RUSSIA: Kryashen Break the Mould.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 2 July 2002

The following article by Keston News Service's Moscow correspondent was first published in Russian on 1 July 2002 on the religious affairs website of Russian Journal (

There are estimated to be around 300,000 Kryashen in Tatarstan, making up eight per cent of the population. Although this would appear to make them an insignificant minority, their distinction from the Tatar nation by dint of their affiliation to Orthodoxy ("Kryashen" is a corruption of the Russian word for "baptised") is now unexpectedly making them an important element in Moscow's policy to rein in the Russian regions.

The origins of the Kryashen are disputed. According to Fr Pavel Pavlov of the Kryashen parish in Kazan, they were Christian long before Ivan the Terrible's subjugation of the Tatar Kazan khanate in 1552. "We are a separate ethnicity," he insists, "an Orthodox people, with our own Kryashen language."

The Kryashen appear to be alone in this view, however. Archbishop of Kazan and Tatarstan Anastasi (Metkin) describes the Kryashen as "Orthodox but Tatar by blood". The Protestant chairman of the committee which recently co-ordinated the translation of the New Testament into Tatar, Igor Gyimayev, maintains that the Kryashen language - in which "God" is "Alla" - differs little from Tatar. So little, in fact, that Gyimayev's committee has recently been able to publish a Tatar edition of the Book of Psalms simply by taking a 1914 Kryashen text and giving it modern Tatar orthography.

Secular and Muslim Tatars are even more insistent that there is no difference. According to the Tatar head of the republic's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, most Kryashen - whom he defines as "Orthodox Tatars" - are the descendents of Tatars forcibly baptised under Ivan the Terrible. Ildus Faiz of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan recalls how the Russian Orthodox Church opened a special Kryashen department in the 1730s: "Armed monks - preaching divinity! - forcibly baptised Tatars and killed any refuseniks." Later, he maintained, Tatars who accepted baptism were granted exemption from taxes and military service, "so you could say they sold out, giving up their religion and traditions to serve the Russians".

In the light of this year's Russian nationwide census, the issue of Kryashen identity is suddenly becoming of political, and not merely historical, concern. In an article "On the Tatar-Kryashen" in local Tatarstan newspaper Zvezda Povolzhya on 17 January, Zaki Zainullin accused the "chauvinistic, Russian-nationalist Moscow leadership" of trying to divide the Tatar people by encouraging the Kryashen to declare themselves a separate nationality. "We will not be divided! During the census we, the Tatars, must declare: 'We are Tatars!'" A Kazan specialist in Islamic studies, Rafik Mukhametshin explains that the existence of the Kryashen is politically advantageous to Moscow. Since Tatars are the second largest nationality in the Russian Federation, he says, their interests may be ignored only by splintering them. "In Tatarstan 52 per cent are Tatar. But if you take away the Kryashen then they become a minority in their own republic, which becomes a mere province (guberniya)."

The Kryashen plan to state that they are separate in the census, however. "We value our identity," Fr Pavlov explains. "We treasure Orthodoxy - the faith of the motherland." Tatar scholars may not want to view the Kryashen as a separate people, he insists, "but the census will show how many of us there are".

This situation has an unexpected implication for state-confessional relations. On the federal level, the so-called "traditional" confessions regularly emphasise their correspondence with a particular ethnicity: Orthodoxy with Russians, Islam with Tatars or Chechens, Buddhism with Buryats and Kalmyks. While giving minority religions a certain space, the fusion of Russia with majority Orthodoxy emphasises the homogeneity of the nation and can underpin imperialist, centralised policy. In Tatarstan, however, the regional authorities are adhering to the federal model since, in this case, it works against the interests of the Russian state. Near the huge Kul Sharif mosque, which is being built in Kazan's historic Kremlin by order of a 1995 Tatar presidential decree, a billboard declares the construction to be "the centuries-old dream of the entire Tatar people". Since everyone except the Kryashen themselves believes that the Kryashen are Tatar, according to this model of national-confessional identity they would be expected to be Muslim - and so cease to exist, making the Tatar nation larger and more deserving of its semi-autonomous status.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, a Russian Orthodox missionary, Nikolai Ilminsky, translated numerous Christian texts into the Kryashen language, for which he created an alphabet. Fr Pavlov maintains that the main reason for Ilminsky's efforts was that "in his time there was a great risk of the Kryashen being Tatarised, becoming Muslim". He would not comment on whether the same risk existed today.

Ildus Faiz, however, claims that many Kryashen "have come back to Islam," and that there are some attempts by Tatar Muslims to encourage them to do so: "Muslims preach among them - not like U.S. preachers - but they have the same radio and newspapers. We also invite them to come to lessons on Islam." Fr Pavlov stresses that the Kryashen find the very idea that they should return to Islam offensive: "Over the past five years there have been a lot of calls in the [Tatar] press for us to return to the bosom of Islam, that we would be forgiven. It works drop by drop - neighbours start to say, 'Why do you go to church? Come with me to the mosque.' But if we're Orthodox, what should we apologise for?"

Faced with the federal model of national-confessional identity being used against them in Tatarstan, the Orthodox are presented with unusual opportunities - to insist on freedom to belong to a confession regardless of nationality, to encourage liturgical worship using indigenous languages, and to extol mission. In his sermon at the Sunday liturgy in Kazan's Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on 26 May - the day when Avraami the Bulgar, the most revered Kryashen saint, is remembered - the priest described how Avraami was "sent by the Lord to preach among the Tatars, the Muslims said it wasn't right, that he should be Muslim, but he said, 'No, I want to be a Christian,' so they tortured and executed him." At the Kryashen parish, whose church building of St Tikhvin is surrounded by mosques in the historically Tatar area of Kazan, services are held entirely in Kryashen, and there is a stock of recently published literature in Kryashen drawn from Ilminsky's work, including the New Testament, Psalms and an Orthodox prayer book.

Also in central Kazan, the parish of St Paraskeva holds services partly in the Chuvash language, and its book stall has Chuvash translations of St Luke's Gospel on sale. When asked whether the parish was therefore Chuvash, an elderly woman behind the bookstall replied: "Russians, Chuvash, Tatars, Jews come here - we don't distinguish, they're all Orthodox." Archbishop Anastasi agrees. "It doesn't matter if someone is Chuvash, Tatar, Russian," he maintains. "As St Paul wrote, 'Here there is no Greek or Jew.'" According to the archbishop, "There may be diehards in Moscow who put their salvation in Russia, but we don't have Cossacks and nationalists here. Whenever we hear that stuff it seems very strange to us because we live in a truly multi-national republic." (END)