Last fall, in a small park near our apartment, I noticed Bulgarist graffiti on a Soviet mural of Lenin. The proclamation that “We are Bulgars, and not Tatars!” has a long history behind it of the changing shape of Tatar historiography. I still run into proclamations of this sort from time to time, and the Neo-Bulgarist symbol, the rune in the middle of this mural, can be occasionally be seen spray-painted on various buildings in downtown Kazan. I haven’t yet explored this fairly fringe phenomenon within Tatar identity. Even beyond neo-Bulgarist circles, the Bulgar origin is of growing importance, as we can see in the Bulgar reimagination of Islam in Shygyrdan, Chuvashia, and most visibly in former president Mintimer Shaimiev’s Renaissance Fund and its “restoration” of the ruins of Bulgar.
And just several days ago, I ran into two posters in the hallway by the Faculty of Tatar Philology and History at Kazan Federal University. Each advertises a three-month course in Tatar language, Tatar history, and the basics of Islam. The first one I ran into was for a course sponsored by the World Congress of Tatars and the Russian Islamic University.
The second program, described in almost exactly the same terms and with the same dates, is sponsored by the Muhammediya Medresseh.
So we have several equations: We are Tatars. Tatars speak Tatar. Tatars are Muslims. And the contrapositive seems to be implied as well: If we do not speak Tatar, we are not Tatars. If we are not Muslim, we are not Tatar. The Muhammediya poster also states “Unity of Tatars — Unity of Language” — seemingly privileging language over religion as the fundamental component of Tatar identity.
And, of course, “We are Bulgars, not Tatars.” The asserted Bulgar origin is fundamental to two versions of identity– the neo-Bulgarist version emphasizes a pre-Islamic past (hence the rune), while the mainstream version sees an old claim to Islam (hence the reconstruction and construction of “Bulgar” mosques).
This ignores the most interesting part, which is the courses themselves. These are courses on how to be a good Tatar. But what does that mean? Who attends such courses? And how do they compare to groups like the discussion circles at Sharyq Club?