazan Tatars have found expression in the Kypchak and Bulgar theses; other theories exist, but they are either variations of one of these theses or a combination of both.Proponents of the Kypchak thesis argue that the Kazan Tatars are direct descendants of the Tatars of the Golden Horde. This idea has been advanced by Russian historians, such as S. M. Solov'ev, G. I. Peretiatkovich, and N. I. Ashmarin, as well as by Tatar nationalist and émigré historians, such as A. Z. Velidi-Togan, and A. Battal-Taymas.

The Bulgar thesis traces the ancestors of the Kazan Tatars to the Bulgars — a Turkic people who penetrated the Middle Volga and lower Kama region during the first half of the eighth century after being displaced from the Azov steppes by frequent Arab campaigns. At the heart of this thesis is the idea that, when the lands of the Bulgars were conquered by the Mongol Tatars in 1236 and 1237, their culture survived the demise of the political entity and provided a foundation for the emergence of the Kazan Tatars. What characterizes this thesis is its intransigent rejection of the concept of acculturation and its predilection for absolute categories. Such instransigence has not deprived the thesis of supporters, however. N. Karamzin, I. Berezin, V. Grigoriev, N. Chernov, and M. Aitov carried its banner during the prerevolutionary period, and A. Kh. Khalikov, Kh. G. Gimadi, A. B. Bulatov, N. F. Kalinin, and F. Kh. Valeev are probably its most loyal Soviet disciples.

Each of these unilinear theses has generated discussion, and in the process, new theories have been born. In response to the Kypchak thesis, G. N. Akhmarov has advanced the theory of the Bulgar-Tatar heritage, which emphasizes the contribution of the Bulgar element to the ethnoculture synthesis triggered by the Mongol conquest. Sh. Merjani, on the other hand, has qualified his acceptance of the Bulgar thesis by a recognition of the significant role the Kypchak elements played in the culture of the Kazan Tatars. During the 1920s, N. N. Firsov and M. G. Khudiakov were among the first Soviet scholars to recognize the existence of a Kypchak component in the Tatar ethnogenesis, but they contended that its impact was not strong enough to alter the Bulgar essence of the Tatar ethnos.

In 1928, G. S. Gubaidullin articulated a different interpretation of the Kypchak thesis. According to him, the ethnogenesis of the Kazan Tatars had been completed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they emerged as descendants of the Bulgars and the turkicized local Finno-Ugric tribes that were assimilated by the Golden Horde Tatars — carriers of a new language and a new ethnonym. These Golden Horde Tatars discussed by Gubaidullin were no other than the Kypchaks of the lower Volga, who had assimilated the Mongol Tatars of the thirteenth century.

Gubaidullin was not alone in his adherence to the modified Kypchak thesis. His views have been shared by V. F. Smolin, A. Rakhim, Sh. F. Mokhammad'iarov, and others. Although far from being universally accepted, this thesis has endured the ideological campaign aimed at eradicating the memory of the Golden Horde heritage.

In 1944, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union condemned the idealization of the Golden Horde by Tatar historians and deemed the scientific investigation of Tatar history a task of utmost urgency. The response of the scholarly community to this political imperative was the April 1946 Moscow conference sponsored by the Academy of Sciences. The list of participants matched the scope of the task: archeologists A. P. Smirnov, N. F. Kalinin, and S. P. Tolstov; linguists L. Z. Zaliai and N. K. Dmitriev; ethnographer N. I. Vorob'ev; anthropologist T. A. Trofimova; and historians M. N. Tikhomirov, R. M. Raimov, A. B. Bulatov, and Kh. G. Gimadi. The conference broke no new ground; instead, it led to a regrouping of the participants around existing theories. Kh. G. Gimadi and N. F. Kalinin emerged as the strongest proponents of the Bulgar thesis, claiming once more that the Bulgars of the Volga-Kama were the sole ancestors of the Volga Tatars. On the basis of evidence provided by their respective disciplines, A. P. Smirnov, N. I. Vorob'ev, T. A. Trofimova, and L. Z. Zaliai defended the Bulgar-Kypchak thesis.

Four decades have passed since the Moscow conference, but the issue of Tatar ethnogenesis is far from settled. If anything, it has gained in aktual'nost' and has brought into the discussion an impressive number of scholars.

Today, A. Kh. Khalikov, F. Kh. Valeev, and la. Abdullin are among the most ardent disciples of the Bulgar school. Since the mid-1970s, however, the number of those who view the Bulgar and Kypchak contributions to Tatar ethnogenesis as a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship seems to have increased. M. Gosmanov is highly critical of F. Kh. Valeev's approach to the study of the art of the Bulgars. In response to the latter's claim that "the steppe art of the Kypchaks could influence neither the highly sophisticated art of the Bulgars, nor their culture as a whole, in any substantial way," Gosmanov argues that Valeev conducted the analysis in such a fashion as to suggest that his sole purpose was to provide an answer to the question "Who were our ancestors?" Gosmanov's own conclusion is that the Kazan Tatars cannot claim either the Bulgars or the Kypchaks as only their ancestors because both Bulgars and Kypchaks also played a role in the ethnogenesis of other peoples who inhabited the Volga-Ural region.

Gosmanov's voice of moderation is reinforced by M. Z. Zakiev and V. Khakov, who argue that neither the Bulgars nor their language disappeared after the Mongol conquest — that, on the contrary, the Bulgars enjoyed a remarkable degree of autonomy. When the Golden Horde was organized, however, the new set of political and socioeconomic conditions determined changes in the functions of the languages spoken in the area under the rule of its khans. Kypchak emerged as the official language, and it was in this capacity that it had an impact on the evolution of the Bulgar language. Zakiev's and Khakov's adherence to the Bulgar-Kypchak thesis is restricted to the sphere of language; they contend that, from the anthropological viewpoint, the Volga Tatars are direct descendants of the Bulgars.

There is little reason to believe that the final chapter on Tatar ethnogenesis will be written soon. There is sufficient reason to believe, however, that the Kypchak-Bulgar thesis may best endure the test of time and the scrutiny of scholarly inquiry.


The Bulgar State

Layers upon layers of history Sleep divided into centuries ... Tear drops after tear drops Speak of the sufferings of people.

Katlam-katlam tarikh iata Gasïrlarga bulenep ... Khalïklar ah-zari kaita Kus iashena elenep.

(Asiya Minhajeva, Bolgarda Uilanular [Meditation at Bulgar].)

At the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth centuries, the process of territorial, tribal, and political consolidation the peoples of the Middle Volga had been undergoing for more than a century culminated in the emergence of a political entity founded by the descendants of those Bulgar tribes whom Batbay had led out of the Azov steppes during the first quarter of the eighth century A.D.

Arab travelers who visited the Middle Volga region during the tenth century identified the territory of the Bulgar state as the geographic area between the rivers Cheremshan (on the south), Sviaga (on the west), Kama (on the north) and Sheshma (on the east). Ibn-Fadlan enumerated most of the rivers he and his embassy had to cross during their trip to the khan of the Bulgars in A.D. 922: "And we left the country of [these people] Bashkirs and crossed the river Dzharamsan [Cheremshan], then the river Uran [Uren], then the river Uram [Urem], then the Bainakh [Maina], then the river Vatyg [Utka], then the river Niiasna [Neiaslovka], and then the river Dzhavshyz [Gausherma]."

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Bulgar state had augmented its territory: in the east, its borders reached the river Zai, and in the south, they extended to the Samara. The bulk of the population belonged to five tribes: the Bulgars proper, the Suvars (Savan), the Esegel (Askl), the Bersula, and the Barandzhar. Despite the tribal diversity, the basins of the Volga and the Kama seem to have been characterized by an impressive unity of material culture, as testified by the pottery unearthed since the 1960s in the areas along the upper Sura, Moksha, and Vada rivers.


Excerpted from The Volga Tatars by Azade-Ayse Rorlich. Copyright © 1986 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Origins of the Volga Tatars,
2 The Bulgar State,
3 The Mongol Conquest,
4 The Kazan Khanate,
5 Annexation of the Kazan Khanate and Russian Policies Toward the Tatars,
6 Reformism: A Re-evaluation of Religious Thought,
7 Reformism at Work: The Emergence of a Religious-Secular Symbiosis,
8 Education,
9 Tatar Jadids in Politics,
10 The Revolution: From Cultural Autonomy to the Tatar ASSR,
11 National Communism and the Tatar ASSR Before World War II,
12 Cultural Resilience and National Identity in the Post-World War II Period,

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