Comparative Analysis of Ethno-Cultural Identity in Contemporary Tatarstan and Turkey

_ Farkhad Gumarov. Moscow on 31 October 2016.


The Tatars are the second largest autochthonous peoples in the Russian Federation. It is necessary to maintain their regional component and not to give in to much to globalizing trends.

The 1990s was the first stage in post-Soviet Russia towards the manifestation of strategies for the actualization of identity politics, the rebirth of Russia’s titular nations and the construction of new regional identities. The federal government conducted a policy in response to the initiatives of regional elites, aimed at maintaining the country’s unity, that in fact was a policy of acknowledgment and support for ethno-cultural differences, which contributed to the recreation of Russia’s poly-ethnic diversity.

During this first stage, an actualization of ethno-cultural identity of the Tatars from Tatarstan took place, as well as a significant increase of their interest towards their own culture, their traditional and national professional arts, on which the new ethno-cultural strategy of the republic, and, partially, the polycultural policy of the federal center, was based.

The whole political climate of the region was soaked with slogans and processes of the rebirth of the Tatar nation, language, culture and religion, which, to a certain extent, determined the republic’s vector of political development.

The 1990s signified the creation, in the Tatarstan Republic, of a new regional (Tatar) identity, triggered by the proclamation of Tatarstan’s sovereignty.

During the second stage in the 2000s we saw the formation of an overall Russian (Rus. “oбщероссийский”) national identity within the Russian Federation by the accentuation the country’s socio-cultural unity. The significance of the ethnic “Russian” and the national “overall Russian” culture increased once more. At the same time, at the regional level the processes of intercultural interaction between Tatars, Russians and other ethnic groups continued.

All of this was meant to aid in the preservation of the renewed self-consciousness of the Tatars while at the same time strengthening the positive identity of the Russians. From this point on, by supporting a concept of solidarity, both intercultural within the region, as well as between the region and the federal center, local officials started to articulate the Tatarstan Republic as part of an overall Russian national identity.

In the beginning of the 21st century we now see the interconnection and intertwining of Tatar, Turkic (i.e. the self-recognition as part of a greater Turkic world) and Islamic culture (i.e. seeing oneself as part of the Islamic civilization with spiritual and cultural values, inherent to Islam, which is an important part of the modern world and with a far fetching social and territorial outreach).

“Turkism”, however, did not receive serious development and does not constitute a dominant part of the Tatars’ self-awareness, despite the fact that Turkic self-identification was by far stronger in the Romanov Empire, and even more so at earlier stages in history.

The citizens of Tatarstan (Rus. “татарстанцы”), understanding themselves as part of the overall Russian political system, taking up, within it, a certain social and political role (and often high-standing economic positions), see and think of themselves predominantly within the overall Russian national context. They embrace the federal center’s increasing attention to events in the Muslim religious life, in particular Moscow’s support for attaining religious education. The idea of creating the “Bulgar Islamic Academy”, a federal research and education center, was approved by Vladimir Putin and Muslim leaders of the country.


The particularity about Turkish identity is its existence at cross-roads (between East and West, Christianity and Islam). We can also distinguish three levels of Turkish identity: ethnic, national and religious.

From the very beginning of its proclamation in 1923 the Turkish Republic has suffered an identity crisis, which transpired through its interior and foreign policy: in the way it actualized its contacts in East and West, in the way it sought foreign aid and models of modernization. The role and vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey, was central to this, and even he wasn’t able to finally set the county’s place in the world.

Ataturk is famous for legislatively prohibiting Turks the wearing of traditional Turkish tarbooshes. To his opinion, this headgear was a “symbol of ignorance, negligence, fanatism and phobia of progress and civilization”,

Duality and contradiction are main features of Turkish identity. Its essence is a mix of secularity and Sunni Islam, of Western life style and traditional moral values.

The ruling elite of Turkey linked the solution of the Turkish identity problem with matters of national security. There indeed is a slight potential for the blurring of Turkish identity. This possibility led to the argument, that admitting the existence of other ethnic or religious identities within the state was (and even is to this day) perceived as an interior threat that contradicts the proclaimed idea of a nation-state unity.

It was not until the late 1980s, when the new leader of the country T. Ozal, who was elected in 1989 as president, offered a more balanced and tolerant motto designed to fill with new meaning the words of Ataturk, who said: “How happy is he, who can say – “I am a Turk”, by slightly changing it to “How happy is he, who can say – “I am from Turkey”.

In this new interpretation of the 8th President of Turkey relied in the experience of the United States that has managed to solve its identity problem by becoming a “melting pot” of ethnicities, cultures and nations.

While keeping the course towards the development of a secular society, towards the rapprochement between Turkish national and Western interests, Ozal emphasized the uniqueness of Turkey’s culture and traditions, its advantageous contrast to (other) European countries. Compared to Ataturk, Ozal stated the need to study the past, to love the history of one’s country, since tradition and culture are the foundations without which any evolution of society would be impossible.

For Ozal there was no uncontested link between progress and the West, whilst Atatürk emphasized the priority of Western civilization.

In addition to the national dimension of identity in Turkish society there still is the acute problem of the relation between secularism and religiosity. “The Turk” – as noted by the outstanding Russian (Soviet) Turkologist V. Gordlevsky – “is characterized by the fact that he always self-identifies with religion rather than with ethnicity. To the question “Who is he?” the Turks always answers: “I am a Muslim.” Muslim and Turk are equivalent concepts for him”.

In 2004, R. Erdogan identified himself as “a Muslim, a Turk and a democrat at the head of a secular government”, stressing thus the complex nature of contemporary Turkish identity.

A growing number of Turks has become disappointed with the promised “European future”. Among them grows the number of eurosceptics. The Turkish government seeks to strengthen its positions in other foreign policy vectors – in Central Asia and in the Arab world. Based on its geostrategic position, Turkey is increasingly demonstrating its membership to the Eurasian region.

Using the terminology of the American geopolitician N.J. Spykman, Turkey should to be defined as a country of the Eurasian rimland.

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