The Russian Federation comprises 83 constituent territories, excluding the occupied Crimea. The vast majority of these territories were annexed as a result of aggressions. Since the very formation of Muscovy, this state has been pursuing the policy of annexing lands and subjugating more and more peoples. The latter’s historical fate was sad, and their choice was limited – elimination or assimilation. According to the 2010 census, ethnic Russians account for less than a half of the population in only 14 out of the 83 constituent territories. But it is noteworthy that most of them saw the emergence of separatist or national liberation movements in one form or another after the collapse of the USSR. It is not only about the North Caucasus – for example, the Republic of Tyva and Tatarstan are also considered “problem regions.”
We discussed the national liberation movement in Tatarstan and the likely transformation of Russia into a nation state with Vil Mirzayanov, a well-known scientist, a fighter against illegal proliferation of chemical weapons, and head of the Tatar government in exile.
Mr. Mirzayanov, in 1990 the Tatars adopted the Declaration of Independence which was later approved at a referendum. But the project of the restoration of a Tatar nation state was never implemented. Is this the result of Moscow’s effective policy or were there some domestic factors that played a greater role?
“I think both factors played a negative role. The point is that the person who spearheaded the Tatar national movement was Mintimer Shaimiev, first secretary of Tatarstan’s Communist Party Committee. The communists have never striven for full independence from Russia. They understood that Moscow’s concessions allowed them to plunder Tatarstan, rich in oil and other natural resources, on an unlimited scale, and they quickly betrayed the Tatar people. Naturally, the Kremlin exerted pressure, for no empire will ever give away a pearl like this. When Yeltsin said ‘take as much sovereignty as you can swallow,’ he was just playacting. Yeltsin was a ‘Russian patriot’ who cared about the Russian empire’s integrity rather than about freedom of the colonized nations. Yet, in my opinion, the Tatar project of independence came unstuck due to, above all, betrayal on the part of Shaimiev and his communist gang. His sons are billionaires today… They have grabbed all the wealth, the entire economy of Tatarstan, and our national movement has ground to a halt.”
Experts point out that Russia has always taken a dim view of any national movement – they view it as one aimed against the Russians, not as one that has a certain national goal. Do you share this viewpoint? Can you explain this phenomenon?
“The phenomenon is very simple. The Russian people have never lived in a democracy, so they don’t have a democratic mentality. They cannot admit a priori that other nations, including colonial ones, are equal to them. The firm belief that colonial peoples must remain under their control is part of the Russian mentality. Russia will never volunteer to give away any of the remaining colonies.”
“THE KREMLIN WILL NEVER ALLOW PUBLISHING A TRUE HISTORY OF THE TATARS”
Many Ukrainians have learned in the past two and a half years how important it is to know their own history. For Russia resorted to historical falsifications to legitimize its aggression. One of the first initiatives of the new government was to rename Soviet colonial toponyms. Tatarstan still has monuments to butchers of the Tatar people. Do the Tatars who reside in Russia know the true history of their nation? Do they at least wish to know it?
“The population of Tatarstan is approximately divided in half, with both Tatars and Russians accounting for 50 percent. Hardly a half of the Tatar population knows their language. All the Tatars who go to Russia’s schools and higher educational institutions study the history written by Russian chauvinists. All historical books in Russia were written under the influence of the ideology of Russian chauvinism. So we, Tatar patriots, have always been striving to put across a true history of Tatars to every representative of our nation. This is a great history which, according to ancient Chinese chronicles, began in the 16th century B.C. It is the Huns who formed the Turkic nation, of which the Tatars are a branch. I have personally translated five books on the history of Tatars written by Western authors on the basis of ancient Chinese records. But the current colonial administration in Kazan would not like the Tatars to learn their true history. Things are different in Ukraine – the state itself wants the Ukrainian people to know their history! As for the Tatars, they still do not in fact know their history, in spite of the efforts of patriots, and continue to believe the ‘textbooks’ of Russian chauvinists. This example proves that, to be able to remain on the historical arena, the Tatars must gain independence.
“I was also educated on the basis of these pseudo-historical schoolbooks. I learned the true history of my people when I was an adult. The paradox is that the Tatar people themselves tend to believe in the horrible and antihuman ‘Mongol-Tatar yoke.’ I’d like to inform you that in reality there was Mongol-Tatar invasion. Batu Khan was a Tatar, not a Mongol! He led representatives of a Tatar people branch to these lands. DNA probes have shown that there are no traces of Mongols among the Tatars and on the territory of Russia in general. This proves that there have never been any Mongols on this land. Tatarstan and the Volga region used to be Tatar lands.”
As is known, many Western academics are still studying the history of the peoples enslaved by Moscow, including Tatars and Ukrainians, mostly on the basis of mendacious Soviet and imperial sources. Is it possible to reverse this trend?
“I think it is an erroneous view. The Western books I have translated very rarely refer to Russian sources. They are totally free of the influence of chauvinistic historians. The authors only quote such Russian sources as monastery records, but even these are checked several times to avoid any contradictions. For these records have often been edited and falsified. Western authors treat this matter from an academic point of view.
“Unfortunately, Tatar historians are afraid to tell the truth and resort to self-censorship. The Mardzhani Institute of History at the Republic of Tatarstan’s Academy of Sciences recently published The History of Tatars since Ancient Times in seven volumes. But half of it is not the truth. They quote Klyuchevsky and other chauvinists who wrote to fit in with Russian ideology. The Kremlin will never allow a true history of the Tatars to be published in Kazan.”
Today’s Russia is making an all-out effort to allege that it is linked with the heritage of Kyivan Rus’. But one should not forget that Muscovy was a vassal and in fact a part of the Golden Horde for many years (much longer than Ukraine was). Some experts believe that this period of Russian history left not a lesser, if not a greater, imprint on the national character and traditions of Russians. Do you agree with them? How do the Russians themselves interpret their Golden Horde legacy? Does it influence the Russian-Tatar relations today?
“The Tatars, the Golden Horde, are the founders of Russian statehood. To better organize the collection of taxes, they entrusted this to the so-called Russian princes. As the latter were disunited, the Horde needed to put one of them in charge of tax collection. Thus, gradually, with the Horde’s permission, the Russians formed a state of their own. As the Russians had never had a state before, they simply copied some (the most negative, incidentally) features of the Golden Horde. For, in spite of Russian historians’ accounts, khans were in fact chosen at democratic elections known as kurultais. As is known, the Russians wrote their official foreign-relations documents in the Tatar language until the 17th century. All the Russian princes, the tsars Ivan the Terrible, Boris Godunov, and others were proud to be successors to Tatar khans. Nobody would have allowed them to occupy the throne unless they had had this heritage, these roots. So it is undeniable that the Golden Horde’s traditions laid the groundwork for the Russian state.
“Unfortunately, instead of developing their statehood on Western lines, the Russians got self-isolated. As a result, they built neither a Tatar nor a Western state – they chose ‘their own way’ which means that a ‘Dear Father Tsar’ rules over a powerless populace. They need neither freedom nor democracy – slavish mentality is typical of the Russians. But the Tatars didn’t have that! There had never been peasant serfs or slaves among the Tatars, while Russia abolished serfdom as late as 1861.”
At the same time, the Russians are doing their utmost to deny the Golden Horde’s legacy in their history and culture.
“Yes, this is why they are rewriting their history, but you can’t possibly escape the facts that are also spotlighted very well in the fundamental publications of Western historians.”
“RUSSIA PRETENDS THAT IT IS A FEDERATION”
As is known, after the annexation of Crimea the occupational authorities tried to use – with no apparent effect – the Tatars living in Russia to speed up the “integration” of Crimean Tatars. Why do you think they failed? Do the Crimean Tatars and the Tatars in Russia maintain any cultural ties?
“The current occupant of the Kazan Kremlin, President Rustam Minnikhanov of the Republic of Tatarstan, is the proxy of the Moscow Kremlin. He will do everything Putin says to him or even more. Minnikhanov has visited Crimea in an attempt to break the Crimean Tatars into several factions, trying to persuade them that, together with Tatarstan Tatars, they will prosper under Russian rule. This produced no effect – fortunately, the Crimean Tatar people did not believe this henchman of Putin. Even Putin himself personally tried to win over Dzhemilev, but the latter turned him down. Dzhemilev and Chubarov spurned the idea of unity with the so-called Volga Tatars who remain enslaved by the Russian empire. It is now a true Russian colony. The Crimean Tatars don’t need this. They want to have a state of their own, which is quite possible within the limits of Ukraine. The Russians saw that this idea could be implemented and no longer sent any delegates. They saw that the Crimean Tatars would not swallow this bait.”
In your publications, you have consistently favored the establishment of an independent democratic Tatar state, but you have also allowed the possibility of the formation of a confederation on the territory of present-day Russia. Are you still taking this attitude today, and under what conditions can this program be carried out?
“I favor full independence and freedom of Tatarstan. But the harsh reality of life is that Russians account for almost half the population of this republic. So it is impossible to implement this idea without an intermediate stage in this historical development. Maybe, to achieve true independence, Tatarstan needs to pass a stage, such as the CIS, a confederation. Incidentally, no Russian Federation is in existence – the federal treaty was never signed or ratified by the State Duma. Whence is this paradox? The point is that once, even though the communist leadership was ‘for,’ the Tatars said ‘no’ to the treaty. The federal treaty was not endorsed on the territory of Tatarstan. So the question of federation remained hanging in the air. Russia pretends now that it is a federation. Naturally, as a Tatar patriot, I agree that we must also take into account the interests of the Russian population in Tatarstan, and it would be wrong to sever all ties with Russia immediately. But I think that by the time this question comes onto the agenda, the Russian empire will have already broken up. Both peoples, the Russians and the Tatars, will have to build their relations without an empire. This is the very basis of my proposals about a confederation.”
It is clear from your words that the idea of an independent Tatarstan is not popular among the elites today. But does it have another social base, among other strata of the population?
“I myself was born and raised in a village, and I mingle with many people now, including some from Bashkortostan. They entertain the idea of independence – not in order to have an army of their own but in order to preserve their national identity, language, and culture. And you can’t possibly do so unless you have a state. We have already reached the extreme limit because a half of Tatars do not know their language. The ‘elite’ have their snouts in the trough of the Kazan colonial administration, so they feel not so bad. But ordinary people are well aware of the course of events. Fortunately, villagers still speak the Tatar language, observe Tatar customs, and hold sabantuy fests. People are tracing their roots and restoring family trees. In contrast to their elite, ordinary people are trying to keep their identity intact. This is the groundwork for an independent Tatar state.”
You are saying that even Russian imperialists refuse to outline exactly the parent country’s borders. What do you think about these borders? Within what borders, if at all, is Russia possible as a democratic nation state?
“I am sure it will be Muscovy. Russia cannot exist as a nation state within its present-day borders. The likely areas are around Moscow, in the north (Arkhangelsk, Novgorod, perhaps Vyatka), and in the south – hardly farther than Kursk. Siberia is already under the watchful eye of China and companies from other countries. It is common knowledge that the Far East is striving for independence, at least in economic terms. And economic independence is next door to the political one. This is why I am convinced that the Russian nation state is only possible within the limits of Muscovy. Russia is Muscovy. And I don’t mind seeing the Russians live there as our peaceful neighbors with whom we develop ties. This is my vision.”
“THE WEST WILL HAVE NO SPECIAL OBJECTIONS TO THE FINAL COLLAPSE OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION”
The West is today somewhat fearful of Russia’s disintegration. Likewise, they were once afraid of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine remembers very well the visit of President George Bush Sr. to Kyiv shortly before the proclamation of independence, when he was in fact calling on us to drop this idea. How can you explain this position and what arguments do you think one should offer in order to change it?
“US politicians first of all defend their national interests. You know, when big countries disintegrate, things, unfortunately, not always go smoothly. Very often local power is taken by extremists who will later create problems not only for their neighbors, but also for other countries. All the more so that Russia has a nuclear potential. Should the country further collapse, this time finally, no one knows what will happen to these armaments. Of course, this worries Western politicians because even one wrong step may have very grave consequences. Naturally, they care first of all about themselves, not about giving freedom to Russia’s colonial peoples. But history shows that the emerging independent peoples will finally receive recognition and protection. We can see the way the United States is protecting and helping Ukraine today. They did the same with respect to the Baltic countries, Georgia, and even Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other countries, although they had at first opposed their secession. I don’t think the West will have any special objections to the final collapse of Russia. Everything depends on the way Russia’s economy will be tumbling down. And America will go down the road it declared in the law on captive nations, which says that the US pledges to help the captive nations until they win freedom and independence. The law has not been repealed, and the US president still annually confirms allegiance to these words. This inspires hope in me and in all Tatar patriots.”
In the last while, Russia has been pursuing a more and more chauvinistic domestic policy. In other words, they propagate the ideas of a “Russian World,” of Russia as a supernation, etc. Do you know the reaction to this of the ethnic communities that reside in Russia, particularly, the Tatars? Does this policy help them become aware of the necessity of national liberation?
“The reaction is sharply negative. They are cutting off the branch they are sitting on. Earlier, Moscow could try to mobilize not only the elites, but also some other strata of the population. But now, when a rabid anti-Tatar, anti-Caucasian, and other propaganda is underway, people can see that it is a very grave risk to deal with the Russians. All this triggers a negative and hostile reaction. Who will like it if you are considered a second-rate person only because you happen to live in a colony? The Russians grab 85 percent of the Tatar oil sales profit. They believe this will last forever. But we do not think so! No one in Tatarstan, including the elite, agrees to this. This plunder draws a clear distinguishing line between the Russians and the Tatars.”
When Russia began its aggression against Ukraine, many predicted that this would kindle a fire in the Caucasus. But this did not happen. Can you say why? And can the situation change?
“The Caucasus is a very complicated problem. A part of their elite has also been bought. They live well, although not all of them receive a reward, of course. Active resistance was crushed for the time being. But it is a temporary thing – as long as there is something to pay with. When they run out of money, this ‘peace’ will be ruined.”
The Day’s FACT FILE
Vil MIRZAYANOV was born to a family of teachers. In 1953 he entered the Moscow Mikhail Lomonosov Institute of High Chemical Technology. He successfully defended a Candidate of Sciences dissertation and began to work at the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in 1965, held the position of head of the department that dealt with countering foreign technological intelligence services, was awarded the degree of Doctor of Chemical Sciences and the title of professor in 1985. In 1992, Mirzayanov published the article “Poisoned Politics” in the newspaper Moscow News, where he scathingly criticized the Russian MIC and accused the country’s topmost leadership of breaching the Paris Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons. He was charged with divulging a state secret and arrested on October 22, 1992. On November 3 of the same year he was freed under a written obligation not to leave the city, only to be rearrested in January 1994 and released on February 22. It was resolved on March 11, 1994, to dismiss the criminal case “due to lack of criminal evidence.” An active political oppositionist, Mirzayanov emigrated to the US in 1996. In late 2008, the Milli Majlis of the Tatar People resolved at its djien (congress) to request the UN to recognize the independence of Tatarstan on the basis of the Declaration of the State Sovereignty of Tatarstan and results of the 1992 referendum. At the same time, the Majlis formed the Government in Exile with Vil Mirzayanov at the head. He currently resides in Princeton, New Jersey, and publishes his political journalistic works and translations on the website www.mirzayanov.com.