While the Putin regime seeks to extend Russia’s empire abroad, it is facing a looming internal challenge: Will the Russian “Federation” itself actually survive.
A federation is a group of states with a central government in which, in theory, those states may maintain independence in internal affairs. The Russian “Federation” is not that kind of “federation.” It is an empire accumulated over the course of half a millennia with direct central authority over all aspects of the affairs of its constituent republics.
Today, however, this central authority is threatened, largely because of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russia’s conduct of its failing war suggests two resolutions of this invasion: Russia will not prevail in Ukraine and as a result, the “Federation” is in peril.
One 150 nations make up the “Federation,” with the Kazan or Volga Tatars among them. Their land, now Tatarstan, was forcibly invaded and occupied by Muscovites, now known as Russians. This is the story of perhaps the largest national minority within the RF, numbering more than seven million residents.
After many days of fighting during the siege of Kazan, the army of Ivan IV (known as the Terrible) stormed the city in 1552, plundered, and then burned it to the ground. The male population of the city was completely slaughtered, and women and children were driven into slavery. Muscovites tied the naked corpses of the brutally murdered residents of Kazan to 50 logs and launched them down the Volga. Not a single village remained within a radius of 60 kilometres from Kazan itself. All of them were devastated and burned along with the inhabitants.
Modern-day Volga Tatars are the descendants of the well-known early and medieval states that have lived in the Volga region since ancient times. One of the last state formations of the modern Tatar people was the Kazan Khanate, which lost its independence in 1552. The capture of Kazan did not mean the fall of the entire state, although its army was destroyed and the khan was captured and sent to central Russia. The Tatars put up active resistance for several more years.
The Russians pursued a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the occupied lands. The Russians’ calamitous policy forced the Tatars to migrate from the Volga to the eastern parts of the Kazan Khanate. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that the Russians ruled this region of the former Kazan Khanate. Whereas the territories along the Volga and the city of Kazan were inhabited by Russians. The Tatar population was forbidden to settle along the Volga River for 200 years. Peasant uprisings began in the 18th century, which were supported by the Tatar population.
The first Russian revolution was actively welcomed by the Tatars. The Tatar population was among the most educated among the Muslim peoples of Russia. Therefore, the Tatars were represented in all political currents of that time. However, the czarist government, by amending the laws, created difficulties for Tatar voters. Thus, the majority of Muslims of Central Asia could not take part in the elections to the Third Duma, and the results of the elections to the Fourth Duma meant that the Kazan province became disenfranchised.
During the Soviet era, all activities of civil society were tightly controlled by the authorities. At the same time, the activities of organizations that did not recognize Soviet power and communist ideology were banned (legally or semi-legally, such organizations existed only in the early 1920s and reappeared in the late 1980s).
In the early 1990s, two ideological currents began to form in Tatarstan: the Tatar national movement and the Russian-inspired federalist pro-Russian movement. The peak of their political influence was in the early 1990s
A rally was held in Kazan on Aug. 24, 1990, demanding the adoption of the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Tatarstan. Five days later, the Supreme Council of the TASSR began to consider this issue. A lively discussion ensued. It was on August 30, 1990, that the Supreme Council of the Republic adopted the Declaration on State Sovereignty of the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic. However, the Tatar national movement insisted on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
By the beginning of 1991, the situation in the USSR had become critical. The central authorities began to lose control over the union’s republics and the union itself entered a period of apparent disintegration.
In the autumn of 1991, the Tatar people gathered at their rallying site, demanding nothing less than independence. An attempt was made to storm the Tatarstan parliament on Oct. 15, 1991. Just days later, on Oct. 24, 1991, the Supreme Council of Tatarstan adopted a resolution on the act of state independence of the republic, in preparing for a referendum that was supposed to reinforce the earlier proclaimed state sovereignty.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian “Federation”, promised in an interview with the Izvestiya Tatarstan newspaper to deliver the leaders of the Tatarstan Republic “in an iron cage”.
The situation escalated. The Russian authorities agitated people to ignore the referendum, to vote “No.” The Republic of Tatarstan was flooded with leaflets calling for a boycott of the vote. This was the subject of a televised address by Russian President Yeltsin. On Saturday, the day before the referendum, the prosecutor of Tatarstan personally brought to the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the TSSR a notification that if the popular vote did take place, the parliamentary speaker would be held criminally liable on the basis of the decision of the Constitutional Court of the RF.
The referendum held on March 21,1992, was an important step toward determining the status of the republic. The question was: “Would you like the Republic of Tatarstan to be a subject of international law, a sovereign state with the right to establish relations with the Russian Federation and other republics and states on the basis of equal treaties?” The turnout of Tatarstan citizens in the referendum was 81.7%, with 61.4% of them voting “yes”.
The Supreme Council of the Republic of Tatarstan, on the basis of the will of the people, adopted a Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan on Nov. 6, 1992. Tatarstan was the only one of all the republics within the Russian “Federation” that refused to sign a new federal treaty. They cited the Declaration of 1990, the results of the referendum and the new Constitution, thus demanding that it secure special status in its relations with Moscow.
However, pressure on the leaders of the Tatar national movement and in, particular, the government, increased. A disinformation campaign ensued. Statements made by Tatar leaders were distorted. Disinformation spread among the population that one of the leaders of the national movement spoke of the inferiority and “illegitimacy” of children from mixed marriages and the need to exterminate them.
The Tatarstan government began to gradually “surrender” sovereignty. First, sovereignty provisions were relaxed in the 1992 Constitution, then even more so in the 1994 Treaty with Russia.
In February 1994 the leadership of Tatarstan signed an agreement on the delimitation of powers between the authorities of Russia and Tatarstan. The agreement provided for special conditions for the republic to join the Russian “Federation,” which seemingly relieved tensions between Moscow and Kazan for years to come. For this compromise, Tatarstan was granted the fairly broad rights of a sovereign subject. For example, the opportunity to conduct foreign economic relations and, to some extent, foreign policy activities.
With Putin coming to power in 2000, the complete rule of Moscow was restored. All regional specifics were brought “into compliance with the legislation of the Russian Federation.” By 2017 the special relationship between Moscow and Kazan was terminated.
Also in 2017, Putin prohibited the study and teaching of national languages in all the federated national republics. The decision was the result of numerous complaints made by Russians living in Tatarstan and other republics that they were being forced to learn a language other than their own. For Moscow, this was to be the final nail in the coffin of the Tatar language and culture – a cultural genocide.
However, it turns out that this was only Russia’s effort to commit cultural genocide. The Kazan Tatars are very much alive today, both culturally and politically. All this information was brought to my attention by Kazan Tatars who are intent on independence.
There appears to be a movement afoot.