Tatarstan: Semiautonomous and Thriving


A map showing Kazan’s strategic position on a particularly well-watered portion of the Volga river. The Volga has long been an important trade route for Moscow – and a potential invasion route from the South.

Tatarstan is a semiautonomous republic within Russia, located about 500 miles east of Moscow. Roughly the size of West Virginia, but with nearly twice the population, Tatarstan has one of the strongest, fastest growing, and diverse regional economies in Russia. The Tatar people, for whom the republic is named, are of Turkic decent and are predominantly Muslim.

The republic is often referred to as a model of an effective multiethnic state, with Muslims and Christians living side-by-side in peace. It is also often regarded as a model for effective economic development and anticorruption measures. The republic, however, also faces several problems in managing its diverse population and bringing environmental concerns under control.

Tatarstan at a Glance

Tatarstan’s population is estimated at 3.8 million. 53% of the population is Tatar Post-Soviet-Conflict-Bannerwhile 39.7% is Russian, and the remaining 7% is comprised of many different ethnicities.

Kazan, the republic’s capital, is centered on a sustainable, defensible point along a valuable trade route and has been of strategic importance for hundreds of years. It is settled on a bowl-shaped hill overlooking a narrowing of the Volga River, about thirty miles upstream, closer to Moscow, from the point where that river joins the Kama River. The surrounding countryside is mostly steppe and forest, well-watered by several rivers, and thus is conducive to agriculture, hunting, forestry, and supporting significant populations and militaries.

Today, Kazan holds about a quarter of the republic’s population. Other significant cities include Naberezhnye Chelny and Nizhnekamsk, with about a half million and a quarter million residents, respectively, settled along the Kama River. Almetyevsk is a city of roughly 160,000 people in the republic’s southeast, where much of its oil deposits lie. All of Tatarstan’s cities are well-connected to one another by a highly developed transport network comprised of highways, railway lines, and four navigable rivers. Tatarstan is also well connected to the rest of Russia by rail. Its emphasis on developing transportation has helped its economy to flourish.

Tatarstan’s economy is also diverse: its main sources of revenue come from manufacturing and oil production. Tatarstan produces 32 million tons of crude oil annually and has 1 billion tons of oil reserves. While these are less than 1% of Russia’s totals, they are significant to the small republic. Tatarstan is also known for its oil refineries and petrochemical and machine-building plants. The latter industry is devoted mostly to trucks and aviation and the Kazan Helicopter Plant is one of the largest helicopter manufacturers in the world. Engineering, textiles, clothing, agriculture and food processing, services, and tourism are all major driving forces in Tatarstan’s economy as well.

Tatarstan also hosts several major oil pipelines. The world’s longest oil pipeline, called the “Druzhba” or “Friendship” pipeline, begins in Tatarstan, in the town of Almetyevsk, and delivers oil throughout Russia and Europe. Two other transcontinental gas pipelines run through northwestern Tatarstan as well.

Part of Tatarstan’s economic success has been attributed to its current governance, which consistently ranks as one of Russia’s least corrupt and most business-friendly. The republic’s government has pushed to create tax incentives for investment as well as special economic zones to develop modern technology and manufacturing parks.

Tatarstan has had significant movements calling for independence. As one of Russia’s 21 semiautonomous republics, Tatarstan already has the right, unlike other constituent components of Russia, to name official languages in addition to Russian, and have its own constitution to better guarantee certain ethnic, religious, or linguistic rights. All republics in Russia are dominated by concentrations of Russia’s ethnic minorities and most of these have, at one time at least, pushed for independence or expansion of rights.

These movements in modern Tatarstan have been relatively peaceful, and for two major reasons. First, its population has long been largely politically and religiously moderate. The second reason is the fact that, even if Tatarstan were to become independent, all of its enterprising businesses would still be dependent upon Russian-controlled transport networks to reach markets outside of Tatarstan.

For Russia’s part, with Tatarstan representing a significant transport hub, a rapidly developing model economy, and holding some of Russia’s valuable oil and gas export infrastructure (hydrocarbon export tariffs make up approximately 75 – 80% of Russia’s federal budget revenue) – it is not difficult to understand Russia’s interest in retaining the Republic of Tatarstan as a federal subject. Thus, relative moderation and mutual interests have worked together to allow Tatarstan to effectively negotiate for more independence, but also ensure that it has peacefully remained a part of The Russian Federation.

Origins and Pre-Soviet History

The “Tatar” name applies to diverse populations of Turkic peoples spread throughout Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. The original Tatars likely originated in the Gobi Desert, but heavily intermixed and fought with the Mongols as the Mongol empire rapidly expanded in the 13th century, reaching the Volga area in the 1230s. “Tatar” later became the official identifier used by 18th- and 19th-century Russian ethnographers to refer to all Turkic groups living on Russian-controlled territory. Tatars, because of their association with the Mongol Horde, were, for centuries, negatively stereotyped by Russians as untrustworthy and/or cruel.


The Tatars are a diverse ethnic group living in mostly small pockets in Eastern Europe and Siberia. The above map shows the major divisions and their approximate geographic locations. There are also Tatar communities in China, Japan, the US, and elsewhere

Prior to the Mongol invasion, the Volga Bulgars had inhabited the territory of what is known today as Tatarstan and had used their geographic position to build an advanced mercantile state. In 922, Sunni Islam was introduced to the Volga Bulgars by Muslim missionaries from Baghdad and was adopted as the official religion.

The Mongol/Tatar invasion devastated the Volga area, killing, by most estimates, the majority of the population and assimilating or driving out much of rest. In 1430, the Tatars established Kazan as the capital of the Mongol “Khanate of Kazan,” although the city’s location had likely been inhabited by the Bulgars as early as the 11th century. Kazan became known as a center of commerce, for craftsmanship (particularly of furniture and gold), and culture (particularly for the opulence of its mosques).

In 1552, Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered the territory, murdered much of the Tatar population, and “Russified” the remaining population, which included forced conversions to Christianity. During this period, many Tatars who sought to preserve their adherence to Islam emigrated east, to the Urals or further into Siberia. By 1593 all mosques in the area were destroyed and a ban on their construction prevailed until the 18th century under Catherine the Great as she revised many of the empire’s ethnicity policies.

In the 19th century, Tatarstan was heavily developed under Russian Tsar Alexander I, who invested in the region by establishing a university, a printing press, and public transportation in Kazan. The Russian Revolution of 1905, while unsuccessful at toppling the monarchy, did result in significant liberalization of the regime for a time. During this liberalization, the Tatars were allowed to revive Kazan as a center of Tatar culture, rebuilding mosques and founding Tatar-language theaters and newspapers. Also around this time, Tatarstan became famous for its tolerant and friendly relations with other religions as Jadidism, a scholarly and moderate form of Islam, gained influence.

Tatarstan in the Soviet Union

Though Tatar nationalists attempted to establish an independent Tatar state during the Russian civil war, they were put down by the Bolsheviks, who established the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (an “ASSR”) in 1920. Under the USSR, most of the mosques and churches in Kazan were destroyed yet again. Until the time of Soviet collapse, Islam was largely repressed in the Tatar Republic, as were all religions throughout the Soviet Union. The Tatar language also declined under the Soviet Union, as schools and government came to emphasize Russian language in schools and official business at the expense of other languages.

During World War II, the soviets built factories and industrial plants in Tatarstan, making it one of the Soviet Union’s core military industrial centers. Tatarstan remained east of the Nazi advance and never saw fighting during WWII.

After the war, Tatarstan thrived economically due to its new industrial infrastructure. In the 1960s and 70s, a movement started by Tatar academics petitioned the Soviet Union to upgrade the Tatar ASSR to a union republic, on par with others such as Kazakhstan and Estonia. The request was not granted, but the ASSR did begin to enjoy more control over its own affairs and more influence over its internal policy making. At this time, the Tatar language was revived as well with the creation of a well-endowed Institute of Tatar Language and Literature.

When the Soviet Union fell, Tatarstan’s aspirations for independence were revived. In 1990, as other republics within the USSR began declaring themselves independent, Tatarstan declared itself “sovereign.” In 1992, the Tatar government held a referendum on a proposed constitution that would declare Tatarstan a “sovereign” state. It was passed by popular referendum by 62% of the population. However, Tatarstan was never actually independent and remained part of The Russian Federation under much the same arrangement as they had remained part of the USSR. In 1994, a treaty was signed between Moscow and Kazan formalizing the delegation of authority. Interestingly, however, it was not until 2002 that amendments to the Tatar constitution were passed, which clarified Tatarstan’s status as a constituent part of The Russian Federation.

Tatarstan Today

Today, Tatarstan is experiencing a cultural, religious, and economic revival. It is not, however, without its challenges and problems.

Shortly after the fall the USSR, a campaign to fully restore Tatar culture and language was launched. Tatar and Russian were both declared official languages of Tatarstan and Tatar-language schools were opened.

A map of Tatarstan showing its wide rivers and some of its major cities.

Approximately 55% of Tatarstan’s population is Muslim and about 40% is Orthodox Christian. Judaism, Buddhism, and Krishnaism are also represented. Many mosques and churches have been built or rebuilt since the collapse of the Soviet Union; however, some have argued that they have been rebuilt disproportionately. At present, Tatarstan has around 700 functioning mosques and only 200 Orthodox churches. As a result, there is one mosque for every 1340 Muslims, while there is one Orthodox Church for every 10,000 ethnic Russians. Many, however, point to the fact that while most Russians self-identify as Orthodox, most rarely attend church services; most of Tatarstan’s Muslims, however, actively attend mosques.

Over the last two decades, Tatarstan has experienced a demographic shift in favor of ethnic Tatars. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, ethnic Tatar and Russian portions of the population were about equal. However, it has become increasingly more common in Russia for titular ethnic groups to gain the majority within their eponymous republics. For example, in Chechnya the ethnic Chechens already comprise 93% of the population. In Tatarstan, between 2002 and 2010, the number of ethnic Russians declined by over 70,000 while the number of Tatars rose by over 200,000.

Some worry that the Tatar government has encouraged policies that led to this decline in the ethnic Russian population. For example, in today’s Tatarstan, all students – including ethnic Russians – are required to master the Tatar language while mastery of the Russian language is not required. Thus, schools in Tatarstan spend less time learning Russian than any other republic in the Federation (most spend 1200 hours in the first ten years of school, while Tatarstan only spends 700). Furthermore, a 2003 study found that 80% of Tatarstan’s political elite consisted of ethnic Tatars, which is a proportion vastly greater than their share of the republic’s population. When asked why so few ethnic Russians could be found in the top jobs in Tatarstan’s workforce, the chairman of the republic’s State Council, Farid Mukhametshin, only said “we need professionals. Among ethnic Russians, they are lacking.” Some complain that there is also discrimination against ethnic Russians for employment as well.

Tatarstan’s reputation as a model of peaceful Islam and religious tolerance has also been tarnished of late by increased protests by radical Muslims. Terrorist attacks occurred in 2012: a car bombing of a popular Mufti (Muslim leader) and the assassination of a moderate cleric. In 2013, Russia’s FSB announced that they had found and dismantled a terror cell in Kazan that was planning attacks “in crowded areas.” Both Tatar and Russian governments have vowed to continue to fight against radicalization and, to date, incidents have been rare and isolated.

There have also been political conflicts between Tatarstan and The Russian Federation concerning elections. According to a 2005 Russian Federal Law, all regional heads are to be nominated by the Russian President and confirmed by the regional legislatures. However, the Tatar constitution states that the Republic’s president is to be popularly elected. Because Russian federal law takes precedence in Russia’s federal structure, Tatarstan’s constitutional court ruled that the federal law could be followed without contradicting the republic’s constitution. Thus, popular elections were suspended in in Tatarstan until 2012 when the federal law was repealed. Popular elections will now return to Tatarstan in 2016.

The current president of Tatarstan is Rustam Minnikhanov, who has now served four terms, bridging both Tartarstan’s era of popular elections and appointed governors.  A former engineer, he also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Tatneft, the company that controls most of the region’s oil production. The republic’s legislative body is similar to that of other republics: Tatarstan has a Unicameral State Council made up of 100 seats with 50 comprised of party representatives and 50 from the republic’s different districts.

One additional challenge the republic faces is environmental. While Kazan’s petrochemical industry has been important in Kazan’s economy, it is reliant on the local heavy oil. Heavy oil is thicker than light oil due to increased concentrations of impurities, making it more difficult, more expensive, and more environmentally damaging to process. This has contributed to Tatarstan’s major cities ranking as some of the most polluted in Russia.

These challenges have not greatly harmed the republic’s reputation or economic performance, however. During her visit to Kazan and upon seeing, within the Kremlin, an Orthodox cathedral built next to a mosque, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that the republic served “as a model for tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.” This sentiment is also rendered in the work of a local artist, Idar Khanov, who has created “The Temple of all Religions,” the design of which was inspired by the architecture of different world religions.

study russian in Russia Kazan’s historic Kremlin was named a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO in 2010, increasing its tourism potential. Though it is only the 8th largest city in Russia, Kazan is now officially the “Third Capital of Russia” (after receiving approval from the Kremlin’s patent office in 2009). The city also consistently ranks high for quality of life among cities in Russia, in part thanks to comparatively high wages and major infrastructural renovations made over the last decade.

More infrastructural impartments are being planned with most receiving federal investment. In 2013 Kazan hosted the Summer Universiade and in 2018, it will host the FIFA World Cup. Specifically for this, new stadiums and hotels are being built and Kazan’s single-line metro, originally built in 2005, already has planned expansions. Further, Russia’s first true high-speed railroad will connect Moscow to Kazan, reducing the current 12-hour journey between the two capitals to just four. The rail line is currently in the planning stage.

The Republic of Tatarstan has an exciting future, thanks in part to its ability to successfully win investment in its structural, economic, and cultural development from both private investors and the federal government. For decades, Tatars have demonstrated a stubborn desire to govern themselves and preserve their cultural and religious heritage, while diplomatically securing political support from Russia’s federal government. If the republic can mitigate religious extremism, retain their historic reputation for religious tolerance, and also maintain policies that recognize and support not only the unique majority culture, but also the republic’s substantial minorities, Tatarstan will likely continue to be a region in Russia lauded for providing a high standard of living and an example of effective governance within Russia.

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

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Christine Jacobson

Christine Jacobson is a senior in political science and Russian studies at Stetson University. She is looking to pursue an MA in Russian-Eurasian studies as well as a career in global development. She studied international relations with SRAS in St. Petersburg and has served a political internship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

View all posts by: Christine Jacobson