Tatarstan is a Republic of Russia situated 800 km east of Moscow, big as Ireland. Its population of 3.7 million is for half constituted of Muslim-background inhabitants. Journalist Fred Hilgemann invites us to follow them there in a small book pleasantly written and drafted on the mode of documentary. The work is divided into three parts, each made of a half-dozen of short chapters. The first part reconstructs the recent history of tempestuous relations of Kazan, the Tatar capital, with Moscow. The author shows that if Tatarstan and Chechnya are the only members of the Federation of Russia which refused the Federal Treaty in 1992, the trajectory of both republics quickly diverged: Chechnya sank into war whereas Tatarstan had the intelligence to recognise Russia’s sovereignty in order to obtain a very advantageous status (pp. 30-5), though the latter was later to be questioned by Vladimir Putin’s turn towards centralisation and authoritarianism (p. 204). The reader is first invited to a walk through Kazan and its big Qul-Sharif Mosque with four 54 metres high minarets and an azure-blue dome, the pride of the city’s population. Inaugurated in July, 2005 this immense building reminds to the visitors that the Tatars are of Islamic confession like the Chechens, though contrary to the north-Caucasian Republic Tatarstan claims to represent an integrated and tolerant Islam within a multiethnic and multi-confessional society. For a number of observers Tatarstan is a model of integration into the Federation of Russia, thanks to the invention of “Euro-Islam,” adapted to an industrial and secularised country (109). Is however Tatar Islam a model to be followed to the eyes of Russia’s central power? Tracing the Republic’s recent past and the organisation of Islam in close cooperation with Moscow, the author deciphers the origins of this Euro-Islam so convenient for the Kremlin as well as for Tatar authorities.
The second part is more specifically devoted to religion. Paraphrasing the official discourse, F. Hilgemann describes a peaceful balance between the Islamic and Orthodox Christian confessions. If in Perestroika years there was not more than a single mosque in Kazan, there are today about fifty of them in the city, and one can count approximately one thousand mosques for the republic (113). Everywhere the re-Islamisation of the Turkic-speaking population is striking: In mosques and madrasas thousands of Tatars are getting acquainted again with the foundations of Islam. The practice of religion in Kazan and in the country also means integration into the revival of certain Tatar nationalism. Such a current collides with the deep fragmentation of the society and with the difficulty to define a Tatar identity. The attitude of a society marked by decades of antireligious propaganda also contributes to maintain a lot of people away from mosques (105). Despite its weaknesses and the limitation of its audience to a public made primarily of elders, the revitalisation of Islam in Tatarstan has been considered significant enough to arouse the attention of authorities, who have been multiplying initiatives for framing and controlling it. Moscow remembers that on the eve of the Revolution of 1917, a current of Turkic inspiration had come to light for the creation of a republic. The sovereign Republic of Tatarstan, recognised in 1990, occupies a more reduced surface today and hardly includes one third of the overall Tatar population of Russia. Like Chechnya, it refused to sign the federative treaty of 1992, as a result of which its religious emancipation has been going on under tight political control. As elsewhere in the former USSR, President Shaimiev has set up a Council for Religious Affairs chaired by historian Rinat Nabiev and directly connected with the Council of Ministers of Tatarstan, and a Council for Muslim Religious Affairs chaired by Mufti Gusman Ishakov, elected by the congress of the Muslims of Tatarstan (118). This does not prevent the existence of an “Islamist threat,” which the author notably sees in the presence of the Hizb al-Tahrir party in Tatarstan ― even if she properly notes that accusation of terrorism often allows authorities to imprison without a lawsuit every kind of opponents (119 ff.). Coexistence with Orthodox Christian and Catholics is not always easy either (130-3).
The book’s last part deals with economic and social questions. Three articles are dedicated to “ultra-capitalism” that seems to be prospering in nowadays Tatarstan. The success of a Tatar model relies primarily on the republic’s economic resources. A spearhead of Russia’s car industry (thanks to the gigantic plant of the truck manufacturer KamAZ) and rich in hydrocarbons, Tatarstan can rely on economy for following its own road. “At the basis of the fortune of Tatarstan, oil makes of the republic an essential actor of Russia’s economy [. . .]. The republic currently occupies the rank of first crude oil producer in the Volga Federal District, and the second in Russia with 29 to 30 million tons a year,” reminds the author (158 ff.). Continuing her portrait of the republic, F. Hilgemann describes a society where the minds have been seized by the fever of ultra-capitalism: “Profit, promotion, ease and comfort henceforth receive the unconditional vote of a majority in search of well-being (182-4).” The development of leisure activities also expresses this expansion of capitalism. The book ends up with three articles on the disturbing state of Tatar society: Nourishing towards the foreign world schizophrenic feelings that oscillate between xenophobia and fascination, maintaining no illusion on the political personnel by which it is presently ruled, Tatar society seems to have lost its marks (196, 201-3). In all, this panorama of a small republic with voracious ambitions shows useful and well-illustrated.