Ural, Russia: Potential Instability, Autonomy and Independence

Ural, Russia: Potential Instability, Autonomy and Independence
By Antero Leitzinger

Global Politician, NY
March 1 2005

Summary: The region of Idel-Ural, presently consisting of three
Finno-Ugric republics (Mari, Mordovia and Udmurtia) and three
Turko-Tatar republics (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Chuvassistan)
within the Russian Federation, forms a historically prosperous region
with large natural resources. It used to be a site of glorious Tatar
civilizations, and an important crossroads of both European and
Oriental trade routes. Russia colonised this region in the 1500s, but
since the fall of the USSR, several Idel-Ural republics have been
looking for increasing autonomy from Moscow. Considering the region’s
wealth that is above the Russian average, and oil resources, the
region will grow in importance in the near future. Vladimir Putin’s
present policy of abolishing federalism and democracy in present
Russia, and turning it closer to imperialism and centralism, may
seriously hurt the region’s prospects and stability. Destabilisation
of the Idel-Ural region in response to Putin’s centralism would be
such a fatal strike to the legitimacy of Russia that it can be
compared to the fall of the Soviet Union.


The region between the Volga (in Tatar: Idel) river and the Ural
mountains was not always an easternmost periphery of Europe. A
thousand years ago, it was a prosperous centre of Eurasian cultures,
extending trade links to Scandinavia as well as Persia. The city of
Bolgar could rival with any western European capital, and its
splendour amazed Arab travellers like Ibn Fadlan, who was one of the
first Muslim missionaries at the Bolgar court in 922. Bolgar had been
founded by the descendants of the notorious Huns, who converted into
Islam and balanced between the declining Khazar state and the
ascending Viking federation that ultimately became Russia. Some of
the Bolgars migrated into the Balkans, mixed with Slavs and became
Bulgarians. Others turned into the Caucasus and are today known as
the Balkars. In 1236, the city of Bolgar was sacked by Mongolian
invaders, who established the Golden Horde as a part of their vast
empire. Later on, the Golden Horde itself disintegrated into several
khanates, one of which was centered in Kazan, the successor of Bolgar
until its conquest by Russia in 1552.

Remnants of the old Huns and Bolgars may be seen in the Chuvash, a
Turkic nation living at the west bank of the Volga, which has
retained an archaic language and many pagan habits. The mixture of
the Mongolian nobility and warriors with Bolgars and other local
(Fenno-Ugric) peoples produced the Tatar nation. Because of their bad
reputation in Russia (no history books fail to demonize the “Tatar
yoke”), some Tatars would still prefer to call themselves Bolgars. On
the other hand, neighbouring Fenno-Ugric peoples also adopted many
Turkic and Islamic features from the Tatars and felt an affinity with
them despite of different classification by scholars. Thus the Middle
Volga region remained mainly Islamic and non-Russian, and whenever
there was a major revolt against Russian colonial rule, the Tatars
were joined by the Chuvash, Bashkir, Cheremish (Mari), Mordva and
other nations.

In 1917, these nations of the Volga-Ural region founded a common
state called Idel-Ural with 14-15 million inhabitants, of whom less
than a third part were ethnic Russians. They aspired for autonomy,
but were suppressed by the Bolsheviks next year. Soviet Russia
applied now the well-known strategy of “divide and rule”: instead of
a single entity, stretching all the way to the Caspian Sea and
bordering to Turkestan, as would have been natural and justified, the
region was split into half a dozen different autonomous republics.

The first Soviet Russian creation to replace Idel-Ural, today’s
Bashkortostan, was established in 1919, but contained more Tatars
than Bashkirs. Actually, most of the Bashkirs did not really know,
what distinguished them from the Tatars in the first place. Even the
most famous Bashkir nationalist leader, Zeki Validi Togan, was
himself soon disillusioned, escaped abroad and became an advocate of
Turkic unity. In 1920, the Chuvash nation – or rather, less than half
of it – was “rewarded” with its very own lilliput autonomy. The
Tatars were left with a rump-Tatarstan around Kazan, but only a
quarter of all Tatars lived within its borders, while almost half of
the population was Russian! In the 1930s, the process was finalized
for to the Fenno-Ugric people: a quarter of the Mordva nation was
united into a titular republic, where most of the population speaks
Russian, and less than half of the Cheremish nation got their own
among equal many Russians. It became clear, that the nationalist
division of Idel-Ural only served the ideas of administrative
centralization and cultural russification of the whole region.

The president of Idel-Ural, Sadri Maksudi Arsal, escaped to Finland
in 1918. He was well received by the Finnish foreign minister, who
remembered his valiant defences for the national self-determination
and constitutional rights of Finland in the Russian Duma. The
president in exile also met officials from Estonia before continuing
in 1919 to Sweden, Germany and France, in a quest for western

When the national minorities and the autonomous republics of the
Russian federation were allowed again to search for their identity
and political interests, the idea of a common Idel-Ural federation
was reborn. There are, however, many obstacles on the way ahead:

Local (“republican”) leaders like Mintimer Shaimiyev, president of
Tatarstan, are the same old communists nominated by the Soviet
leadership before any reforms of the society were initiated, and it
still is in their personal and family interests to continue the
administrative division and extend their terms of office, which has
enabled them to privatize the natural wealth (oil, gas, etc.), and to
keep all power concentrated in their own hands. It is unlikely, that
they would ever cede power democratically. The situation reminds us
somewhat of that of pre-1860s Italy and Germany with their numerous

The federal authorities in Moscow (“Centre”) will continue to divide
and rule. Although Vladimir Putin as president of Russia has issued a
decree about the formation of larger administrative units, in the
19th century fashion of General Gouvernements, he will not proceed to
break any loyal “republican” leaders, and since the general governors
will be nominated instead of elected, there is not even a chance of
democratical representation at that level.

Popular feelings – specially among the ethnic Russian populations –
can easily be manipulated by disinformation and provocations. The
Tatars can be labelled “Turkic nationalists” or “Islamic extremists”
to scare off Fenno-Ugric sympathisants. Russian culture, academic
research and impressions among foreigners are full of Orthodox
Christian and Soviet myths, that serve well if needed. The Arabs, for
example, have never learned or cared about the fate of their
co-religionists, because they have been fixed to other issues and
tend to identify Tatars with the conquerors of Baghdad in 1258. The
Armenians, who have strong lobbies in the USA and France, used to
call their neighbouring enemies, Azerbaijani Turks, as Tatars.
European historiography demonized both the Huns and the “Tartars”,
referring to the Greek underworld, Tartaros.

The Turkic and Fenno-Ugric nationalities themselves may not have too
many prejudices and stereotypes of each other, and there is not a
general animosity against Russians as individual people, but there is
a terrifying lack of healthy self-respect. After generations of
oppression, ridicule and deep hate (Russians put the blame of all
their problems on the “Tatar yoke”), Tatars and the other Idel-Ural
nations suffer from a collective inferiority complex, feeling all the
time the need to explain and excuse for their very existence. The
development of an influential, united Idel-Ural movement, however,
can only be secured if nobody feels his identity threatened.

Even if neither the domestic elite nor the Kremlin, and neither
external provocations nor internal confusions would weaken the idea
of Idel-Ural, there would necessarily remain certain conflicts of
interests. The main problem is, that only a part of the people in
question would benefit from geographical solutions, home rule or
independence. Residents of Moscow or other parts of Russia would be
cut out and left to suffer possibly increasing discrimination and
pogroms. This happened to the Jews who did not emigrate from Russia,
and it is happening to the Chechens and other Caucasians who are
feeling the consequences of secession.

For the reasons listed above, Idel-Ural is likely to remain more an
Ideal Ural, a permanent vision of what could have been, or a utopy to
be reached in a far-away better future. Italy and Germany could not
have united by 1871, if foreign pressure would have overweighted the
pan-Italian and pan-German movements. Greece, Armenia, and Israel
could hardly have become what they are now, if there would have been
no massive immigration caused by foreign interventions and
accompanied by massacres. The birth process of nations is extremely
painful, particularly in politically hostile environments. Both
Idel-Ural and a federative North Caucasus succumbed in 1918 to
Russian intervention rather than to any domestic division.
Switzerland was not born as a confederation suddenly and peacefully.

The peoples of Idel-Ural need first to develop a deep sense of
solidarity and traditions of mutual assistance, but also the outside
world could assist such a positive trend by supporting the idea and
by giving a voice for those who do not seek salvation in the mercy of
the Kremlin or in the petty pseudo-patriotism of former party bosses
turned overnight to statesmen and big businessmen at the costs of
their peoples.

* Antero Leitzinger, a leading expert of Tatar nations. He edited a
book called “Mishäärit” on Finnish Tatars, the oldest Islamic
community in the country.

Antero Leitzinger is a political historian and a researcher for the
Finnish Directorate of Immigration. He wrote several books on Turkey,
the Middle East and the Caucasus.