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Tatarstan: Kreshens Spark Debate On Ethnic Identity

The Christian Tatars, or "Kreshens" as they call themselves, are descendants of Tatars forced to convert from Islam to Orthodoxy 300 years ago following the conquest of the Kazan Khanate by Russian troops. Today, leaders of some Kreshen organizations are appealing to the Russian government and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to be recognized as a separate people.

Prague, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Kreshens claim to be an ethnic group, whose members are scattered over a wide area in the Volga and Urals regions. Their numbers are estimated at 300,000 to 600,000, although the community has not been considered as separate and distinct from their Muslim co-ethnics since the 1920s.

Since they are surrounded by a community of several million Muslim Tatars, the Kreshens are sometimes known as Christian Tatars.

While it is generally recognized that the first wave of forced conversions took place in Tsarist Russia in the 16th century following the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Fourth, there is one hypothesis according to which the Kreshens were baptized in the sixth century in the days of the Bulgar Empire. There is, however, a consensus that the next wave took place in the second half of the 18th century.

In the 1920s the Kreshens were classified by the Soviet leadership as a separate ethnic group. They had their own newspapers and convened a national congress. Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, however, they lost their status and were included with the Tatars.

Grigorii Rodionov, a senior consultant to the Chairman of the State Council Commission on Science, Education, Culture, and National Issues, himself a Kreshen, speaks on the need to support Kreshen interests in Tatarstan.

"In Tatarstan, little attention is paid to studying the Kreshen spiritual culture and history and promoting Kreshens' interests. A republican program on developing social-cultural conditions of the Kreshens was to be developed but nothing has been done and is being done in this respect in the republic. If this happens, many problems of the Kreshens will be resolved," Rodionov said.

A little more than a year ago, Kreshens in Tatarstan and neighboring Bashkortostan began lobbying once again to be counted as a distinct ethnic group, as separate from the Muslim Tatars. They argued that they speak a separate language and constitute a separate ethnic sub-group.

Muslim Tatars in both republics quickly denounced the campaign as an attempt by the central Russian government to minimize the size of the Tatar population by splitting it into two groups. This was an important issue ahead of the 2002 Russia census, in which ethnic groups were trying to increase their numbers so as not to be dominated by ethnic Russians.

Tatarstan's leadership also objected to the Kreshens' demand to be designated a separate nationality. The issue was only resolved after Tartar President Mintimer Shaimiev met with the chairman of the National Cultural Center of Kreshens of Tatarstan, Aleksei Shabalkin. The two agreed that the census-takers would register the number of Kreshens, but that the Kreshens would not be listed as a separate ethnic group.

The Kreshens' demands have sparked a heated debate among scholars. Professor Uli Schamiloglu, a Tatar historian at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, explains: "One of the big issues that Russia must address as a state is whether identity is based on religion or language or culture or some other principles. So, for example, does being a Russian require that one be Orthodox Christian or can one be a Catholic Russian, a Jewish Russian and you're all Russian. This is a very interesting parallel for the Tatars, so Tatars have been Muslim and probably most of the Christian Tatars were the results of forced baptisms in the 16th and 18th centuries on."

Some Kreshen organizations have not abandoned the campaign. Last month, they appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksii II, to be granted the formal status of a separate ethnic group. The appeal said that that Tatarstan's "nationalist and chauvinist forces" had created obstacles to the Kreshens.

Experts in Tatarstan, Moscow, the U.S. -- and even some Kreshens themselves -- tend to lend credence to Tatar suspicions that the Kreshens' drive to be recognized as a separate nationality is being encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church.

"In the case of the Kreshens, what I have heard is that there are very, very small numbers of agitators who are I guess considered to be in the service of the Orthodox Church or perhaps the Russian central government, who are looking to try to advocate for a separate Kreshen identity, a separate status," Professor Schamiloglu said. "In Tatarstan I never felt, I don't know how many Kreshen I know, if any, but I never felt that there was the idea that Kreshens were considered to be a separate group. In fact what I have heard is that according to opinion polls and according to other groups as well, that there is a lot of support by many Kreshens to be considered to be a part of the Tatar nation or nationality."

Damir Iskhaqov, deputy chairman of the World Tatar Congress Executive Committee and a professor at the Institute of History of Tatarstan's Academy of Sciences, blames the Kreshens' drive for self-determination squarely on the Russian Orthodox Church.

"The Russian Orthodox Church (RPT) itself is behind those letters and Patriarch Aleksii has frankly stated this. Representatives of the RPTs have also openly said they promote the interests of the Kreshens," Iskhaqov said.

Rodionov, senior consultant to the chairman of the Tatarstan State Council Commission on Science, Education, Culture, and National Issues, suggested some Russian politicians may be supporting the Kreshens in an attempt to drive a wedge between Kreshens and Muslim Tatars. But at the same time he suggests another possible factor in the Kreshens' campaign, linking it to the upcoming December elections to the Russian State Duma.

"The appeal is also linked to the December Duma elections. Kreshens amount to 300,000. I was told several times that some candidates seeking being elected to the State Duma allocated quite a lot of money to Kreshen organizations and are going to launch a new Kreshen outlet to propagate against Tatarstan's leadership. Funding for that project has also been provided. Kreshens live compactly in the Chally region, including Chally city and Zei, Mamadysh, Alabuga, and Minzele regions. Those forces will not spare money to attract the Kreshen electorate, thus helping to fulfill Moscow's 'divide and rule' policy aiming at splitting the Tatar people," Rodionov says.

Among Russian officials who have expressed support for the Kreshens is ethnographer Valerii Tishkov, director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a former Russian Nationalities Minister. Tishkov said years of research have proved that the Kreshens are a distinct ethnic group.

At the same time he blames the Tatar leadership for fuelling the Kreshens' demand for recognition as a separate group by what he termed its "nationalist" policies. In May 2002, he said Tatar social scientists' opposition to designating the Kreshens as a separate ethnic group was a manifestation of such nationalism.

(Rim Guilfanov of the Tatar-Bashkir Service and Gulnara Hasanova of the RFE/RL Kazan bureau contributed to this report.)