Submitted by Agnes Kefeli

The Tatar language belongs to the Altaic or north western Qypchak branch of the Turkic language family. Kazan or Volga Tatars number about seven million people.  The language closest to Tatar among all Turkic languages is Bashkir.  The origin of the Tatars is subject to debate: are Kazan Tatars descendants of the pre-Mongol Turkic Bulgar people or descendants of the Tatars of the Mongol Golden Horde?  Check Dmitry Gorenburg's chapter, pp. 83-84 for more.  Since the sixteenth century, after Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan, Tatars have formed a diaspora throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union and the world.  One third of Tatars resides in Tatarstan, a republic located on the left bank of the Volga river, in the European part of Russia, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, whose capital is Kazan.  Click on the following to situate Kazan on a map, and to see a map of Tatarstan in Russia. The other two-thirds of Tatars live outside Tatarstan in compact groups in Bashkortostan, Udmurtiia, Mordoviia, Mari El, Chuvashiia, Komi, Siberia. Central Asia, Caucasus, and important Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are also important Tatar communities outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, in Finland, Turkey, United States, China, Germany, Australia.  Some of these communities were formed before the Russian revolution (Tatars were known for their fantastic trading skills); others, after the civil war. With no census of Tatars abroad, it is difficult to determine their numbers, but there may be as many as100 to 200 thousands. In mixed villages of the Middle Volga and in the city of Kazan, live Tatar-speaking Chuvash, Maris, and Udmurts.  Most Tatars are Sunni Muslims, but ten per cent are Eastern Orthodox and view themselves as a separate group.  They are called Kriashen and refer to their language as Kriashen.

There are three major dialects in the Tatar language: the Central, Western, and Eastern.  The Central dialect is mainly found in the Tatar republic.  The Astrakhan, Kasimov, and most Kriashen dialects derive from this group.  The Western dialect is also called the Mishar dialect.  The Mishars are believed to be descendants of Qypchaks from the Golden Horde who settled down west of the Volga river.  They can be found in Tatarstan, Chuvashiia, and Mordoviia.  Finally, the Baraba, Tomsk, and Omsk Tatars of Siberia use the Eastern dialect.  Here is a photo atlas of Siberian Tatars, prepared by the Soros Open Societies Institute. The Central dialect serves as the standard literary language and pronunciation in Tatarstan.

In the history of Russia, Tatars played an important role in the national awakening of the Islamic peoples before and after the revolution of 1917. Tatar intellectuals were the first Muslims of the Russian Empire to demand cultural and (ultimately) national autonomy for themselves. Before the revolution, the political and cultural issues of the Muslim world were debated in Tatar and on the pages of Tatar newspapers, whose numbers surpassed that of periodicals in other Turkic languages. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Tatar merchants often served as Kulturträger, spreading literacy and Islamic culture to other peoples, such as the Kazakhs of Central Asia, the Bashkirs of the Urals, and the Chuvash of the middle Volga. Tatars also introduced educational innovations, such as modern sciences in the primary Islamic school, and reconsidered the status of women in Islam.

Up to the end of the nineteenth century, literary Tatar was used as the language of diplomacy between Russian officials and the Turkic peoples of the empire. Interested in expanding further into Muslim lands, Peter the Great and Catherine II encouraged the study of Turkic languages.  In 1769. the first boys’ gymnasium of Kazan opened a Tatar class whose teacher was Sagit Khalfin (1732-85), famous for composing the first published secular alphabet book of the Tatar language.  Khalfin is also known for putting together the first Russian-Tatar dictionary of 25 000 words, still in manuscript form.  In the nineteenth century, the pedagogue Kaium Nasyri (1825-1902) advocated the use of the vernacular Tatar of the middle Volga as the basis for the development of a literary language.  He wrote the first Tatar grammars and dictionaries in the Tatar language.  Following Nasyri's steps, reformist Tatars, called jadidis, promoted the study of Tatar as a subject of learning in Qur'anic schools, which led to the publication of new dictionaries and grammars in Tatar.

In June 1920, Tatar was declared the official language of the new Autonomous republic of the Soviet Union along with Russian.  In the thirties, the use of Tatar language was discouraged.  Tatars could not have access to university level education in their native language.  Under Nikita Khrushchev, Tatar children in the cities could no longer have access to any form of schooling in their native language.  As a result, the use of Tatar declined in the cities.  In 1992, the parliament of Tatarstan aimed at reversing the situation, and quite successfully.  The deputies passed the law on languages of the Peoples of Tatarstan.  This law made both Tatar and Russian official languages of the sovereign republic of Tatarstan.  Since 1994, non-Tatar students must take Tatar as a second language in schools.  Teachers of Tatar as a second language are also trained at the University of Kazan.  This led to the creation of a number of textbooks (especially those of Flera Safiullina) that can be used as reference books for the teaching of Tatar in the United States.   

After perestroika, another issue quickly grabbed the Tatar deputies' attention: the orthographic reform.  Tatars used the Arabic script until 1927, when a Latin alphabet was adopted. In 1939 a Cyrillic-based alphabet replaced the Latin alphabet on Stalin's order. In 1999, the parliament of Tatarstan ordered a return to a modified Latin alphabet, but three years later, the Russian State Duma forbade the use of non-Cyrillic alphabets for all languages of the Russian Federation.  Currently, the Latin-based alphabet (along with the Cyrillic alphabet) is used on the Internet.

The influence of Russian language has always been significant in Kazan Tatar, even before the Russian revolution.  However, during the Soviet Union, Russian loan words in the scientific area increased and replaced Arabic and Persian loanwords.  Currently, Tatar intellectuals try to reintroduce Arabic and Persian loanwords of the pre-revolutionary period.  If you want to learn more about the de-Russification of Tatar, turn to the interesting work of Suzanne Wertheim.

Thanks to the re-introduction of schooling in the Tatar language and the efforts of Tatar linguists, historians, and teachers, Tatar is more alive than never.  If you wish to know more about the Tatar language, you can turn to the only English grammar of Tatar, Nicholas Poppe, Tatar Manual: Descriptive Grammar and Texts with A Tatar-English Glossary, Indiana University Publications Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 25, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963.  His book contains a very helpful bibliography in Russian and Tatar for the further study of Tatar.  Many textbooks can be found in Russian such as  F. S. Safiullina, Tatarskii iazyk: intensivnyi kurs(Kazan: "Khäter," 1998); Salekhova, N. Kh.; Maksimova, A. K.; and Kharisova, Ch. M. Intensivnoe obuchenie tatarskomu iazyku (Prakticheskii kurs) (Kazan: Mägarif, 1993).

            The Internet is another good source of information about the Tatar language and the Tatar world.  You may start with the following Web site:

* links related to the history and culture of the Tatar people
* tour of Kazan  
* for details of the history of Tatar language, various Tatar alphabets, and online dictionaries go to:;  
* if you are proficient in the Tatar language, consult the official web sites of the Republic of Tatarstan, available in Russian and English:  
* use the online Tatar news and radio 
* read various online newspapers such as 
the Mordovian Tatar Newspaper Tatar Gazetasy

* if you want to listen to Tatar Music, try

Finally, if you look for Tatar friends around the world, you may join a Tatar e-mail group such as

Also, it is now possible to learn Tatar in the United States.  Since 1995, thanks to internal funding from Arizona State University and external funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Critical Languages Institute of Arizona State University offers a unique intensive program each summer in first year, and occasionally, second year Tatar.  Arizona State University also gives students the opportunity to study second or third year Tatar at Kazan State University during one or two semesters with Dr. Flera Safiullina and other competent Tatar linguists and teachers.  To learn more about the summer program and funding possibilities at Arizona State university and the study-abroad program at Kazan State University. Tatar is also offered at the University of Wisconsin occasionally.  CheckProf. Uli Schamiloglu's website where you will find a list of his works and interests. Another useful site is Johan Vandewalle’ ‘Türkçestan’

If you have any questions and comments on this web site, please  I will take your suggestions into consideration to make the necessary improvements.

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Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012