Will the «Tatar spirit» be expelled from Tatarstan?

Two events occurred in Tatarstan this week that are believed to be related and could have far-reaching consequences for Russia’s largest Muslim population. Both events have to do with the city of Yelabuga, originally known as Alabuga in Tatar.

First, with little fanfare, a monument to the Russian Empress Sophia Augusta Frederika Anhalt-Zerbst, better known as Catherine II, was unveiled in the city. The monument was built with the support of sponsors, including the Russian Assembly of Nobility, and was opened with the participation of local Orthodox priest Sergey Lepikhin. Back in 2016, the idea of building this monument sparked considerable controversy, including an official protest from the World Forum of Tatar Youth, which noted that it could hurt the feelings of neighboring Muslim peoples, such as the Bashkirs, Crimean Tatars, and Nogais, who were victims of the empress’s oppressive and conquering policies.

At that time it was planned to erect it in Kazan, opposite the old Tatar settlement, which caused a corresponding reaction. Now it has been done in a city that owes its status as a district center (according to modern terminology) to Catherine II, with a significant, possibly dominant, Russian population, which should find some kind of «compromise».

Commenting on all this, we must first of all remember that Islam’s attitude towards any monuments and statues of living beings, whoever they may be, is generally negative. However, we are aware that in countries like Russia, Muslims live in the reality of secular states with established traditions of erecting various statues. Therefore, their evaluation should be approached from a cultural-historical and ethno-political perspective, and not from a religious one (which is clear). And here two approaches are possible: radical and moderate.

The radical approach is based on a negative attitude to any symbolic imperial presence on the lands of Tatarstan. And as practice shows, including the events mentioned in this article, this approach is fundamentally correct for Tatar Muslims and other indigenous Muslim peoples who have their respective republics. This is true both from an ancient perspective and from the perspective of modern Russian history.

After all, the establishment of these republics and the self-determination of their titular peoples did not take place during the tsarist period, but after 1917, during two revolutionary waves in the 1920s and 1990s. Those who today dream of a return to the pre-February 1917 order and glorify it in various ways, including through such monuments, usually call for the abolition of the national republics and their transformation into ordinary Russian provinces.

Supporters of the moderate approach argue that the Muslim and other peoples of Russia are still part of the Russian cultural-historical context, and that both the dark and bright sides of this context should be considered. For example, while a monument to obvious executioners like Yermolov is clearly wrong, it can be remembered that it was with Catherine II that a policy of relative tolerance toward loyal Russian Muslims began in the late imperial period, including the creation of «spiritual Muslim gatherings» etc. In other words, «it’s not all that simple,» so a compromise can be reached.

However, two questions arise here. First, if «it is not all that simple,» why is a compromise sought only in favor of one side? For example, in neighboring Bashkortostan, the Bashkir community has been unable for years to convince its authorities to erect a monument to the founder of the first Bashkir republic, Ahmed-Zaki Validi. They refuse to do so precisely because «it is not so simple», claiming that he supported «Basmachi», was a «pan-Turkist», «collaborated with the Nazis», etc. But why do they turn a blind eye to the far more unambiguous actions of Catherine II regarding the subjugated and conquered Muslim peoples of the empire?

This is the second and most important question. Starting with the unveiling of the Catherine II monument, this story had a more significant continuation this week. Yesterday, December 24, 2020, the Toponymic Commission of Yelabuga under the Yelabuga Executive Committee (City Hall) began to rename all traditional Tatar street names in the city. The basis for this was the decision of the Federal State Institution «Tax Service» of the Federal Tax Service of Moscow, which on August 24, 2020 refused to include in the database the names of streets in the Tatar city of Tatarstan using Tatar words, demanding that they be changed to Russian. In particular, it is suggested to rename Ikhlas Lane to Sincere Lane, Almagach Street to Fruit Street, Khyyal Street to Dreamers Street, etc.

Of course, one could make a sad joke about the idiocy of Moscow officials and suggest that they rename Moscow streets and districts such as Arbat, Ordynka, Izmailovo, Balchug, Yakimanka and others, finding truly Russian equivalents for them. But seriously, according to the rules of street naming in Yelabuga itself, half of the streets should have Russian names and the other half should have Tatar names. In the Republic of Tatarstan itself, both Russian and Tatar are official languages.

And now, with only a few days’ difference, the officials in Yelabuga are erecting a monument to Catherine II in this city in Tatarstan and embarking on a campaign to erase all Tatar street names from the city. «Coincidence? I don’t think so…» This looks more like a deliberate campaign to expel the «Tatar spirit» from Tatarstan, starting with a city where such a trial balloon is being floated.

Therefore, we hope that our Tatar readers and the Tatar community as a whole will show determination in this matter and stand up to defend their native names on their native land. And for the future of the peoples of Russia, this should serve as a lesson — where monuments to imperial figures are being erected today, tomorrow they may begin to eradicate local languages. Moreover, «tomorrow» is not meant figuratively or in an exaggerated sense, but almost literally.

2015 — 2023 ©. All rights reserved.