Tataria and Chechnya – A Comparative Study, by Stephen D. Shenfield

Background to the text

In the late 1990s, when I was at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, I participated in a collaborative research project entitled “Preventing Ethnic Violence.” Like many others, my colleagues and I focused on conflicts that arose in the course of the post-Soviet transition. Our approach, however, was somewhat unusual. We sought to understand the determinants of violent outcomes by focusing primarily on conflicts that easily might (in our judgment) have turned violent but did not and by asking why they did not, despite the fact that other somewhat similar conflicts did. To paraphrase a famous question once posed by Sherlock Holmes, why did these particular dogs not bark in the night?

We used the method of comparative analysis of paired case studies. Case studies were selected in such a way that the two cases in each pair would be similar in a number of important respects, though not in all important respects, while also giving contrasting outcomes, violent in one case and nonviolent in the other. Moreover, we concentrated our efforts on the nonviolent case in each pair. For each case study with a nonviolent outcome, we made an extended visit to the region concerned in order to collect information and interview social scientists politicians, officials, and other public figures. For the case studies with violent outcomes we relied mainly on literary sources, although here too we were able to interview a few individuals with relevant knowledge and experience.

Although my colleagues** and I planned to present the results of the project in a published volume, for reasons that I do not altogether understand such a volume has never appeared. No doubt the same is true of quite a few other collaborative projects. Therefore I decided at least to make publicly available as a separate study the text that I wrote on the paired cases of Tataria (Tatarstan) and Chechnya. Even after all this time, it perhaps remains of more than purely historical interest. 


In several basic respects, the Volga Tatars and the Chechens have much in common. Both Tatars and Chechens have religious traditions typical of “northern Islam” – that is, they belong to the Khanafi school of Sunni Islam, embrace a form of “popular” Islam combining Moslem law (Sharia) with local customary law (adat), and are strongly influenced by Sufi brotherhoods (Islam 1998). Both Chechens and the majority of Volga Tatars were incorporated into the expanding empire of the tsars against their will as a result of military conquest. The suffering and humiliation of both peoples under the tsarist regime led many of their secular intellectuals to support the Bolsheviks, and it was these individuals who constituted new indigenous political elites in the early Soviet years. For both peoples, the Stalin period brought the repression of their new elites and the horrors of forcible collectivization, but also a certain measure of modernization, urbanization, and industrialization, with oil extraction playing an important role in both cases. Finally, the Volga Tatars and the Chechens occupied similar positions on the second rung of the formal hierarchy of Soviet peoples. That is, each was the titular people of an autonomous republic – the Volga Tatars of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (TASSR), less formally referred to as Tataria, and the Chechens of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (CIASSR), also known as Checheno-Ingushetia.1

Despite these important similarities, the outcome of the post-Soviet transition has been very different for the two peoples. In Chechnya, the transition brought to power the radical separatist regime of General Jokhar Dudayev, whose confrontation with Moscow culminated in the massive assault that the federal military forces launched at the end of 1994. In Tataria, by contrast, the late-Soviet political establishment succeeded, under the leadership of Mintimer Shaimiev, in retaining power in its hands throughout, and eventually secured, in the form of the bilateral treaty of February 15, 1994, Moscow’s recognition of the region’s right to broad autonomy.

How are such sharply divergent outcomes to be explained? There are various ways in which one might attempt to answer a question of this kind. On the one hand, a historical determinist might compare the long-term historical experience of the Volga Tatars and the Chechens, starting with their pre-conquest societies and the impact that the tsarist conquest had upon them and ending with the effects of developments in the Soviet period. On the other hand, a scholar inclined to place more stress on the roles played by contingency and by human agency might undertake a comparative examination of the temporal sequence of political events during the period of the post-Soviet transition, paying special attention to the key decisions made by the principal actors.

In this study I use both methods. Section 1 approaches the question from a long-term historical viewpoint, focusing on the impact upon the Volga Tatars and the Chechens of tsarist conquest and then of the Soviet experience taken as a whole. Section 2 outlines the most important political developments that occurred in Tataria and Chechnya between 1985 and 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. Section 3 examines what happened in the crucial half-year from August 1991 to January 1992, the period that saw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Section 4 analyzes developments during the post-Soviet transition up to 1994. In the concluding section, I review the key factors that affected the respective outcomes. 

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Stephen D. Shenfield is currently an independent scholar and translator based in Providence, RI (USA). 

The interviews on which this study was partly based were conducted jointly with P. Terrence Hopmann, Professor of Political Science and director of the Program on Global Security at the Watson Institute. Special thanks are due to Nail Moukhariamov for organizing our visit to Kazan as well as for his intellectual contribution.

** P. Terrence Hopmann, Dominique Arel (then at the Watson Institute, now chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa), and Judith Hin (then at the University of Amsterdam). The project was funded mainly by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Arel investigated the evolution of the conflict situations in Crimea and Transdniestria. Hin focusd mainly on the evolution of the conflict over Ajaria in Georgia.