Tatars​—Their Past, Present, and Future

FROM childhood I had heard the saying: “Scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar [Tatar].” I always considered myself Russian, but not long ago my relatives told me that my grandfather was a Tatar. * When I tell my friends this, some say that they too have Tatar roots.

It has been interesting for me to learn about famous Tatars and their achievements in art, sports, and other areas. For example, ballet master Rudolf Nureyev, who had a profound impact on dance, was born into a Tatar family in Russia. About seven million Tatars live in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Let me tell you what I have learned about Tatars.

Their Past

Tatars have been mentioned in connection with Mongolian and Turkish peoples for many centuries. In the 13th century, they took part in military campaigns initiated by Genghis Khan, the Mongolian leader. * His empire spread over an immense area, comparable in size to the former Soviet Union. In 1236, about 150,000 of his warriors headed toward Europe, which begins west of the Ural Mountains. Here, they first attacked Russian cities.

When the Mongols conquered Russia not long after that, they founded a mixed Mongolian-Turkish state, the western part of which some call the Golden Horde. Its capital, Sarai Batu, was located on the lower Volga River. This state included part of Siberia and its Ural Mountains, as well as the distant Carpathian and Caucasus mountain ranges in Ukraine and Georgia. Russian principalities were made to pay tribute to the Horde. In the 15th century, the Horde broke up into jurisdictions, such as Crimea, Astrakhan, and Kazan’.

Tatarstan and Its Capital, Kazan’

Today about four million people live in the multinational Republic of Tatarstan, located in the far eastern part of European Russia. Its territory is about 26,255 square miles (68,000 sq km), and it is reputed to be among “the most economically developed subjects of the Russian Federation.” Tatarstan is a leading Russian producer of oil and gas. Its industries produce airplanes and automobiles, and the republic has several airports.

Kazan’ is a modern city of a million people, where the Volga and the Kazanka rivers meet. It is one of the many cities in Russia  that have built beautiful subway systems. * Every station has a theme. Some are modern in design, and others have an oriental or medieval feel. One Kazan’ station is decorated with 22 mosaic frescoes representing traditional Tatar fairy tales.

Kazan Federal University was founded in 1804 by Russian Czar Alexander I and has one of the largest libraries in Russia. It is an influential educational and cultural center and is a forerunner of other universities in Tatarstan. Among the library’s 5,000,000 publications are 30,000 ancient manuscripts, some of which date back to the ninth century C.E.

It is enjoyable to walk along Bauman Street in the city center. The area is filled with attractive stores and cafés. When visiting there recently, my wife and I enjoyed a relaxing cruise on the Volga River after our city tour.

Among the highlights of Kazan’ is its famous kremlin. This old fortress, with its buildings dating back to the 16th century, is the only Tatar fortress in Russia to survive to the present. Within the stone walls of the Kazan’ Kremlin are the Syuyumbeki Tower, buildings of the Tatarstan government, a mosque, and an Orthodox church.

In 2000, the Kazan’ Kremlin became a UNESCO World Heritage site. At night the architecture of the kremlin complex looks especially majestic. This is made possible by lights that reflect in the river.

The People and Their Language

The Tatars are the largest population of Turkic peoples in Russia and are said to total some 5,500,000. But it is not known how many there really are throughout this vast country.

The Tatar language belongs to the Turkic family of languages. This language family also includes Azerbaijani, Bashkir, Kazakh,  Kirghiz, Nogai, Turkish, Turkoman, Tuvinian, Uzbek, and Yakut. Some of these languages are similar enough that, to some degree, speakers can understand each other.

Turkic-language speakers in the world number into many millions. On streets of cities throughout Tatarstan, people use both Tatar and Russian, as do newspapers and books, radio, and television. Theaters in Tatarstan feature Tatar-language plays, which revolve around Tatar history, folklore, and daily life.

Storefront and street signs in Kazan’ and other cities are in both Russian and Tatar. Russian has many words of Tatar origin. In the Soviet Union, written Tatar underwent a change from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet in 1928. Since 1939, Tatar has been written in a form of Cyrillic similar to the Russian Cyrillic.

National Traditions

Tatars were once hunters and stock raisers. Even today, traditional cooking includes many meat dishes. One is belesh, a favorite of many Tatar families. It is usually made like a pie, with a filling of potatoes, meat, onions, and spices. This is baked for about two hours. Then the “pie” is cut up at the table in front of everyone as steam rises from the top.

 Among Tatars’ national holidays, probably the oldest and most famous is Sabantui. It is based on a pagan custom in which people prayed together and offered sacrifices to the sun-god and the spirits of ancestors. The participants believed that such sacrifices would ensure that their bloodline would continue, their animals would reproduce, and their land would be fruitful.

Tatars love horses. They are an important part of their traditional culture and are linked to their nomadic past. Kazan’ has one of the finest hippodromes in the world, with 12 stables and a veterinary clinic. A swimming pool is even provided for the horses!

What the Future Holds

The Koran says: “Certainly We wrote in the Psalms, after the Torah: ‘Indeed My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.’” (Sura 21, Al-Anbiyā [The Prophets], verse 105). Evidently this was taken from the psalms of David that were recorded in the Bible over 1,500 years earlier. Psalm 37:29 reads: “The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.”

From which nation and ethnic group will these happy, righteous people come? A prophecy from the Injil (the Christian Gospels of the New Testament) says: “A great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.” (Revelation 7:9) What a wonderful life it will be in the future to live among a multinational and colorful brotherhood that will fill the earth! *


^ par. 2 The Tatars are a large Turkic ethnic group found mainly in Russia.

^ par. 5 See the article “Asian Nomads Who Forged an Empire,” in the May 2008 issue of Awake!

^ par. 9 Other Russian cities with subway systems include Yekaterinburg, Moscow, Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, and Samara.

^ par. 25 More information on God’s purposes is found in the brochure The Guidance of God​—Our Way to Paradise, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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The book Dinnər Tarixb (Religions of the World) written by Tatar author M. Khuzhayev, states that Adam was created by Yakhve Allah, or Jehovah God. Also, the Tatar edition of the Pentateuch​—that is, the first five books of modern Bibles—​contains a footnote at Genesis 2:4 that says of God’s name: “It is possible that this name was pronounced by ancient Hebrews as Yahveh.”

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Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia hold classes to teach the Tatar language because they have a strong desire to tell people about the good news of God’s Kingdom. A woman in Tatarstan said: “Knowledge about God in my native language has touched me even to the point of tears.”

In 1973 a small group of Tatar Jehovah’s Witnesses began to hold meetings for Bible study in the Tatar language. In the 1990’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses began publishing Bible literature in Tatar. * Then, in 2003, the first Tatar-language congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was formed in Naberezhnye Chelny, in Tatarstan Republic. Today, there are 8 Tatar-language congregations and 20 such groups in Russia.

In 2008, delegates from Astrakhan, the Volga Region, the Ural Mountains, West Siberia, and the far north attended the Tatar-language district convention. Now in Tatarstan there are 36 Tatar-, Russian-, and Russian-Sign-Language congregations and groups, where over 2,300 people are actively engaged in teaching people the truth about God.


^ par. 37 The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society has produced Bibles and Bible-based publications in over 560 languages.

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Pyotr Markov was born in a village in Tatarstan in 1948. For 30 years he was well-known locally for his wrestling and weight-lifting abilities. Once he lifted a 70-pound (32 kg) weight 130 times. Now, since he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he is well-known for talking to people about God in the Tatar and Russian languages and providing them with help for coping with life’s problems.

Thereby Pyotr imitates the caring Creator, about whom it is said at Isaiah 40:11: “Like a shepherd he will shepherd his own drove. With his arm he will collect together the lambs; and in his bosom he will carry them. Those giving suck he will conduct with care.”


Pyotr now serves as a spiritual shepherd

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St. Petersburg



Volga River

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The Kazan’ Kremlin on the Kazanka River

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© Michel Setboun/​CORBIS

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“Belesh” is a favorite dish of many Tatar families