The West Siberian Tatars

©Edward J. Vajda


The Tatars are the most numerous people in the post-communist Russian Federation after the Russians, although only a relatively small number actually live in Siberia (the so-called West Siberian Tatars).

The Volga Tatars are believed to be descended in part from the Volga Bulgars, a Turkic speaking people whose civilization flourished from the 10th to the 13th century. All Tatars are also descended in part from the numerous tribes of nomadic Turks who became subjects of the vast Mongol Empire in the 13th century. Historically, the Tatars played an important role in the Mongol subjugation of Russia in the 13th century. Today over 5 million Tatars live in Eastern European Russia (especially near the city of Kazan on the Volga River) and throughout southwestern Siberia. The language of all Tatar groups belongs to the Kypchak group of the Turkic language family.

After the breakup of the Mongol Empire and particularly of its westernmost wing, the Golden Horde, a number of independant Tatar Khanates developed in Siberia and Eastern Europe. These included the Crimean Tatars (shipped off en-masse to Siberia in 1944 by Stalin's secret police), the Kazan Khanate (in the area of the present-day Republic of Tatarstan), and the Khanate of Sibir to the east of the River Volga. It was this Khanate that was attacked by Russian cossacks led by Yermak in 1582 and which gave its name to the entire expanse of North Asia over the next century as Russian trappers and Cossasks explored this vast territory and claimed it for the Russian tsar.

In 1582 the Khanate of Sibir was a feudal society ruled by Khan Kuchum, who had recently attempted to impose Islam over his ethnically diverse subjects (the Khanate,which stretched from the Volga to beyond the Urals, included Khanty-Mansi and other tribes in addition to the Tatars. The bulk of the population were required to pay the Khan yasak, a tax collected in furs from every able-bodied hunter in the region. Under the influence of trade with Muscovite Russia, Christianity was also making its way into Siberia, and the Tatar practice of distilling spirit from grain made its way to Russia. The Russians called the alcohol vodka, or "dear little water."

Of all the peoples of Siberia, the Tatars had the most complex material culture, with a society similar in many ways to those of Eastern Europe at that time. Also, the Tatar areas contained the only true towns and cities in Siberia before the coming of the Russians.

Unlike the Volga Tatars in the Republic of Tatarstan, the West Siberian Tatars are relatively few in number and speak different though mutually intelligible dialects of Tatar. These groups include the Chulym Tatars, who are believed to be the Turkicized remnants of Ketic peoples; the Bachat Teleuts, the Barabin Tatars, and the Tomsk and Tyumen Tatars who are believed to be Turkicized remnants of a more ancient Samoyedic population.

Because southern Siberia was one of the first and most heavily settled areas by Russians, the West Siberian Tatars are found today only in scattered groups rather than in a large compact mass.

Traditional Lifeways

The original Tatars themselves, like the other Turkic tribes, had originally been nomadic pastoralists. Their mastery of the horse, in particular, gave them dominance over all of the steppelands of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Tatars who settled in the forest-steppe zone, as well an those Siberian taiga peoples who adopted the Tatar language, also relied heavily on hunting, particularly for the furs which provided local revenue. Weaving and other crafts were highly developed. Tatars were for centuries involved in trading with other parts of Asia.

Unlike other peoples of Siberia, some Tatar groups were also agriculturalists, and this occupation supported a much denser population than was to be found anywhere else in Siberia proper. One of the main festivals of traditional Tatar culture is the sabantui, a harvest festival held in the fall. The modern sabantui (which means "great plow") is not unlike a European carnival or late summer picnic, with sack races, egg tosses, and blindman's buff.

Tatar cuisine is very elaborate, with a great many traits borrowed from the Mongols as well as the peoples of Central Asia (and, today, from the Russians). Tatars enjoyed tea, as well as a sour milk drink (katyk) and fermented mare's milk (kumys).

The local Tatar settlement was called the yurt, after a word meaning "tent." Land and herds were owned by the group. There was also beekeeping and intensive gathering of the Siberian cedar nut.

Family structure was patriarchial, with the father the undisputed head of household. After the acceptance of Islam, Tatars could not eat pork; nor could Tatar women eat together with the men. Tatar girls received no formal education, and Tatar women were obliged to wear the veil. For the most part, these inequalities and restrictions were relaxed after the 1917 Revolution.

The study of the Tatars and their history belongs more to the study of the great civilizations of the Central Asian steppes rather than to the history of Siberia proper. However, the Russian conquest of Siberia, which was to have such a profound influence on all of the peoples of North Asia, began with the fall of the Tatar Khanate of Sibir in 1582. Many of the elements the Russians adopted in their dealings with the Tatars were replicated later throughout Siberia. First, the name Sibir was applied to all of North Asia, a region which had never before in history been considered as part of a single political entity (the Mongol Empire has taken in only the southernmost areas of Siberia). Second, the Tatar practice of exacting a fur tribute (yasak) from their local forest subjects was adopted by the Russians and extended in the next 150 years to all parts of Siberia capable of producing valuable furs. In this way, the Tatars of Siberia provided a testing ground for a drama that would be repeated again and again until the conquest of all of North Asia transformed Muscovite Russia into the largest empire in the world. Also, unlike other European conquests in Asia over the past 500 years, the Russianization of Siberia seems to be of more permanent variety: nearly 95% of the population of North Asia today are Slavs, and less than 5% are the descendants of the original Native Siberian tribes.