APN recently featured an interview with Ruslan Aisin, the man behind some prominent campaigns for the Tatar language, such as making Tatar the second official language of Russia (see a video report at Youtube). I have translated the interview hastily into English (any untranslated Russian sentences will be ironed out soon).
Aisin’s activism is inspiring, but I do not think it can serve as a model for Russia’s other minorities. Only in Kazan’ do you have young Tatars settling and forming this urban minority class. It’s a fairly decent city to live in. In Mari El, young people often go migrate from the villages straight to Moscow or St. Petersburg. The Mari that settle in Yoshkar-Ola don’t seem of sufficient numbers to implement more use of Mari in the city. The more I observe minorities in Russia, the more everything seems to be about demographics, with high birthrates a reason for optimism, but the collapsed economies of provincial Russia pushing everyone to emigrate with disastrous consequences for language preservation.
If you don’t fight for your language and your culture, you don’t deserve them: the Tatar issue
The Tatars make up the second largest people of the Russian Federation. Unlike the old guard of the nationalist movement, who rallied in the early 1990s to demand the independence of Tatarstan from Russia, new activists have appeared who distance themselves from primitive separatism and Russophobia. The younger generation of Tatar nationalists are different than their older comrades, explains Ruslan Aisin, the 29 year-old chairman of the Bureau of the World Forum of Tatar Youth and coordinator of the youth movement Üzebez (‘Ourselves’), whose initiatives have made waves over the last year.
What are the World Forum of Tatar Youth and the Üzebez movement, and how are they related?
The Üzebez movement emerged in 2005 as a creative center for the community of young Tatar intellectuals, who were engaged in developing strategies and protects that could be offered to Tatar society and start some good intellectual provocations. Our primary goal in the first stage was the foundation of an urban Tatar youth subculture. The first generation of Tatars who migrated to the cities, mostly Kazan’, had come from villages and brought their village culture here, but the following generations don’t maintain that culture. Young Tatars have left their traditions behind. We wished to recreate them in tune with the spirit of today’s times. Other undertakings were gradually added to this.
Üzebez is an informal education led by a family of coordinators who witnessed the birth of the movement. The World Forum of Tatar Youth is an integrated structure meant to bring together young Tatars everywhere (it’s well-known that more than 75% of our people live outside of Tatarstan). Now there is a growth in Tatar national identification and the number of youth organizations, but there is no methodology, no cohesive ideology and no complete structure. The majority of Üzebez’s coordinators are members in the Forum’s bureau, totaling 40 people. We don’t have the traditions of infighting that were characteristic of our older comrades, but rather we strive to find a common ground. While there might be controversies about something or another, they are minor in the face of our common challenges.
The fact that the Üzebez movement (“Ourselves’ is a typical ‘Orange Revolution’ name) has emerged as a network in these most ‘Orange Revolution’ times doesn’t evoke the best associations. Is that justified?
When we founded this movement of ours, no one was thinking of any kind of revolution. I am ardently anti-Orange Revolution, as I have traditional views. Besides, Üzebez is a non-political organization. No one in it is interested in politics – in fact, we shun politics, as once something is stained with shit, it is difficult to get rid of the stink.
In your view politics is just shit?
In the form it exists among us, yes, certainly. In a wide sense the fight for one’s language, culture, etc. is also politics. But politics as intrigue, a fight for power and control in my view is not really appropriate for an organization which is about culture. We aren’t concerned with politics, and everything that’s been written on this account is ridiculous and frankly insulting. But no matter how much we distance ourselves from politics, some dark forces still drag us through the mud. By the way, Üzebez, in spite of some press reports, did not take part in organizing the Day of Remembrance. [Members of the traditional Tatar nationalist movement called on 11 October 2009 for remembrance of the defenders of Kazan’, who died at the hands of Ivan the Terrible’s soldiers, holding signs like ‘Holocaust of the Tatar people: 1552!’ or ‘We demand an end to Russian in education, the Tatars forbid it!’ and they announced that ‘The aim is independence’ - ed.] It was the Forum who was acting as organizer. We argued for a long time for the reforming of this event, because in its current form this legacy of the 1990s has outlived itself. It is necessary to translate it to another channel, moving on from the past to the present and the future. All that happened 500 years ago, and of course no one denies it, but we have to set new goals and move forward. Someone who’s always looking backwards isn’t going to go very far.
It is commonly believed that the administration in Kazan’ allows these kind of events in order to show the federal centre: look, we’re keeping everything here under control.
Kazan’ hasn’t appealed to this factor for a long time. Moscow keeps an eye on things here and they know the situation just fine. The way I see the relationship of republic leaders to nationalist organizations, they are either distancing themselves from them, ignoring them or, if you step over the red line, putting them in their place. The political orientation of Tatar national organizations has fallen to zero. Everyone understands the need to focus their efforts on the cultural aspect.
Incidentally, how are Üzebez and the Forum related to the Kazan’ administration? Many suspect that you were founded on their orders and carry out their instructions
We act in accordance with our beliefs. We are representatives of civil society. Why do we have to put our pants on and get involved with the president? No one visits us from there and no one’s in a hurry to help us. But we don’t ask for help, because if you just ask once, you become dependent. And if we did, they would answer right away that there’s an economic crisis going on and there’s just no money. But the fact that people are linking us to the administration shows that civic consciousness among our people is very low. They think that if ten people meet together and act on something, they’re doing it on the orders of the administration. Surely no one believes that doing something is possible only on the order of Surkov or Terent’ev… On the other hand, there’s no opposition coming from there. We have a neutral opinion. We have shown that it is possible to work with anyone’s help, without asking for space and money, let alone permission. Üzebez has brought together some versatile, solid and self-sufficient people, and no administrative burdens can break us. We’re happy to have help, but not from those sort of people.
Businesses with a nationalist orientation, such as the Tarkhan group, wouldn’t want to help you?
We haven’t been in contact with them. We’ve made the acquaintaince of a few of those people, but we didn’t get into those kind of mercantile affairs.
Then who finances your organization and how?
You must understand that the matter of financing is very complex. We would be happy if even the state or other structures financed us, but no one does. The World Congress of Tatars certainly helps – in an administrative fashion, when something needs to be done, but also with money – but the congress itself isn’t rich. The rest we find on our own, looking for sponsors, patrons or sometimes simply pooling our savings together. We act based on self-reliance.
But you’re not weak, it seems, as you prepared a printed leaflet for the Day of Remembrance which must have cost a considerable amount.
Yes, we did that with our own funds.
And for the ‘We speak Tatar’ campaign, Russian-Tatar phrasebooks were handed out and activists were given t-shirts with a design. That must have been even more expensive.
The phrasebook cover has the logos of our sponsors on it (they include the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, the Executive Committee of Kazan’, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Tatarstan, CGT, Ministry of Youth, etc.). Some of them helped by providing a bus, for example. But not a single government office could help with money. The Ministry of Youth, Sport an
d Tourism didn’t give us anything in 2009. In previous years they received about 15 thousand rubles for language development projects and could give 3–5 thousand to us. Last year that amount was cut, so they couldn’t help us, but because we’re on friendly terms with them, we can’t blame them. It’s important in antoher way too: whatever relationship we have with people – and they aren’t always so smooth as they seem – it isn’t always necessary to go public about these things. That doesn’t help anybody. We consider ourselves refined people.
Üzbez appears in bursts: in April there was the ‘I speak Tatar’ campaign, and then nothing for half a year, but now we heard about the movement during the preparations for the Day of Remembrance. It’s a logical conclusion that this was linked to the sudden appearance of funding in connection with certain dates.
I repeat that Üzebez is an association of industrious and self-sufficient adults. All of us are around 30 years old and every one has a family and a job. Even meeting and talking is a big deal for us. We do it about once a month. The work we’re doing is carried out over the internet. A decent amount of our work is linked to activities that aren’t publicized – for example, right now we are working on a project to help young Tatar writers. We intend to also help those who are writing in Russian about Kazan’ and Tatarstan. Since this is far from interesting to everyone, we didn’t write about it on our website. By the way, we will soon redesign the website to be a centre for all of this new Tatar culture: literature, poetry, drama, music and so forth. We ought to work more on this. These days young people perceive Tatar culture as some kind of retrograde attitute that belongs to the 19th century. There is nothing purely Tatar in their culture, in my opinion. The villages are not so important. There is an urban culture and we ought to work on it. The younger generation of urban Tatars is as a whole cosmopolitan, and it doesn’t need anything besides vKontakte – that’s who we have to work with. It is important that we raise the general cultural level of the youth.
Does there really exist a contemporary Tatar culture as a distinctive phenomenon which is maintained and further developed, or is it some kind of ethnographic phenomenon?
I like to bring up that interesting quotation of Marx that being determines consciousness. Our goal is to create an environment, a nutrient-rich broth that will bring out people who will produce masterpieces of Tatar culture in all of its forms. When Üzebez was engaged in a project for Tatar alternative music, many laughed and twisted their fingers to their temples. Now it’s considered normal and no one thinks that it’s foreign to Tatar culture. There was a time when the fiddle and the accordion are considered blasphemous by orthodox Tatars. The theatre didn’t quite fit with Islamic canons either. But these things lasted and picked up folk colourings. I think that Tatars have the possibility of growing in all directions. Does such a thing as Tatar rap exist? It does! But still quite recently it was hard to imagine. Tatar cinema is minimal, but it is still a factor…
Could you call any film a hit?
The film that has made the greatest impact is, of course, Küktau, which deals with nationalist issues. There were some decent art-house films at the Golden Minbar. This is a real phenomenon and it must be promoted. Naturally, we’re not at the forefront, but the Tatars are a talented people who have distinguished themselves in cinema, sport and politics. Of course in some areas our culture has been held back, but the youth of today are catching up and breaking the canons which the older generation thought inviable. For example, the Tatars have no light reading, no romance novels. There are certain taboos, in accordance with which a novel has to be eight thousand pages long, and you can’t violate these taboos. Rebellious young people are quietly overcoming them.
Many key works of Tatar writers and public figures have still not been translated into Russian. Of all Gajaz Iskhaki’s works, Russian readers can discover only Вырождением через двести лет and some political writings. As a result, two-way communication works on the level of Western popular culture.
I agree that there ought to be cross-fertilization among cultures. The lack of translation from Tatar to Russian shows, first of all, a lack of popular demand, and other the other hand a lack of good translators that can competently carry out such tasks. Translating 19th-century classics is very complex. You have to know not only the old Tatar language, but also the realities of that era, the context in which they were writing. There is an abundance of Tatar-language literature.
It’s natural that Gajaz Iskhaki, along with the whole series of 19th-century Tatar theologians published by the Russian Islamic University, isn’t someone you’re going to read while sitting on the bus. Still, among specialists these works have been very successful.
Tatar philosophical thought has for a long time been ‘our own thing’, not made accessible to a wider circle of specialists. It is first of all the Tatar people who suffer from this. People believe that the Tatars didn’t have philosophy, – the Tatars were, they say, too orthodox, when in fact we have something to show for ourselves not only on the village level, but on the international level.
Tatar culture, like all remaining folk expressions, is gradually losing ground under the onslaught of globalization. Aren’t your efforts wasted if it is lost, isn’t it just a matter of time? What is the purpose of fighting for your language if in the future it will be superseded by Russian and English?
I look at it philosophically. At the end of the day, we all die, but we don’t give up living because of that. Globalization has mechanisms that can be used against itself, such as the internet and popular culture. For the Tatars, language is a sacred object. Tuɣan tel [‘Mother Tongue’, by the great Tatar poet Gabdully Tukaj] is the unofficial national anthem of the Tatar people. Language is something that encodes a mindset and reveals subliminal things. The broad masses don’t understand that, but we ought to show them by our example. Yes, there are regions where Tatars are losing their language, where there’s no sphere of communication and few speakers. But they have a very high level of ethnic consciousness, through which they are aware of the necessity of knowing one’s own language, essential for understanding Tatar literature, music, etc. One of the conditions for participating in the World Forum of Tatar Youth in 2008 was minimal knowledge of the Tatar language, and some people learnt it expressly for that purpose. Anyway, the situation for the Tatars is better than for the Bashkirs, the Udmurts and many other peoples of Russia. They themselves say that they compare themselves to us, and in that sense we have a double responsibility. And if you don’t fight for your language and culture, you simply don’t deserve them. To bring up the ‘I speak Tatar’ campaign, on the 26th of April, the birthday of Gabdully Tukaj, its final stage will be implemented with large, if not readily apparent to outsiders, work among school pupils in 30 cities of Russia. Our campaign has been carried out in shopping centres, airports and among the diaspora in the USA and Turkey.
When you undertook to gather signatures for making Tatar the second official state language, which took first place, achieving your goals or advertising yourselves, though that was quite successful?
The main objective was to draw the attention of the authorities and the general public to the problems of the Tatar people a
nd the minority peoples of the Russian Federation. The recent actions of federal authorities, such as the adoption of law No. 309 that abolished the national-regional component of school education where schools taught native language, culture and history, as well as the closing of national schools and the lack of attention given to national problems, led us to initiate a public debate.
Many people in Moscow think that Tatarstan is some kind of erzatz Chechnya. They ask,
Didn’t you kill all the Russians there already?. For that reason, there were some reactions to our campaign along the lines of
Again the Tatars are rising up and refuse to live on a federal level. But when the dust settled, a quiet discussion of our demands began. Of course, right now the introduction of Tatar as the second official language of the Russian Federation seems utopian, but fifty years ago the election of a black US president seemed so too. We wanted to make people think about why young people were making these kind of demands. In addition, our campaign should have shown the level of civic consciousness in Russia. In no other country would it have provoked such resentment. Finally, there has been an update in the community of Tatar public organizations. Unfortunately, there are times when people can’t get out of their chairs and do something… Of course, we didn’t expect our campaign to prove such a scandal. It seems that it really stirred up some deep sentiments in society. It is still too early to make conclusions – the work continues, and we don’t intend to stop. The main thing is the signatures on the petition come not only from Tatars, but also from Russians.
The same thing happened when signatures were collected in support of Russian in the Republic of Tatarstan – it wasn’t only Russians who signed, but Tatars as well.
We have nothing against that – we’re for adding something, not for taking something away. The Russian language isn’t going to suffer in any way. No one is going to suffer and be disturbed by the fact that Tatar would be the second language, a language used in, say, Chelyabinsk oblast.
If the residents of that oblast so decide, and they certainly wouldn’t. But what is this School of Young Tatar Leaders that there was a lot of fuss about this past autumn?
There aren’t enough leaders, that’s a fact. I developed this project two yearsa ago, but for various reasons, mainly financial and organizational, its implementation was delayed. Last year the Idel’ Centre was suddenly opened by the Ministry of Youth. We weren’t even notified about it. In fact, it was our idea, but it was implemented in an unimaginative way, with too much emphasis on the technical side of things. Children were taught how to register public organizations, how to write manuals and so forth, while we wanted to give students the tools to help them become leaders. I myself studied in the Open Russia school of public policy, the School of Civic Education, the Regional Journalists’ Club. I learnt some good ways of working there, but we would ideally set up our school with our own methodologies. We’ll launch our project next year. This a lot of demand — on the order of thousands of applicants. If the school produces just 50 people, I think that this will be enough.
In november you founded a committee to project the rights of the Tatar people. What rights are being violated?
The Tatars have a saying,
You don’t give a pacifier to a baby baby who isn’t crying. If you don’t demand something, no one is going to give it to you. The purpose of this committee is to protect the interests of Tatars in education, culture and language, and also to overcome xenophobic tendencies and struggles in the field of ideology. Its founding was meant to bring together Tatar community structures so that they can work together and not waste effort. Sharing information is of no small value. We need sensible analysts, a serious think-tank. Sometimes we have a lot to say to each other about an issue, for example that law No. 309, but usually things are different. The committee ought to connect us with other peoples whose rights are being violated. Finally, we need to draw the attention of the public to these issues. It may be that few people understand what’s so bad about that law, which would explain the lack of a public response.
Is there such indifference (evident also in the closure of Tatar schools and the reduction in numbers at Bulgar, who Tukaj ended his days) because people simply don’t care about these issues?
The level of civic and ethnic consciousness among the people as a whole is less than among the intelligentsia, who know more and think more. Everyday people need social guarantees. Spiritual needs, пусть он не всегда в этом виноват, don’t come first. The role of the intelligentsia in resolving these problems is greater than ever before. There’s no other people who can do it, so we’ll have to go with them. Young people think that everything is in our hands and they are full of enthusiasm. If I don’t save my native language, no one else will do it for me. A new generation has come onto the scene whose main goal is preserving Tatar culture as we step into the 21st century.
How is this generation different than the older generation in terms of its attitude to the Russians?
We certainly hold nothing against the Russian people, and we don’t blame them for our problems. The Russians have not developed at our expense, they have their own resources and potential. We can and must work together, hand in hand, as the best historical examples of our Turko-Slavic civilization demonstrate. What happened happened, but five hundred years ago Russians and Tatars were completely different, that’s all there is to say. To project old resentments on the present day is probably not a smart thing to do. Of course, some people keep this up, as hate is a strong way to mobilize people. We have problems, for example the loss of our native language, that are not relevant to the Russians. There are some demands being made to some of the authorities, but they do not have ethnic overtones.
It is often thought that the younger generations are more Islamified and, moreover, inclined toward fundamentalism. Is that true, and what might the consequences of this be?
The power of Islamic radicalism is sometimes exaggerated. At one point it was profitable to do so, especially for politicians and security services. But now the place of this artificially inflated matter has been taken over by swine flu, global warming and so forth. As far as Tatarstan goes, there is a presence of Islamic fundamentalism, but in many respects this is caused by the failure to integrate young Muslims into a religious bureaucracy that sees them as competitors. Radicalization also happens through the failings of secular society; there’s no social mobility and no one wants to listen to young people. But the manifestation of fundamentalism is rare. There is no radical Islam as a movement, as an institution in Tatarstan, which is unique. Recent years have shown an increased interest in Islam among youth in the intelligentsia and students, but this process isn’t dependent on the doing of the same religious organizations. Some people instinctively realize how deceiving the ideals of the consumerist society are. In general, that’s a positive trend.
What views do young nationalists hold on the prospect of statehood for the Tatar people?
Tatarstan leaving the Russian Federation is something utopian, unrealistic, and completely unnecessary. I won’t explain why, as everyone knows the reasons for it. At one time the idea was relevant for a part of the Tatar people in the wake of the Soviet era when Tatar culture could not develop, and Tatars believed that if they declared independence, they would have the possibility to develop. When th
is project stalled, it became evident that development was possible even without statehood. I am personally very sceptical about the state as such. I don’t believe in its lofty goals and I feel that the future lies with civil organizations that hold authority but do not dictate things. The state assumes the role of collective Man, and in that case there can be no talk about a civil society. Therefore, statehood cannot be our objective. This is what I think: give us a possibility of developing our education, culture, religious life and language, and you’ll see that everything will be just fine. With farsighted national policy in Russia, there will not be any internal conflicts, and wide horizons will open to us.