No 1-2, 10.02.2000


By Sabirzyan BADRETDIN

Basic components of ethnicity

Tatars living outside Tatarstan (about 70 percent of all Tatars) are in certain danger of assimilation. Although the situation is gradually changing for the better in some places, in most parts of the former USSR there are still no Tatar-language schools, no Tatar-language radio and TV programs, and no mosques or cultural centers where Tatars can congregate and socialize. Only a tiny percentage of Tatars outside Tatarstan subscribe to Tatar-language newspapers and magazines.

As a result, many Tatars, especially among the younger generation, are losing their ethnic identity. It is no exaggeration to say that most young Tatars who live in Russia cannot properly speak their own language. If this trend continues, the younger generation of Tatars will be completely assimilated within a few decades. Is it possible to reverse this process? To answer this question, let’s examine what personal qualities make someone a member of a certain ethnic group.

Unquestionably, the most important components of one’s ethnicity are:

  • Ethnic self-consciousness
  • Language
  • Religion

To understand what causes ethnic assimilation, we should establish what factors contribute to the loss of each of the above components and how they may be restored. Let’s review each of them:

Ethnic self-consciousness can be defined as identifying oneself as a member of a certain ethnic group. This is perhaps the most important characteristic forming the basis of one’s ethnic identity. Some people are proud to call themselves Tatar even though they don’t speak the language, are not familiar with the Tatar culture and do not adhere to Islam. Should they still be considered Tatar? Definitely yes! Because someone who was born to an assimilated Tatar family and grew up without any connection to the Tatar community, later in life might discover the attraction of Tatar culture, commence learning the Tatar language, and become interested in Islam. In fact, such transformations happen quite often. What makes them possible? The answer is: ethnic self-consciousness. Therefore, to understand the causes of assimilation, we should find out what makes a person lose his or her ethnic self-consciousness and what can be done to restore it.

Language is the foundation of ethnic culture. Those Tatars who don’t speak their native language can neither partake of Tatar culture nor contribute to it. Instead, they often bestow their talents upon other cultures. In the early 1990’s such notable cultural figures as playwright Dias Valeev and writer Akhat Mushinsky were often vilified in the Tatar press for writing only in Russian. The frequently-asked question was: should they be considered Tatar writers who simply chose Russian as a particular medium of expression or Russian writers of Tatar descent? But the more important question is: what makes a person lose his native tongue and what can be done to reverse this process?

Islam has been an important part of Tatar identity since the 10th century AD.

Therefore, religious self-identification is a crucial factor in preserving a Tatar’s ethnic affiliation. For example, the Polish Tatars lost their language long ago and have almost completely assimilated. Only their Islamic faith saved them from disappearing altogether as an ethnic group. They consider themselves a part of the Tatar nation. The opposite examples are Kryashens and Nagaibaks — Christian Tatars who very often define themselves as ethnic groups separate from Tatars. Here too, the most important questions are: what factors contribute to the loss of religious identity and what can be done to reverse this process?

The following 3 parts of this article will examine each of these basic components of ethnicity (Part 2 - Ethnic Self-Consciousness; Part 3 - Language; Part 4 - Religion).

Ethnic Self-Consciousness

What causes ethnic Tatars to lose their ethnic self-consciousness? Among many possible reasons, cultural indoctrination is probably the most important one. When a Russian high school history textbook depicts Tatars as barbarians who did nothing but kill, rape and pillage, and at the same time describes ancient Slavs as "tall, blond, beautiful people" always preoccupied with noble cultural pursuits, the only conclusion that a Tatar schoolboy can make is this: "It is bad to be a Tatar." Very often Tatar school children in Russian schools become targets of ridicule during history lessons. Such cultural indoctrination usually leads to low self-esteem, an ethnic inferiority complex, and an unwillingness to identify oneself as a Tatar. Young people are especially susceptible to such indoctrination.

Most teenagers want to identify themselves with everything modern and fashionable. Popular Russian culture offers Tatar teens an endless stream of images with which to identify: beautiful, sexy, self-confident models, singers, athletes, actors, etc. Tatar culture is often very slow to provide such imagery. Especially during the Soviet period, Tatar culture over-emphasized its traditional, folk aspects to the detriment of modern visions.

For example, until recently about 90 percent of all songs on Tatar TV were performed to the accompaniment of only one instrument - an accordion. Rock motifs did not exist at all. As a result, Tatar teenagers flocked to dance clubs and discotheques that featured western and westernized Russian music.

The shift in taste from Tatar to western music had profound consequences for Tatar teens’ sense of self-identity. Many lost interest in Tatar music for good. The Tatar intelligentsia mistakenly considered rock music alien to the Tatar culture. (In fact, there is nothing specifically Western or Christian about rock music (which in fact may have its roots in the music of Africa or the Caribbean), just as there is nothing Chinese about paper and powder).

Ultimately, a whole generation of young Tatars grew up believing that Tatar music (and by extension - the whole Tatar culture) was archaic and old-fashioned.

Cultural indoctrination is sometimes accompanied by psychological indoctrination. In the Russian army, where Russian nationalism is especially strong, young Tatar soldiers (just like representatives of other ethnic minorities) have been frequent victims of hazing incidents (known as "dedovschina"). In such an environment, the only way for a Tatar soldier to survive is to call as little attention to his ethnicity as possible. Later, as a civilian in a working environment, he is frequently subjected to further psychological pressure to conform. The ultimate product of such indoctrination is what in Tatar literature is called a "mankurt" (a person who is ashamed of his own ethnicity).

How can the loss of ethnic self-consciousness be reversed? Obviously, cultural indoctrination can be fought with the aid of cultural counter-indoctrination. For example, it is important to resist the harmful tendency in Tatar society to equate old, even archaic, forms of culture with ethnic authenticity. Tatar pop and rock music should be developed. It is important to understand that modern youth culture is, to a large degree, defined by popular music.

In Tatarstan, young people should be constantly "bombarded" by images of young, modern, fashionable, sexy Tatars with whom they could identify themselves. Cultural organizations in the Tatar diaspora usually have difficulties attracting young people because they perceive these organizations as old-fashioned places where their parents gather to eat, drink, and gossip. To attract the young, Tatar organizations must offer features of interest to young people: gyms, discotheques, swimming pools, fashion shows, book discussions, introductory services, etc.

Another important way to strengthen ethnic self-consciousness is to correct the biased view of Tatar history. It is important to teach children a culturally unbiased history of the Tatar nation. Relying on Russian textbooks is counterproductive. Of course, it is unrealistic to supply each Russian school where Tatar children study, with history textbooks published in Tatarstan. In this respect, the role of the Internet as an educational tool is especially important.

Not only Tatar school children but, ideally, every Tatar should become a cybercitizen. Tatars are one of the most dispersed nations of the world. Only the Internet can connect Tatars living in Finland, Australia, Turkey, Russia, and elsewhere to each other and create a sense of community (in order to both create and sustain ethnic self-consciousness).

Finally, the experience of other ethnic and religious groups in preserving their identities should be thoroughly studied and applied to our own situation. For example, "Judaism As A Civilization", a book by Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, offers many insights into the problem of how to preserve one’s cultural identity.


Although census results usually indicate that most Tatars consider Tatar their native language, this does not reflect on the degree of their proficiency in the language. Many Tatars, not having an opportunity to study Tatar in school, have only the most basic familiarity with the language. The situation is especially lamentable in Tatar communities of Russia. In Central Asia and in Tatar diasporas in foreign countries, such as Finland and Turkey, the situation is only a little better.

But even in the Tatar communities of foreign countries, certain negative tendencies are taking place. Just like in Tatarstan itself, these tendencies have a lot to do with the generation gap. For example, in the US, the oldest generation of Tatars usually speaks fluent Tatar, fluent Russian (or fluent Japanese, Turkish, Chinese, etc. depending on what country they immigrated from), and a bit of English. The middle generation typically speaks fluent English and some Tatar (often with a Turkish accent), the youngest generation speaks nothing but English. In contrast, the first generation of Russian immigrants speaks fluent Russian and some English, the middle generation speaks fluent Russian and fluent English and the younger generation speaks fluent English and passable Russian.

In Tatarstan itself the loss of the Tatar language can be explained by many reasons:

  1. It is often viewed as an obstacle for obtaining a higher education (until recently all the disciplines in institutes and universities have been taught only in Russian).
  2. Many young people consider Tatar "archaic", "old-fashioned" and unsuited to the modern world of computers, faxes and cellular phones (how many of us know how to say "web site", "interface" or "modem" in Tatar?)
  3. Most people in the Tatar diaspora do not have the opportunity to study Tatar due to absence of Tatar-language schools, media and ethnically homogeneous Tatar communities.

How can this tide of assimilation be reversed? Obviously, opening Tatar schools, increasing the circulation of Tatar newspapers and other measures may be very helpful, but financial, organizational and logistical problems make their implementation very difficult and in many cases even unrealistic. So, we need to invent more creative and original ways of promoting the Tatar language. For example, it is inexpensive to record lessons in Tatar on audio or video cassettes and distribute them throughout the Tatar diaspora. People can be encouraged to make copies and pass the cassettes on to other potential learners.

Tatar organizations abroad should encourage their members to speak Tatar instead of other languages during their meetings. As a minimum, every Tatar should know and try to use in speech and writing at least a few Tatar words.

It would be beneficial to organize yearly competitions for young Tatars to find out who is the most proficient in Tatar or has the best knowledge of Tatar history, culture, etc. The winners should be generously awarded and given all kinds of extra privileges.

In Tatarstan, more attention should be given to such seemingly trifle things as Tatar-language advertising, store signs, merchandise packaging, etc. I remember that in the 1970’s some goods sold in Tatarstan had Tatar and Russian inscriptions on their packages. Not having read a single Tatar book or newspaper, I nevertheless, learned how to spell many Tatar words, such as "salt", "yeast", "bread", etc. In the 1980’s all Tatar-language inscriptions on products have completely disappeared. Such details might seem a bit trivial but they can either contribute to or detract from one’s knowledge of the language.

In order to learn the Tatar language successfully, one has to immerse himself into a Tatar linguistic environment. Some Tatars living outside Russia send their children to Tatar villages in order to give them a chance to learn Tatar. Such practices should be encouraged and perhaps even formally organized into "youth exchange programs" similar to student exchange programs conducted by many universities. Ideally, each Tatar organization in the diaspora should have a list of host families willing to accommodate Tatar youths for a period of time either in exchange for financial assistance or for reciprocal visits.

The experience of other peoples in saving their native languages should be studied and applied to our own needs. Here again, the cultural resilience of the Jewish people is a good example. How was it possible not only to revive Hebrew, a language that was not spoken for centuries, but also to adapt it to the requirements of modern technology and culture? The answer may give us an insight into how our own language can be saved from extinction.


The human mind will never be able to comprehend the world in its entirety. Nevertheless, a human being can not function in society without having a certain system or a frame of reference in his mind that at least to some degree reflects the complexity of the world. A system based on a scientific understanding of nature and society is the most precise and, therefore, may be the most preferable among all the systems. Religions, on the other hand, provide a viable alternative, or in some liberal, modern forms, an important supplement to a scientific worldview. As a cultural force, religion can be very helpful in maintaining one’s ethnic idenity. Reversal of the process of assimilation — which has become so advanced among the Tatars — may require a revival of Islam.

At the same time, we have to make sure that the enlightened, liberal, peaceful, and pluralistic brand of Islam (which is currently prevalent in Tatarstan) maintains its predominance over fundamentalist (Wahhabi), intolerant, narrow-minded Islam. The latter is popular mostly among some Tatars of mixed ethnic parentage, who often try to overcompensate for their lack of Tatar identity with religious fervor.

What are the reasons that lead to the loss of Islamic identity among many Tatars? In Russia, centuries of Christian Orthodox proselytizing (often in the most violent and barbaric form), and later the atheistic nature of the Soviet regime contributed greatly to this process. In what ways could this process be reversed? Here, again, we need to be very inventive and creative. We have to find new ways of attracting assimilated Tatars to Islam.

While it is relatively easy to reach the civilian population, some attention should also be given to Tatars serving in the Russian army. During the last few years the Russian army had been used for religious proselytizing of young soldiers. An article in Der Spiegel (Jan. 12, 1998), "Waffe der Kreuzes", reports about Christian Orthodox clergymen in the Russian army who perform services similar to those provided by military chaplains in some Western countries. The difference is that in Russia many religious ceremonies performed in the army are compulsary. What happens to Tatar soldiers during such ceremonies? Are they forced to take part in them or do they have to perform menial jobs instead? Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: there are no military mullahs in the Russian army. Tatarstan’s government is the only authority that can raise the issue of religious proselytizing in the Russian army. But it is also important for the Tatars in diaspora to express concern over this issue.

In short, we have to use every possible (even the smallest) opportunity — from wearing tee-shirts with Tatar symbols to organizing international introductory services for Tatars willing to marry within their own ethnic group — for the purpose of saving the Tatar nation from extinction. Gayaz Iskhaki, the great Tatar writer and public figure, wrote in 1902 that "in two hundred years the Tatar nation will probably cease to exist". Let’s prove him wrong.

E-mail: irek@moris.ru