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Excerpts from "The Volga Tatars, a Profile in National Resilience", by Azade-Ayshe Rorlich (Stanford University, 1986)

1. The Origins of the Volga Tatars

Tatar or Turks
Tatarmi, torekma?
(G. Gubaidullin)

The Volga Tatars are the westernmost of all Turkic nationalities living in the Soviet Union. Among them, there are two major groups the Kazan Tatars and the Mishars; although each is characterized by linguistic and ethnogenetic particularities, their differences have not hindered the emergence and development of a common language and culture. [1]


As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, Volga Tatars preferred to identify themselves, and to be identi6ed by others, as Muslims. In addition to this, however, they used such ethnonyms as Kazanis (Kazanli), Bulgars, and Mishars, as well as Tatars, and were identified as such by Russians and other peoples. Preference for ethnonyms other than Tatar may have represented a reaction to the popular, as well as scholarly and official, identification of the Volga Tatars with the Mongol Tatars of the thirteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, enlightened Tatar thinkers, such as Kayyum Nasiri and Shihabeddin Merjani, played a major role in the rehabilitation of the ethnonym Tatar. Merjani urged the Kazanis not to be ashamed to call themselves Tatars. He noted that, because Russians employed the name Tatar as a curse, "some have regarded being a Tatar a shortcoming, hated it, and insisted 'we are not Tatars, we are Muslims'... If you are not a Tatar, an Arab, Tajik, Nogay, Chinese, Russian, French... then, who are you?" challenged Merjani. [2]

Apparently, the guilt and shame the Russians inspired in the Tatars in connection with their identity has endured to this day among some. Giuzel' Amalrik recalls in her memoirs: "I was ashamed of my nationality, even though I did not want to be Russian either, but I was ashamed of what seemed to me Tatar primitivism and lack of culture." Particularly relevant to this discussion are the remarks the father of a friend made to the thirteen-year-old Giuzel': "You tormented us 300 years, Tatar-mator, yes, and now repeat, how many years you tormented us." [3]

What is the origin of the ethnonym Tatar? Although there is no consensus on this issue among scholars, little has changed in their positions since the nineteenth century, which makes the task of identifying the basic theses less forbidding than the task of determining the ethnogenesis itself. Two theses stand out: the Mongol and the Turkic.

Proponents of the first accept the etymology of Tatar as deriving from the Chinese Ta-Tan or Da-Dan (a term of contempt applied to the Mongols by the Chinese) and believe that it refers to one group of Mongol tribes subdued by Ginghis Khan. [4] According to V. Thomsen, V. Bartol'd, and others, the name Tatar in the Orkhon Inscriptions refers to these tribes. [5]

The Mongol Tatars lived amidst Turkic tribes that had survived the demise of the seminomadic Turkic kaganate of the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. After their conquest by Ginghis Khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century (12021208), the Mongol Tatars, as well as the Turkic tribes of the southern Siberian plains and Central Asia, were included in the army headed by Ginghis Khan's grandson, Batu. In 1236, Batu, in the company of his sons Chagatai, Ogotai, and Tului, set out to conquer the eastern European ulus (lands) bequeathed to him at the 1235 kurultai (council) [6]. Conquering the lands beyond the Ural mountains and the Aral and Caspian seas, the Mongols came into contact with the Turkic Kypchaks, who had reached the zenith of their political power in the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D. as rulers of Dasht-i Kypchak, the huge territory between the Irtysh and Danube rivers. [7]

The Mongols and the Mongol Tatars, who were minorities in Batu Khan's army and even smaller minorities among the peoples of the "Golden Horde" that had emerged after Batu's conquest of the ulus beyond the Urals, underwent a process of assimilation by the Turkic peoples among whom they settled. This assimilation was both biological and cultural, as Al-Omari commented in his fourteenth-century account:

In the old times this state [the Golden Horde] was the country of Kypchaks [Cumans], but when the Tatars [Mongols] conquered them, the Kypchaks became their subjects. Later, they [the Tatars] mixed with them [Kypchaks], and the land had priority over their racial and natural qualities and they [the Tatars] became like Kypchaks, as they were of the same origin with them, because the Tatars settled on their lands, married them, and remained to live on their lands. [8]

The unification of all Mongol tribes under Ginghis Khan would not have been possible without eliminating the resistance of the Mongol Tatar tribes. A lasting sign of this victory emerged in Ginghis Khan's 1206 order that all conquered peoples be called Tatars, where Tatar is synonymous with conquered. Gradually, however, the Mongol conquerors were assimilated by the peoples they had conquered, and in 1246, Piano Carpini, an Italian traveler, noted that "even the Mongols themselves, especially since they have been cut off from their homeland, have come to be called 'Tatars.' Thus, the name Tatar has become synonymous with Mongol." [9] It seems that most of the peoples of the Golden Horde accepted their new ethnonym without significant resistance, yet the ancestors of the Volga Tatars were still reluctant to embrace the name in the sixteenth century. [10]

The Turkic thesis, which is not as widely accepted as the Mongol thesis, was advanced by scholars who rely heavily on the Diwan-i Lugat-it-Turk, a dictionary of the Turkic languages compiled by Mahmud al-Kashgari during the period 1072 to 1074. [11] In this book, al-Kashgari mentions that west of the Irtysh river there existed a Tatar branch of the Turkic languages. Ahmet Temir interprets this information as a testimony to the existence of a Turkic people called Tatars long before the Mongol conquest bestowed the name on the peoples of the Golden Horde. Broadening his interpretation of the information provided by the dictionary, Temir also suggests that the name could apply independently and equally to two diferent peoples: the Mongol tribe of Tatars and a Turkic tribe that inhabited a territory west of the Ural mountains. [12]

It is more likely, however, that in his dictionary al-Kashgari was referring to the language of the Mongol Tatar tribe, a tribe that, as a result of its territorial and cultural contiguity with the heirs of the Turkic kaganate of the sixth and seventh centurieS A.D., might have spoken a Turkic language.


The issue of the origins of the Volga Tatars is still being debated among scholars, both inside and beyond the borders of the USSR. However, even if the opinions of scholars seem still to be divided on the issue of the origins of the Kazan Tatars, there is no disagreement over the fact that, by the sixteenth century, the Kazan Tatars were living in an area that included the northern lands of the former Bulgar state, which despite the fact that western European maps of the period still identified these lands as Bulgaria Magna, practically coincided with the territory of the Kazan khanate. Although the Kazan khanate could hardly claim firm borders, the 700 settlements mentioned in the pistsovye knigi (population registers and tax records) make it possible to identify the homeland of the Kazan Tatars with reasonable accuracy (see Map 1). They lived in an area bounded on the north by the Ilet and Viatka river basins. On the east, the Viatka provided a natural border beyond which, however, they did have villages along the Izh and Toima rivers. The southern and southwestern limits of their territory were marked by the Malaia Cheremsha, Utka, Maina, and Sviaga rivers. The Sviaga river basin was the most densely populated, with 150 villages recorded in the pistsovye knigi. [13]

The existence of a densely populated rural and urban network might be interpreted as a measure of the degree of economic and cultural continuity the settled Kazan Tatars enjoyed, distinguishing them from their nomadic and seminomadic neighbors to the east. The issues of territorial, economic, and cultural continuity have played a significant role in the discussions on ethnogenesis, but no single argument has carried enough weight to mold a universally accepted thesis.

The two main lines of thought that have emerged concerning the origins of the Kazan Tatars have found expression in the Kypchak and Bulgar theses; other theories exist, but they are either variations of one of these theses or a combination of both. [14] Proponents of the Kypchak thesis argue that the Kazan Tatars are direct descendants of the Tatars of the Golden Horde. This idea has been advanced by Russian historians, such as S. M. Solov'ev, G. I. Peretiatkovich, and N. I. Ashmarin, as well as by Tatar nationalist and ?migr? historians, such as A. Z. Velidi-Togan, and A. Battal-Taymas. [15]

The Bulgar thesis traces the ancestors of the Kazan Tatars to the Bulgars a Turkic people who penetrated the Middle Volga and lower Kama region during the first half of the eighth century after being displaced from the Azov steppes by frequent Arab campaigns. [16] At the heart of this thesis is the idea that, when the lands of the Bulgars were conquered by the Mongol Tatars in 1236 and 1237, their culture survived the demise of the political entity and provided a foundation for the emergence of the Kazan Tatars. What characterizes this thesis is its intransigent rejection of the concept of acculturation and its predilection for absolute categories. Such instransigence has not deprived the thesis of supporters, however. N. Karamzin, I. Berezin, V. Grigoriev, N. Chernov, and M. Aitov carried its banner during the prerevolutionary period, and A. Kh. Khalikov, Kh. G. Gimadi, A. B. Bulatov, N. F. Kalinin, and F. Kh. Valeev are probably its most loyal Soviet disciples. [17]

Each of these unilinear theses has generated discussion, and in the process, new theories have been born. In response to the Kypchak thesis, G. N. Akhmarov has advanced the theory of the Bulgar-Tatar heritage, which emphasizes the contribution of the Bulgar element to the ethnoculture synthesis triggered by the Mongol conquest. Sh. Merjani, on the other hand, has qualified his acceptance of the Bulgar thesis by a recognition of the significant role the Kypchak elements played in the culture of the Kazan Tatars. [18] During the 1920s, N. N. Firsov and M. G. Khudiakov were among the first Soviet scholars to recognize the existence of a Kypchak component in the Tatar ethnogenesis, but they contended that its impact was not strong enough to alter the Bulgar essence of the Tatar ethnos.

In 1928, G. S. Gubaidullin articulated a diferent interpretation of the Kypchak thesis. According to him, the ethnogenesis of the Kazan Tatars had been completed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they emerged as descendants of the Bulgars and the turkicized local Finno-Ugric tribes that were assimilated by the Golden Horde Tatars carriers of a new language and a new ethnonym. These Golden Horde Tatars discussed by Gubaidullin were no other than the Kypchaks of the lower Volga, who had assimilated the Mongol Tatars of the thirteenth century.

Gubaidullin was not alone in his adherence to the modified Kypchak thesis. His views have been shared by V. F. Smolin, A. Rakhim, Sh. F. Mokham-mad'iarov, and others. [21] Although far from being universally accepted, this thesis has endured the ideological campaign aimed at eradicating the memory of the Golden Horde heritage.

In 1944, the Central Committee of the Communist Party' of the Soviet Union condemned the idealization of the Golden Horde by Tatar historians and deemed the scientific investigation of Tatar history a task of utmost urgency. The response of the scholarly community to this political imperative was the April 1946 Moscow conference sponsored by the Academy of Sciences. The list of participants matched the scope of the task: archeologists A. P. Smirnov, N. F. Kalinin, and S. P. Tolstov; linguists L. Z. Zaliai and N. K. Dmitriev; ethnographer N. I. Vorob'ev; anthropologist T. A. Trofimova; and historians M. N. Tikhomirov, R. M. Raimov, A. B. Bulatov, and Kh. G. Gimadi. The conference broke no new ground; instead, it led to a regrouping of the participants around existing theories. Kh. G. Gimadi and N. F. Kalinin emerged as the strongest proponents of the Bulgar thesis, claiming once more that the Bulgars of the Volga-Kama were the sole ancestors of the Volga Tatars. On the basis of evidence provided by their respective disciplines, A. P. Smirnov, N. I. Vorob'ev, T. A. Trofimova, and L. Z. Zaliai defended the Bulgar-Kypchak thesis.

Four decades have passed since the Moscow conference, but the issue of Tatar ethnogenesis is far from settled. If anything, it has gained in aktual'nost' and has brought into the discussion an impressive number of scholars.

Today, A. Kh. Khalikov, F. Kh. Valeev, and Ia. Abdullin are among the most ardent disciples of the Bulgar school. [23] Since the mid-1970s, however, the number of those who view the Bulgar and Kypchak contributions to Tatar ethnogenesis as a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship seems to have increased. M. Gosmanov is highly critical of F. Kh. Valeev's approach to the study of the art of the Bulgars. In response to the latter s claim that «the steppe art of the Kypchaks could influence neither the highly sophisticated art of the Bulgars, nor their culture as a whole, in any substantial way,» Gosmanov argues that Valeev conducted the analysis in such a fashion as to suggest that his sole purpose was to provide an answer to the question "Who were our ancestors?" Gosmanov's own conclusion is that the Kazan Tatars cannot claim either the Bulgars or the Kypchaks as only their ancestors because both Bulgars and Kypchaks also played a role in the ethnogenesis of other peoples who inhabited the Volga-Ural region. [24]

Gosmanov's voice of moderation is reinforced by M. Z. Zakiev and V. Khakov, who argue that neither the Bulgars nor their language disappeared after the Mongol conquest that, on the contrary, the Bulgars enjoyed a remarkable degree of autonomy. When the Golden Horde was organized, however, the new set of political and socioeconomic conditions determined changes in the functions of the languages spoken in the area under the rule of its khans. Kypchak emerged as the official language, and it was in this capacity that it had an impact on the evolution of the Bulgar language. Zakiev's and Khakov's adherence to the Bulgar-Kypchak thesis is restricted to the sphere of language; they contend that, from the anthropological viewpoint, the Volga Tatars are direct descendants of the Bulgars.

There is little reason to believe that the final chapter on Tatar ethnogenesis will be written soon. There is sufficient reason to believe, however, that the Kypchak-Bulgar thesis may best endure the test of time and the scrutiny of scholarly inquiry.


1. A. Kh. Khalikov adds to these two groups yet a third one, the Kriashens the Christian Tatars. Linguistic and ethnogenetic criteria place them very close to the Kazan Tatars, thus rendering superfluous a category based solely on the religious criterion. A. Kh. Khalikov, Proiskhozhdenie Tatar Povolzh'ia i Priural'ia (Kazan, 1978), pp. 13-15.

2. As quoted by Ahmet Temir from an 18S5 1900 edition of Sh. Merjani's Mustafad al-Akhbar fi-l-Ahwal Qazan wa Bulgar, in Ahmet Temir, "Tatar soziiniin menyei hakkinda," Kazan 3 (1971): 43.

3. Giuzel' Amalrik, Vospominaniia o moem detstve (Amsterdam, 1976), pp. 103 and 107.

4. See R. H. Mathews, A Chinese-English Dictionary Compiled for the China Inland Mission (Shanghai and Cambridge, 1969), p. 853. For a discussion of the name Tatar, see also A. Vambery, "The Awakening of the Tatars," The Nineteenth Century 54 (February 1905): 217.

5. V. Thomsen, Inscriptions de l'Orkhon (Helsingfors, 1896), pp. 140 41; Carl Brockelmann, History of the Islamic Peoples (London, 1979), pp. 163 64; W. Barthold, "Tatar," in Enzyklopedie des Islam, vol. 4 (Leiden and Leipzig, 1934), pp. 759 61. On Bartol'd's interest in the history and culture of the Volga Tatars, see Mokhammat Mahdiev, "Rus orientalistlarin'ing eshchanlege ham tatar vak'itli mat-bugat'i," KU 3 (1980): 173 74.

6. Brockelmann, History of the Islamic Peoples, p. 29; for a detailed account of the Mongol Tatars, see Men-da bes lu (Polnoe opisanie mongolo-tatar) (Moscow, 1975).

7. Khalikov, Proiskhozhdenie Tatar, p. 59; R. G. Kuzeev, Proiskhozhdenie Bashkirskogo naroda. Etnicheskii sostav. Istoriia rasseleniia (Moscow, 1974), pp. 170 74. In his analysis of the terms Tiurk, Tiurkskii (Turkic), A. N. Kononov draws a sharp line between the ethnic and political concepts behind the term and concludes that Tiurk stands for a political concept. It is a "collective name designating a union of warring tribes." A. N. Kononov, "Opyt analiza termina 'tiurk,'" SE 1 (1949): 40 47.

8. ITASSR, vol. 1 (Kazan, 1955), p. 73.

9. Khalikov quotes from Piano Carpini's travel notes in Proiskhozhdenie Tatar, pp. 82 83; on Carpini's travels, also see N. P. Shastina, Puteshestvie na Vostok Piano Karpini i Gil'oma Rubruka (Moscow, 1957); Gil'om Rubruk is Guillaume de Rubriquis (Willem van Ruysbroeck), the envoy of Louis II of France to Mangu Khan; Ebulgazi Bahadir Han, Histoire des Mongols et des Tatares (St. Petersburg, 1871 1874; St. Leonards, 1970).

10. A. Kh. Khalikov, "Kazanskoe khanstvo," in ITASSR (Kazan, 1973), p. 29. On adoption of the name Tatar by the peoples of the Golden Horde, see A. P. Smirnov, "K voprosu o proiskhozhdenii Tatar Povolzh'ia," SE 3 (1946): 43.

11. For reference to this dictionary, see Muhtar Tevfiko?lu, "Ali Emir Efendi," T?rk K?lt?r? 8 (1970): 244 52; Rifat Bilge Kilisli, "Divanu Lugat it- Turk ve Emiri Efendi," T?rk K?lt?r? 8 (1970): 253 70; M. Sakir Ulkutasir, Kasgarli Mahmut (Istanbul, 1946); Kh. Kh. Khasanov, Makhmud Kashghariy. (Khaeti va geografik merasi) (Tashkent, 1963); S. M. Mutallibov, ed., Mahmud Kashghariy: Torkiy suzler devani (Devanu lughat it-Turk) (Tashkent, 1960).

12. Ahmet Temir, "Tatar soz?n?n mensei hakkinda," Kazan 3 (1971): 44 and "T?rk-mogol imparatorlugu devrinde askeri reskilat," Kazan 7 8 (1972): 7 24; also see Akdes Nimet Kurat, "Malazgirt zaferi siralannda Idil boyu ve Karadeniz'in kuzeyindeki T?rk kavimleri," Kazan 7 8 (1972): 2.

13. Khalikov, Proiskhozhdenie Tatar, pp. 108 9.

14. A concise discussion of the main theses advanced by Russian/Soviet scholars until 1976 has been provided by A. Kappeler, "L'Ethnogenese des peuples de la Moyenne-Volga (Tatars Tchouvaches, Mordves, Maris, Oudmourtes) dans les re-cherches sovietiques," CMRS 2 3 (April September 1976): 311 34.

15. S. M. Solov'ev, Istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen, 15 vols. (Moscow, 1959 1965); G. I. Peretiatkovich, Povolzh'e v XV i XVI vekakh (Ocherki iz istorii kraia i ego kolonizatsii) (Moscow, 1877); N. I. Ashmarin, Bolgary i Chuvashi (Kazan, 1902); A. Zeki Velidi-Togan, Turk ve Tatar tarihs (Kazan, 1912); Abdullah Battal-Taymas, Kazan Turkleri: T?rk tarihinin hazin yapraklan (Ankara, 1966).

16. A. Kh. Khalikov, "K voprosu o nachale tiurkizatsii naseleniia Povolzh'ia i Pruiral'ia," SE 1 (1972): 100 110; P. V. Golubovskii, Pechenegi, polovtsy i tiurki do nashestviia tatar (Kiev, 1884).

17. Of the prerevolutionary scholars, I. Berezin's contribution should be noted: I. Berezin, "Bulgary na Volge. S risunkami Bulgarskikh drevnostei i nadpisei," in Uchenye zapiski Imperatorskogo Kazanskogo Universiteta, vol. 3 (Kazan, 1853). Among Soviet scholars, the most active and prolific on this issue is A. Kh. Khalikov; in addition to the works already cited, his following works are particularly relevant: Tatar khalk?n?ng kilep ch?g?sh? (Kazan, 1974); "Istoki formirovaniia turkoiazychnykh narodov Srednego Povolzh'ia i Priural'ia," in Voprosy etnogeneza tiurkoiazychnykh narodov Srednego Povolzh'ia i Priural'ia (Kazan, 1971), pp. 1 18; and "Kazan tatar-larining kilep chigu'ina karata," Sotsialistik Tatarstan 155 (July 3, 1966): 4.

18. Noted by A. Kappeler, Russlands Erste Nationalitaten: Das Zarenreich und die Volker der Mittleren Wolga vom 16 his 19 Jahrhundert (Vienna, 1982), p. 320.

19. Firsov's book is still widely used: N. N. Firsov, Proshloe Tatarii (Kazan, 1926).

20. G. Gubaidullin, Tatarlarn?ng kilep chiguvi'ham A16'n Urda (Kazan, 1924), Tatar Tarihi (Kazan, 1923), Burungu Bulgarlar (Kazan, 1927), and "Iz proshlogo Tatar," in Materialy pa izucheniiu Tatarstana, vol. 2 (Kazan, 1925), pp. 71 111; S. Alishev, "Gaziz Gubaidullin kak istorik," in Issledovaniia po istoriografii Tatarii (Kazan, 1978), pp. 46-54.

21. V. F. Smolin, K voprosu o proiskhozhdenii Kamsko-Volzhskikh Bolgar. Razbor drevneishikh teorii (Kazan, 1921); A. Rakhim, Materialy dlia bibliografii po tataro-vedeniiu (1918 1930) (Kazan, 1930); Sh. F. Mokhammed'iarov, Osnovnye etapy proiskhozhdeniia i etnicheskoi istorii tatarskoi narodnosti (Moscow, 1968).

22. The papers delivered at the June 1946 session of the Academy of Science were published in SE 3 (Fall 1946). See A. P. Smirnov, "K voprosu o proiskhozhdenii Kazanskikh Tatar po dannym etnografii," pp. 75 86; T. A. Trofimova, "Etnogenez Tatar Srednego Povolzh'ia v svete dannykh antropologii," pp. 51 74; L. Z. Zaliai, "K voprosu o proiskhozhdenii Tatar Povolzh'ia (po materialam iazyka)," pp. 87 91. The following works should also be noted: A. P. Smirnov, Volzhskie Bolgary (Moscow, 1951) and Nekotorye voprosy srednevekovoi istorii Povolzh'ia (Kazan, 1957); N. I. Vorob'ev, Kazanskie Tatary. Etnograficheskoe issledovanie material'noi kul'tury do-oktiabr'skogo perioda (Kazan, 1953); T. A. Trofimova, Etnogenez Tatar Povolzh'ia v svete dannykh antropologii (Moscow and Leningrad, 1949); and K. A. Smirnov, Velikie Bolgary (Moscow, 1960).

23. F. Kh. Valeev, Drevnee i srednevekovoe iskusstvo Srednego Povolzh'ia (Ioshkar-Ola, 1975); Ia. G. Abdullin, "Rukhi asilibiz," KU 6 (1980): 150 56. Khalikov's works have been cited in previous notes.

24. Mirkassy?m Gosmanov, "Tarikhl?k f?nneng zaruri tal?be," KU 4 (1976): 178 83; and "Yanga s?khif?l?r ach?la," KU 10 (1980): 150 58. On the role the Kypchaks played in the ethnogenesis of the Bashkirs, see Kuzeev, Proiskhozhdenie Bashkirskogo naroda.

25. M. Z. Z?kiev, Tatar khal?k teleneng barl?kka kilue (Kazan, 1977); V. Khakov, "Katlaul? m?s'?l?l?rne khal itu yul?nda," KU 11 (1978): 169 74.