No 3-4, 18.04.2000


By Sabirzyan BADRETDIN

The civilizing role of the Tatar diaspora in the region formerly known as Turkestan is well known. Tatar mullahs, teachers and merchants contributed greatly to the education and enlightenment of their ethnic brethren in what is now known as Central Asia. Unfortunately, this subject has not been studied comprehensively. Whatever we know about the Tatars’ influence in Central Asia comes mostly from sources that focus on only one particular aspect of this phenomenon or on only one particular region of Central Asia.

One typical source is the book "Tatars and Bashkirs in Kyrgyzstan", published in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1996. The author, A.P. Yarkov (an ethnic Russian), despite having a plethora of factual material at his disposal, fails to present a cohesive analysis of Tatar cultural, social and religious influence in Kyrgyzstan. Nevertheless, the book contains many interesting facts that deserve our attention. Here are some of them:

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the Tatars in Kyrgyzstan were mainly merchants, craftsmen, workers, religious educators and teachers, as well as their families.

Religious educators played an important role in enlightening Kyrgyzs, especially by strengthening Islam among them. According to witnesses, Kyrgyzs’ religious convictions at the turn of the century were not very strong. Very often, they conducted funerals, weddings and other religious ceremonies according to their old shamanist traditions. But frequently they would invite a Tatar mullah or simply a literate person (who, most of the time, happened to be a Tatar anyway) to recite the prayers.

Many Tatar mullahs in what is now Kyrgyzstan were dervishes ("traveling mullahs" or "wandering mullahs") whose role in spreading Islam is hard to over-estimate. Often, these people became mullahs due to adverse circumstances: Tatars who fled from the draft or broke laws in Russia would sometimes end up in Kyrgyzstan. Because of their literacy and familiarity with the Arabic script they would frequently be asked to perform ritual tasks and ceremonies. Gradually, they would build up their own following become real mullahs.

Even before Tatar mullahs established their foothold in Kyrgyzstan, the religious literature published by Tatars found its way to Central Asia. At the beginning of the 20th century Turkestan did not have a single publishing house. "Muslim" books were published only in 13 printing houses in the Czarist Empire, eight of which were located in the Middle Volga area and the rest of them elsewhere in Russia. Books, written in Tatar using Arabic script could be read and understood by other Turkic peoples. The first books in local languages (dialects) were also published in the printing houses of Kazan and other centers of Tatar publishing, such as Orenburg. For example, the first book printed with the Kyrgyz alphabet was published in 1913 in the Tatar publishing house of "Karimov, Khusainov and Co."

Besides published books, there were many hand-written books, most of which also came from the Middle Volga area. Unlike the local non-Muslim school children, Tatar students at medreses were often taught calligraphy and drawing - skills that are necessary for producing manuscripts.

Tatar teachers also played an important role in spreading knowledge among the Kyrgyzs. Tatars were disproportionately represented among the teachers in Kyrgyzstan. This situation continued for a long time even after Central Asia was incorporated into the USSR. For example, during the first years of the Soviet power almost all teachers in girls’ secular schools were Tatars.

This had a lot to do with the higher level of literacy among the local Tatars. In 1897, literacy among the Tatars of Przhevalsk *Uyezd* (region) of what is now Kyrgyzstan was 35.6 percent for men and 24.2 percent for women. For comparison, among local Russians the literacy rate was 29.9 percent and 9.2 percent respectively. (In fact, pre-revolutionary statistics reflected only Tatars’ proficiency in reading and writing in Russian. As far as Arabic literacy was concerned, it was almost universal among Tatars. Professor Abrar Karimullin wrote in his monumental work "Tatar Books at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century" that the number of published books and the number of their titles are the most precise indicators of literacy, since no one is going to buy a book if he or she is not able to read it. According to Karimullin, Tatars in 1905-1913 published more books per capita than any other ethnic group within the Russian empire, except for Latvians. The affordability of Tatar books, which were extremely cheap, was often achieved through the use of low-quality paper, saving the space by reducing the margins, using fewer illustrations, etc. - S.B.)

The second important group of Tatars in Kyrgyzstan were merchants. Their role as intermediaries in trade between Russia and Asia (including Central Asia) is well-documented. For example, in the city of Przhevalsk, out of 102 merchants 78 were Tatars. Frequently, they acted as patrons of art and literature. The first theater troupes in Kyrgyzstan were founded and financed by Tatars. The mother of the famous Soviet Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, Nagima Khazievna (an ethnic Tatar) became known in the local community as an actress. It was unheard of for local Muslims to see women performing on stage. That’s why actresses could only be seen during performances of Tatar touring theatrical companies, such as "Sayar", with its famous female stars known under their Russian-sounding stage names: Bolgarskaya, Filskaya, Tadzharova, Arapova, Kamalova. (Incidentally, the name of the famous Tatar chess player Gata Kamsky originated as the stage name of his grandmother, who was an actress of a Tatar theatrical company. - S.B.)

The third important group of Tatars in Kyrgyzstan was made up of craftsmen and workers. The first strike in the history of Kyrgyzstan was organized by Tatars who worked in Sulyuktinsk mines. Along with economic demands (an 8-hour working day, wage increases, etc.) they put forth some political demands as well (freedom of speech, assembly and demonstrations). Such struggles may have contributed to the higher level of material culture among the local Tatars. V.I. Vishpolsky, a Russian doctor who worked in the hospital in Karakol, wrote: "Compared to Russians and people of other nationalities, Tatars are relatively less prone to infectious diseases due to higher level of hygiene in their households..."

Source: "Tatars and Bashkirs in Kyrgyzstan" by A.P. Yarkov. Published in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1996.

E-mail: irek@moris.ru