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«THE TATAR GAZETTE»

No 3-4, 18.04.2000


THE IMAGES OF TATARS IN RUSSIAN CLASSICAL LITERATURE

By Sabirzyan BADRETDIN

One of my American friends once told me that I was the only Tatar he had ever known. He was wondering whether I was a typical representative of my ethnic group. He hoped to find the answer to this question during his trip to Russia. When he arrived in Moscow, he tried to seek out Tatars but didn’t know where to find them. Before returning to New York, he asked his Russian hostess, an elderly Russian woman, what she thought of Tatars. The woman told him that Tatars are supposed to be very honest and sincere, but also a bit naive and simple. My friend was curious: what made the hostess think so? It turned out that this woman had never met a Tatar in her life and her opinion about Tatars was based entirely on Gorky’s novel "At the Bottom," a book that was compulsory reading in Soviet high schools. As a Moscow resident, she, most likely, had met many Tatars but was not aware of their ethnicity.

This little episode illustrates the role of literature in shaping perceptions of different ethnic groups. It shows how powerful literary images can be in forming ethnic stereotypes. This example gave me an idea to take a look at the images of Tatars in Russian classical literature. Gorky’s novel "At the Bottom," mentioned earlier, has a remarkable Tatar character nicknamed Knyaz. He is one of several people staying in a homeless shelter. The residents of the shelter spend their long boring evenings playing cards for money. One of Knyaz’s Russian roommates cheats him out of money. Knyaz becomes outraged and complains bitterly. He is not used to dishonesty. The Tatar cannot comprehend that for his poor roommate, cheating is his only means of subsistence. Knyaz is too naive to realize that without cheating the Russian crook would simply starve to death.

Besides Gorky, writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Gogol and others depicted Tatar characters in their works. For example, Tatar coachmen and servants appear in many stories by Dostoyevsky, but, as a general rule, only as minor characters. Gogol’s "Taras Bulba" (1834) includes some vivid images of Crimean Tatars. Lermontov’s "Hero of Our Time" (1840), Tolstoy’s "The Cossacks," (1862), "Prisoner of the Caucasus" and "Anna Karenina" (1877) also have noteworthy Tatar characters. Here is an excerpt from "The Cossacks," in which a Russian character named Vanyusha talks about different nationalities:

"They are worse than Tatars, I do declare - though they consider themselves Christians! A Tatar is bad enough, but all the same he is more noble."

In "Anna Karenina" Tatar characters appear exclusively as waiters, coachman and servants, as in the following three excerpts:

"Give us another bottle," Stepan Arkadyevich directed the Tatar, who was filling up their glasses and fidgeting around them just when he was least wanted. (part 1, chapter 11)

"This way, Your Excellency, please. Your Excellency won’t be disturbed here," said a particularly pertinacious, white-headed old Tatar with immense hips and coattails gaping widely behind. "Walk in, Your Excellency," he said to Levin.... (part 1, chapter 10)

The fat old Tatar, Madame Karenina’s coachman, in glistening leather coat, was with difficulty bridling the left of her pair of greys... (part 2, chapter 7)

It should be noted that in many of these stories the word "Tatar" is used as a generic term to describe all the Turkic-speaking ethnic groups in the Caucasus, some of whom are not necessarily related to modern Tatars. Nevertheless, the characters described as Tatars contribute to ethnic stereotyping and can affect readers’ attitudes to modern Volga Tatars and Crimean Tatars. Perhaps the most memorable Tatar character in the whole of Russian literature is to be found in Tolstoy’s story "After the Ball" (1903). Tolstoy depicts a Tatar soldier being punished for desertion. Here is an excerpt:

Black-uniformed soldiers were standing perfectly still in two rows, their rifles at rest. Behind them stood a drummer and a fifer who kept playing the same shrill, unpleasant melody over and over again. "What are they doing?" I asked the blacksmith, who had stopped beside me. "Giving a Tatar a hiding for desertion," said the blacksmith gruffly, his eyes trained on the far end of the rows of men. I followed his gaze, and between the rows saw something terrifying coming towards me. It was a man stripped to his waist and tied to the rifles of the two soldiers who were escorting him. .... His whole body twitching, his feet slapping on the melting snow, the man who was being punished was moving towards me under a hail of blows that descended on him from all sides. .... Each time he was struck, the man who was being punished turned his face, which was contorted with suffering, in the direction from which the blow had come, as if in surprise, and, baring his teeth, kept repeating the same words. It was only when he was quite close to me that I was able to make out what they were. In a voice that was more of a sob, he was mouthing: "Have mercy on me, brothers. Have mercy on me, brothers." But "the brothers" were not having any mercy on him. (end of the excerpt).

The reason why Tatar characters in Russian literature include so many coachmen, servants, soldiers and horse-riding savage nobles may, I suspect, have much to do with history. Despite the great number of Russified and Christianized Tatars among the Russian nobility, Russian and Tatar cultural elites lived mostly separate lives and very rarely interacted. Even such a genius as Gabdulah Tukai did not have many friends amongst the Russian intelligentsia. The only Tatars that educated Russians came in contact with were lower class people: servants, waiters, baggage handlers, janitors, etc. Hence the ubiquitous image of the Tatar servant in Russian literature. Religious differences served as a major obstacle that impeded interaction between Russian and Tatar cultural elites. In contrast, there was much interaction and a tradition of personal contacts between Russian and Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian, and Russian and Armenian cultural figures.

Unlike Russian prose, Russian poetry contains relatively few references to Tatars. Some of the few notable exceptions are to be found in the works of the two most famous female poets, Anna Akhmatova and Bella Akhmadulina (both of whom have Tatar ancestry). Akhmatova, contemplating her genealogy, wrote:

    Ot prababushki-tatarki
    Byli redki mne podarki
    Ah, zachem Ya kreschena
    Gorko gnevalas’ ona

    From my Tatar great grandmother
    I received few gifts, like others.
    "I should not have been baptized"
    She said bitterly sometimes.

What about modern Western literature? Are Western writers any more objective in their depictions of Tatars? Perhaps under the influence of Russian literature, Western writers’ depictions of Tatars are also mostly negative. But here too, there are some notable exceptions. For example, the Polish writer, Nobel Prize winner in literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) warmly describes his friendship with a Polonized Tatar, Selim Mirza, in "The Little Trilogy." (1875). Nevertheless, most Western writers still adhere to a more or less stereotypical image of the Tatar. The popular gay American writer Larry Townsend devoted a whole book to Russian-Tatar relations. His recent novel "Czar!" (1998) describes Russia’s subjugation of the Kazan Khanate from the Russian point of view. Edward Rutherford’s novel "Russka" (1991) has a whole chapter devoted to Tatars. Here too, Tatars are described as inferior to Russians.

With a few exceptions, the depictions of Tatars in Russian literature are mostly unflattering and are rarely accurate. Since Russian literature has a universal appeal, the ethnic stereotypes that permeate it influence many millions of people throughout the world. That is why we should be aware of these stereotypes, so that the next time we hear Tatars being described as horse-riding savages or as simpletons, we know from where it derives. But more importantly, when we are confronted with anti-Tatar prejudice, we should attempt to engage the person (or persons) who are biased against Tatars in a discussion and try to explain to them that their tatarophobic attitudes are based on one nation stereotyping another.


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