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Walking a Tightrope: Faith and Identity in Tatarstan

Published: July 13, 2010 (Issue # 1591)


KAZAN The chalk-white limestone walls of the Kazan Kremlin create a striking impression of the city as they rise dramatically from the bank of the Kazanka River, just before it converges with the mighty Volga. The Kremlin, dating from long before Ivan the Terrible ravaged and rebuilt the city in 1552, is not only the main tourist attraction in the city. It is also by far the most essential concentration of political power and cultural symbolism in the Republic of Tatarstan.

The Russian-Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral, completed in the 16th century, is overshadowed by the nearby mastodon minarets of the Kul Sharif mosque, recently rebuilt as a memorial to the original mosque that was burnt to ashes under Ivan the Terrible. Both buildings have great symbolic value for the two populations dominating the Russian federal republic Orthodox Russians and Muslim Tatars.

Tatarstan, one of the richest and also one of the most independent federal entities of Russia, seems always to have treated its conquerors with defiant acceptance. Today, still trying to find a way through the rubble of the Soviet legacy of ethnofederalism, Tatars are holding on to their federal rights and work to define their Tatar identity through language, history and religion.

Building Tatar identity

One of the less remarkable buildings within the Kazan Kremlin houses the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences. At the academys institute of history, from an office crammed with historic Tatar regalia, Dr. Rafael Khakimov (or Khakim, as his de-Russified name reads on several of his books) works with Tatar identity building and the definition of the Tatar way of practicing Islam. The republic, in which 52.9 percent of the 3.8 million population is predominantly Tatar and Muslim, seeks a form of Islam compatible with post-Soviet and modern-day Russian life. Claiming to pick up the thread where the pre-Revolutionary Jadidist movement left it under Soviet rule, Khakimov has written several essays about Tatar identity building, cultural and religious practices and federalism.

Its all about tolerance, said Khakimov. In this area, Christianity and Islam, Russians and Tatars, have been co-existing for more than 500 years. That means we can both practice our religions, and still respect each other.

In the first years after the fall of the U.S.S.R., Tatar politicians were the ones who took most seriously the promising words of Russian president Boris Yeltsin to the republics about taking as much sovereignty as they can handle. Mintimer Shaimiev, a former Communist apparatchik who became the first president of the republic in 1991, played a long political game securing federalism and Tatar autonomy, while holding nationalist groups and secessionists at arms length. After Vladimir Putins power centralization project, however, the game became tougher. Shaimiev has succeeded in establishing a strong Tatar state, but the conflicting interests of the white Kremlin in Kazan and its red counterpart in Moscow are visible in practically every political question. Stepping down in January this year, Shaimiev chose Rustam Minnikhanov as his successor to continue treading the fine line between building a Tatar national identity and keeping Moscow happy enough to yield federal rights.

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