N 3-4, 18.04.2000


or More Untruth about the Tatars


I have recently asked an old acquaintance of mine Prof. Nikolay Mokshin to allow me to write the article on the Tatars for the Mordovian Encyclopedia. His response striked me as inappropriately brusque and arrogant. “These artciles are written not to be recast by others. I am a tenured academic, an ethnographer! And who are YOU?!!” Reeling from the rebuff, I wondered if all these years my personal sympathy toward the Professor was a mistake.

I tried to explain to the merited academic that some points of his brief article on the Tatars were questionable.

1. On what criteria does the author divide the Tatars into three large ethnic groups: Kazan Tatars who allegedly call themselves ‘kazanli’, Mishar Tatars who call themselves ‘misher’ and Siberian Tatars (‘seber ek’) and several lesser groups: Kriashens, Kasimov Tatars etc.?

2. Why is the settlement of the Tatars in the national Mordvin home dated the 13th c. and connected to the Mongol invasion despite numerous recent studies that establish that the Turkic ancestors of Tatars were living there as early as the 8th c.?

3. What need to expatiate in a short encyclopedia article on the origin of the designation ‘pechkast’ (‘circumcized’) alleged to be commonly applied by the Erzias to the Tatars?

Prof. Mokshin’s proud reply was that he had taken the division into 3 main ethnic groups («sub-ethnoses») from the works of the Tatar ethnographer Damir Iskhakov. The latter’s classification, however, is known to vary from one study to another. In his 1993 «Historical demography of the Tatars» the nomenclature is quite different. “The Kazan, Mishar and Kasimov groups of the Volga-Ural Tatars stand out in the ethnic structure of the core of the Tatar nation. We propose to consider them as main ethnic components of the Tatar nation”, D. Iskhakov says on p.47. No mention is made of the Siberian Tatars, and being aware that Tatar ethnography does not use the term ‘sub-ethnos’, Iskhakov limits himself to just proposing to use it. Elsewhere («The Tatars: An Introduction to a Nation’s History and Demography», 1993) he calls the Siberian and the Astrakhan Tatars ethno-territorial groups of the Tatar nation.

Iskhakov intersperses his studies with a multitude of LOCAL self-designations and nicknames for various groups of Tatars. Mokshin plucks out of them ‘kazanli’, ‘misher’, ‘seber ek’ and claims that this is the only way the Kazan, Mishar and Siberian Tatars respectively call themselves.

Prof. Mokshin’s fixation on circumcision in his latest works that even remotely and ever so little involve the Tatars can be better employed to a worthier goal.

It is hardly surprising that Mordvins now and then call us Tatars «pechkez», ‘the circumcised’. Any human group has a secret name for its close neighbors. The name is used in situations where the neighbors are not supposed to know that the conversation is about them.

For example, the Erzias call the Chuvashes «vet’ket’» («ved’» is ‘water’, «ked’» is ‘skin’), the Russians are referred to as «yakstere kel’» (‘red-tongued’) and «tsika», the Jews, «pazon’ chavi» (‘God-murderers’). Tatars for them are «kel’me pria» (‘cold-headed’) as well as «pechkez». The Mokshas have no special name for the Chuvashes, but do have one for the Russians — «yakster’ kial’» (‘red-tongued’) and for the Jews «shkayen’ shavi» (‘God-murderers’).

The Russians are no different. Their name for the Mordvins is «poperechnye» (‘set across’), behind his back they would call a Tatar man «kniaz» (‘prince’), «bussurman» (‘Muhammedan’), «nehrist’» (‘non-baptized’), «gololobyi» (‘shaven forehead’) etc.

The Tatar private name for the Russians is «artkiri» (‘set across’), Mordvins are «chybar iaga» (‘piebald collar’) and «kerkesh» (‘string, twine’), and the Jews are referred to as «shimbeh» (‘Sabbath’). It is to be noted that both the Tatar name for the Russians and the Russian name for the Mordvins are the same, both meaning ‘crosswise set’.

Citing an 18th-century «Dictionary of Mordvin language», Prof. Mokshin not only is keen to introduce the nickname «pechkast» into scholarly research but even stamps it the Tatars using a fancy term ‘exoethnonym’ (from the Greek «exo» ‘other’, «ethnos» ‘people’, «nymos» ‘name’). He rejects a Turkic etymology of the name ‘pechkaz’ and connects it exclusively to the rite of circumcision.

Our Professor ignores the studies by Rifkat Ahmetyanov and others that show that «pechkaz» could derive from the same root as the ethnic designations «pecheneg» and «kipchak». «Pech» means ‘cut, strike’. «Kipchak» has two roots — «ki» or «ku» (‘bright, shining’) and «pechak» (‘knife’). «Pechkaz» or «pechkas» can similarly be interpreted as being made of two roots: «pechk» ‘knife’ and «as» ‘people’.

The word for a Tatar woman in the native language of Prof. Mokshin is «tatarava». Which way is he going to apply the exoethnonym «pechkast» to a Tatar female? If a man is «pechkez» ‘cut’, a woman should be called «pechkez’ ava», a ‘cut woman’, shouldn’t she?

Some Tatar men are indeed circumcized. The question is, what do the Erzias call the Christian, uncircumcized Tatars? How do they designate the Tatar women? At all events, no Tatar woman has ever been excised unlike the women in many African tribes. Trust me on that, Herr Professor!

Should we begin using those derogatory names and calling each other to the face ‘crosswise set’, ‘shaven-headed’, ‘red-tongued’, ‘water-skinned’, ‘God-murderers’ on a daily basis? We are better off leaving the regrettable ethnic slurs on the pages of specialized studies, not dragging them into encyclopedias, not to mention children’s books.

In the summer of 1998 the Moscow publishers ‘Flint’ and ‘Nauka’ printed 3,000 copies of the book «From Karelia to the Urals» composed by N.L.Zhukovskaya and our undefatigable Prof. Mokshin, peer reviewed by L.M.Mintz and N.S.Polishchuk. The Institute for Research in Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Science recommended the publication be used as a textbook in history and ethnology classes in schools.

Little wonder then, given the publicity lavished on the book by that Institute, that the latter was nicknamed “the Institute for Mythology” by the Member of the Council of the Russian Federation Ramazan Abdulatipov in his October 28, 1998 speech in Saransk.

The book is graphically impressive, richly illustrated, although most pictures are borrowed from previously published works on those nations and republics. N.Zhukovskaya penned the sections on the Karelians, Komis and Kalmyks and our Professor wrote about the Udmurts, Maris, Mordvins, Chuvashes, Tatars and Bashkirs.

Each section is split into chapters: «Land and People», «Towns and Villages», «Costume», «Cuisine», «Rites and Customs», «Festivals», «Folklore». So vast and comprehensive is the scholarship of our academics that it embraces everything there is to know about a people.

The anti-Tatar attitude of our Professor is first felt in the section on the Maris. In the following section on the Mordvins, also by our Professor, the Tatars are always represented as wicked. Page 155 reads:

“A significant impact on the rapprochement between the Russian and Mordovian peoples was brought about by the common struggle against the rule of the Golden Horde conquerors and later against the Kazan khanate.

The Russian chronicles report that the Tatar-Mongols invaded Mordovia in 1239. In 1242, when the troops commanded by Khan Batyi fought in Poland, Hungary, Moravia and Dalmatia, the Khan was informed of a large-scale insurrection in the hinterland of the Empire, in the basin of the Volga river. He turned his warriors back to submit the Mordvins on whom he imposed a tax duty (‘yasak’).

In the 1400s, as the liberation movement escalated and as the opposition to the vestiges of the Tatar-Mongol rule and the Kazan khanate progressed, the relations between the Russians and the Mordvins grew closer. In 1444 the combined military effort of the Russians and Mordovians at Riazan on the Listan river disrupted the troops of the Tatar Prince Mustafa. By the end of the 15th century, the Mordvin people were effectively joined to the Russian State.”

Prof. Mokshin is here rehashing the long-standing myths, debunked ages ago by impartial historians: the alien Tatar-Mongol rule, the joint struggle of the Russians and Mordvins against the Tatars, about the entry of the Mordvins under the Russian State by the end of 15th century. In addition, we are presented with a true discovery — it were not the Russians who saved Europe from the Tatars, as we have heard time and time again, but the Mordvins!

It is not the case, according to our Professor, that the Mongol armies withdrew from Europe because the death of the Mongol Emperor Udegey required all the Gengisides to promptly return to Mongolia to form an electoral college. The Mongols retreated to fight a rebellion in Mordovia!

A very underhand point in that passage concerns the combined efforts of the Russians and Mordvins against Prince Mustafa. The 12-year olds would understand it as saying that the Prince took the offensive but the people of Riazan and the Mordvins rose jointly to foil his thrust.

The truth is — this is one of the tragic pages of history and an infamous example of the baseness and disloyalty on the part of the Riazan and Moscow rulers. The incident was recorded and can be found in the Complete Russian Chronicles, vol.12, p.61-62. It is well known that the Russian chroniclers were not known for their sympathy for the Tatars. The violent Listan episode, none the less, is recounted there quite compassionately.

Our contemporary Mordovian historians, however, including Prof. Mokshin, are so anxious to support their «always together» theory, to find an instance of the «joint struggle» of the Russians and Mordvins against the Tatars that they do not stop before unabashedly twisting the facts.

The chronicles tell the following story. One Prince Mustafa raided the land of Riazan, captured a few hostages, then sent his men to ask the people of Riazan for a ransom. Riazan paid the ransom to the Prince. No one took offense. Business as usual in those times.

Later that year, in the Fall, the grass burnt out in the pastures where Prince Mustafa fed his livestock. His cattle began to die. Mustafa asked the very same people of Riazan to allow him to spend the winter within the walls of their city.

Harboring no hard feelings, both parties came to terms, and Mustafa and his retinue were admitted to residence in Pereyaslavl (the future city of Riazan). When the Muscovite Prince Vassily Vassilyevich learned about that, he dispatched an army headed by Vassily Obolensky and Andrey Goltyaiev and a Mordvin regiment. All the men moved on the skis because of the deep snow that had fallen that winter. The chronicle does not say where those Moscow-ruled Mordvins were from.

Thereupon the people of Riazan persuaded Prince Mustafa to depart from Pereyaslavl. The Tatars pitched tents in the open on one bank of the Listan river. The snow was deep, the cold, beyond endurance. Horses fell, people grew hungry and chilblained. The low temperatures made useless the bows and arrows, leaving the Tatars with just swords and lances.

The weakened Tatars were then charged from three sides by the exceeding forces of the allies. The Muscovites attacked on the one side, the Mordvins, on the other. The Riazan cossacks charged from the third, forsaking all the laws of hospitality. The attackers were after Mustafa’s treasury. The Prince was supposed to have it with him as he knew he had to pay for his stay in Pereyaslavl and could not possibly leave his gold back in the steppes. “The Tatars did not surrender but fought bravely. Many rank-and-file were killed, Mustafa himself was killed, and so were many Tatar noblemen.”

Mustafa evidently was not aware that he would be betrayed by the people of Riazan, otherwise he would not have left the city with its supply of food and heating facilities, for the chilly countryside. If he were, he would have locked himself up in the city and defended himself there. Perhaps the people of Riazan had convinced him to leave the city to help reassure the Muscovites that they do not side with the Tatars so that those would return to Moscow. Greed or deviousness or both won out over the considerations of mutual advantage.

Thus a common example of unscrupulous deceit, dispossession and murder is made out by our encyclopedic eminence to support the old-fashioned dogma of the joint resistance of the Russians and Mordvins to the Tatar-Mongol rule.

Further, Prof. Mokshin writes that the old Tatar city of Temnikov was founded in 1536 (p.157). The historical truth is that 1536 is the year of the removal of the city to a new location. A 1442/1443 real estate deed refers to the Temnikov Tatars as the grandchildren of Bekhan. That means that the city existed before 1442. No mention of Temnikov can be found in Ivan the Third’s testament drawn in 1504. Latest research on Temnikov and the Temnikov principality dates 1523-24 the beginning of the Muscovite rule over the principality. As of this writing, the City of Penza is preparing to celebrate the 475th anniversary of the Temnikov Meshchora’s unification with Russia in February 1999.

Never mind that Prof. Mokshin is deafeningly silent on the subject of the Temnikov principality, a Tatar-Mordvin state. His eminence hates to let the schoolchildren realize that the Tatars and the Mordvins peacefully co-existed within Tatar self-governing entities for centuries. Not unlike the 2nd-century BC Roman consul Cato who closed his each and every speech in the Senate with the words «Delenda Carthago est» (‘Carthago ought to be destroyed’), Prof. Mokshin just cannot refrain from slandering the Tatars no matter what subject he is writing about.

In the section treating of the Chuvashes, Prof. Mokshin offers a detailed account of the history of the Bulgars on pp.189-190, and offers the same fruit of his imagination attributing the 1242 retreat of the Mongols from Europe to an insurrection on the Volga, dwells on the joint struggle of the Russians and the Chuvashes against the Kazan khans and informs the children that “a Chuvash gusli (zither)-player helped the Russians to trick the Kazan dwellers into surrendering the city” (p.191).

Putting together, or rather, compiling the sections of the peoples of the Volga region, Prof. Mokshin quotes the figures of the 1989 Census omitting to reveal his source. It befits an academic to take into account the latest statistics.

In the section treating of the Tatars, our Professor says, “1,765 thousand Tatars live in Tatarstan, accounting for 48.5 percent of the total population” (p. 221). In actual fact, according to the 7/1/1996 Census data, Tatarstan had 1,883 thousand Tatars which is more than a half of the total population. The mid-1998 Census sets the proportion of Tatars in Tatarstan at 52 percent. The percentage of the Tatars in the Republic ran up for a simple reason — many new residents returned to their homeland from Central Asia and the Ukraine. Oftentimes, Tatars who had relocated to the Ukraine or Central Asia from other parts of Russia, move to Tatarstan.

Of note is the following passage on the same p.221: “...the Volga (or Kazan) Tatars, Siberian Tatars, Astrakhan Tatars, Crimean Tatars. All those are very closely related but nevertheless have different ethnic identities and speak very similar but separate languages”.

What are we to believe? In his article for the «Mordovian Encyclopedia», Prof. Mokshin considers the Siberian Tatars one of the main ethnic components of the Tatar nation, and now in the textbook they became a separate nation. Did our Professor copy on different authors in each case? To muddle things up even more, on p.222 the Tatars get split into two «subethnic» groups — Kazan Tatars and Mishar Tatars.

In the next two paragraphs, our Professor treats his readers to his favorite topic, the «exoethnonym» ‘pechkast’. Let all the children of Russia be aware that some of the time some of the Mordvins have called the Tatar men ‘circumcized’. The brighter kids will figure out for themselves what the Mordvins call the Tatar women.

On p.223, Prof. Mokshin gives what he thinks is the Tatars name of the river that the Russians call Kama — Ak-Idel. Not true. The Tatar name for Kama is Chulman. The Agidel (not Ak-Idel) river is called in Russian Belaya. It flows through Bashkortostan and enters Kama, which only too bad — our Professor came so close to making another great discovery.

When it comes down to the historical dates, Prof. Mokshin seems no less out of his depth. On p.224 he assures his readers that Emperor Timur submitted the Volga Bulgaria in 1361. Let it be known to our Professor that after it fell to the Mongols in 1236, the Volga Bulgaria was never reconstituted. In 1361, an obscure Timur-Hodja (Bulat-Timur) rose to the throne of the Golden Horde after having assasinated his father the lawful king Khizr. As to the famous and powerful emir Timur of Samarkand, in 1391 he defeated the armies of Tokhtamish on the territory of the former Volga Bulgaria and returned to Asia.

Page 225 reads, “The Czarist Government conducted a policy aimed at securing itself in Tataria with a social base consisting of local landowners and Muslim clergy. The offspring of the old Tatar aristocracy, the heirs of the former Tatar khans, murzas, and tarkhans were converting to Christianity and becoming part of the Russian landed gentry: e.g. the princes Yussupovs, Urussovs, the Tiaviashevs, the Meshcherskys etc”.

That sounds correct but let’s take a look at the details. The princes Yussupovs and Urussovs descend from Edigey who ruled over the Golden Horde. Their ancestors joined the Russian army coming from the Nogai Horde, not at all from the Kazan khanate. The princes Meshcherskys bear no relationship whatsoever neither to the Kazan khanate nor to Tatarstan. Those rulers of Meshchora adopted Christianity as far back as the late 1200s. The ancestors of the Teviashevs (not Tiaviashevs) joined the Russians in 1391 after Timur’s victory over Tokhtamish. It really makes no sense to connect those families with the policy of the Russian government in Tatarstan after the defeat of the Kazan khanate in 1552.

As for the Muslim clergy, far from being a social base for the Czarist power structure, it was unceasingly persecuted until Catherine the Great (ruled 1762–1796) made the Islamic religion tolerated in Russia.

The further we read, the more errors sprout up. Prof. Mokshin claims that the water elf in Tatar folklore has the name «Syu Babasi», the house goblin «Oy Eysa». The actual names are «Su anasy», «Yurt anasy». Some groups of Tara and Tobol Tatars in Siberia do call the water elf «Su babasy», and the Nugaibeks and Siberian Tatars in general do call the house goblin «Ey iyase». Our Professor must have drawn piecemeal on some ethnographic field notes from the 19th century.

The page 242 is crowned by this gem: “For the feast of Kurbay-Bayram, every head of household had to stick several animals, according to the size of his family, to secure their well-being.” Our academic clearly has no notion of what he is writing about. Such sheer ignorance in the subject one is tackling, is disconcerting.

It is a minor mistake to call the feast Kurbay-Bayram instead of Kurban-Bayram. But how is it possible not to know that the Muslims never stick their cattle?! The Christians do stick their pigs but the Muslims have to perform a special rite and then to cut the blood vessels in the neck of the animal, causing exsanguination. The blood is collected in a special hole in the ground.

Second, not every head of household was obligated to perform the sacrifice but only those wealthy enough as defined by the provisions of the Sharia law.

Three, the Muslims do not sacrifice according to the number of the members of the household (no herd is too large for that). The family keeps a third of a regular sacrifice, the rest is distributed among the poor. The meat of a vowed sacrifice is all given away to the poor.

Four, the purpose of the sacrifice is not at all to secure well-being in this life but to help pass over the Sirat bridge to the Other World after the Judgement Day.

One sentence, four errors. What a fine ethnographer our academic has made!

One can glean the recipe for the textbook from looking at the Tatar section. Take several old, Soviet-time tourist guides and photo albums dedicated to the Tatars and to Tatarstan. Highlight and copy sentences and paragraphs to produce a patchwork of styles with abrupt transitions between them. No knowledge of the subject is necessary. Why did not those who commissioned the book turn to the true specialists in those cultures?

Writing on the Bashkirs and Bashkortostan, Prof. Mokshin depicts yet again the struggle of the Bashkir nation against the Tatar governing entities and its voluntary joining the Russian State. On p.253, the number of Bashkirs in Bashkortostan is set at “864,000 people, that is 22 percent of the total population”. According to our Professor, “39 percent of the population are Russian, tens of thousands of Tatars also call the land home”.

The 1989 Census data set the total population of Bashkortostan at 3,943,113, of which 1,548,291 (39.3 percent) Russians, 863,808 (21.9 percent) Bashkirs, 1,120,702 (28.4 percent) Tatars. Did you say «tens of thousands», Professor?

Prof. Mokshin definitely has a way with figures . Never mind that the number of the Tatars in Bashkortostan is over a million, greater than the number of the Bashkirs themselves! The Tatars can never be anything other than a tiny minority for our academic. Why would you want to falsify the truth so badly, dear Professor? What goal do you pursue? Why understate the Tatar population in Bashkortostan by a factor of a hundred?! What does it profit you? «Delenda Carthago»?

In the Czarist days, a Tatar and a Bashkir could not marry without a written authorization from the regional governor, failing which the couple was sentenced to forced labor. If the marriage application was approved, two horses had to be given to the Czar’s Treasury. The Soviet regime continued with the Czarist policy aimed at separation of the Tatars and the Bashkirs.

According to the data of the 1959 Census, of the 738,000 Bashkirs living then in Bashkortostan, about 306,000 spoke Tatar as their first language. That means that 41 percent of all Bashkirs were in actual fact Tatar. The situation has remained unchanged until this day. A vast and rather successful campaign for further conversion of Tatars to Bashkirs took place in the 1970s. Many Tatar villages were officially declared Bashkir and as a result the schools there switched to teaching children in their new and officially approved first language.

If ethnic identity is circumscribed by the language, 37 percent of all population in Bashkortostan are Tatar and only 13 percent are Bashkir. Why don’t we hear the Tatars of Bashkortostan loudly protest their minority status?

If a Tatar man or woman wants to make career in Bashkortostan, he or she could easily change their ethnicity in their civil ID and become Bashkir. The distinction between the Bashkir and Tatar languages is slim enough for a gifted Tatar to turn a professional Bashkir writer, not to mention to move up the corporate ladder. Mustai Karim is one example of such Bashkir litterateur.

Had the central authorities decided to decree the existence of one Tatar-Bashkir nation, the goal would have been achieved with one and only ordinance of the Cental Committee of the Communist Party.

There would have been no need in academics such as our Professor, who spend their entire lives striving to realize their precious dream of ‘creating’ one «Mordvin socialist nation» out of two presumed ‘subethnic’ groups of Erzia and Moksha.

It is understandable that in olden days when history was interpreted in the light of the latest resolution of the Central Committee, Prof. Mokshin was expected to play the game of the authorities, and to come up as much negative coverage on the Tatars as possible in order to make a living and enjoy a few perks. But that’s in the past. To rephrase Virgil, fuit Sovetium. No one will take away Prof. Mokshin’s hard-won academic spurs, his doctoral degree nor his tenure at a State university. Why persevere in spreading untruth about the Tatars and Tatar culture? What did we do to displease you, dear Professor?


Born June 22, 1936 in the village Ivantsevo, County of Lukoyanovo, District of Nizhny Novgorod

PhD in history 1987

University Professor 1989

Director of Chair of Pre-1917 Russian History, Archeology and Ethnography, Mordovian State University 1986

Russian Federation distinction for conspicuous service in culture 1990

State award of the Republic of Mordovia 1995

Ogarev award 1997

Research Interests: ethnogenesis, ethnic history and culture, relation of the Mordvas to the other lesser nations of the Volga and the Urals regions.

Active member of the Russian Geographic Society and Academy of Social Science 1994

Corresponding member of the International Folklorist Society, National Academy of Science, Finland Member of the Union of Journalists of Russian Federation 1961

Awarded the Medal of Friendship in 1996.

Translated by Konstantin Smolkov.

E-mail: irek@moris.ru