Three major Tatar groups reside in the Soviet Union: Volga Tatars (the overwhelming majority of all Tatars in the Soviet Union), Crimean Tatars, and Siberian Tatars. Most are descended from the Turkic-speaking Bulgars who came into the Volga-Ural region in the seventh century and the Kipchak tribes who invaded the area as part of the Mongol Empire. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, they were part of the Golden Horde. In the fifteenth century, the Golden Horde broke up into the Kazan', Astrakhan', Crimean, and Siberian hordes. The Volga Tatars, the descendants of the Kazan' and Astrakhan' hordes, were conquered by Russia in the sixteenth century. The Siberian Tatars were incorporated into the Russian Empire later that century, and the Crimean Tatars were incorporated at the end of the eighteenth century.
After their conquest by Russia, the Volga Tatars were subjected to harsh political, economic, and religious policies. Only the Tatar nobles who had intermarried with Russians and, in many instances, gained positions of power and influence in the Russian state, escaped persecution. Thousands of Tatars were deported north to work in Russian shipyards. Russians confiscated Tatar property, destroyed their mosques and religious shrines, and pressured them to convert to Christianity. After a series of Tatar revolts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tsarist government began to change its policies. In 1788 Islam was given official status in Russia, and in 1792 Tatars were granted the right to trade with the Turkic populations of Turkestan, Iran, and China.
Repressive measures by the Russian government against Crimean Tatars and Slavic immigration into Crimea forced many Tatars to emigrate. Others were forcibly deported. During a century of Russian rule, the Tatar population in Crimea declined from about 500,000 at the end of the eighteenth century to fewer than 200,000 by the end of the nineteenth century.
Siberian Tatars--mainly hunters, trappers, and horse breeders scattered over a large territory--presented no threat to the Russian state and for a time continued to live unmolested. In the nineteenth century, many Siberian Tatars moved to the cities, seeking employment in the newly built sawmills and tanneries.
Despite renewed harassment in the second half of the nineteenth century, Tatars formed the intellectual and political elite of the Muslim population in Russia. Tatars were active in the Revolution of 1905 in Russia. They participated in the First Duma of 1906 and the Second Dumas of 1907, and they were the leading proponents of the pan-Turkic movement that emphasized racial, religious and linguistic unity of all Turkic-speaking peoples.
After the February Revolution in 1917, the Volga Tatars tried to established an independent federation of Volga-Ural states. This dream proved impossible in the face of both Bolshevik and White Russian opposition. Instead, with the help of the Red Army, the Tatar Autonomous Republic was created in May 1920 as part of the Russian Republic.
The Crimean Tatars' attempts to create an independent state in 1917 were also thwarted by the Bolsheviks, and in October 1921 the Soviet leaders created the Crimean Autonomous Republic. Later, however, the Crimean Tatars were exiled from Crimea during World War II and scattered throughout Soviet Central Asia.
In the 1989 census, the Tatars, with over 6.6 million people, were the sixth largest nationality in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they did not have their own union republic. Over 1.7 million Tatars lived in the Tatar Autonomous Republic, one of sixteen autonomous republics in the Russian Republic, where they had a plurality of almost 48 percent of the population. About 1 million others lived in the Bashkir Autonomous Republic, also located in the Russian Republic, where they ranked second in population after the Russians and just ahead of the Bashkirs, a closely related Turkic nationality. Another 2.6 million Tatars lived scattered throughout the rest of the Russian Republic. Of these, about 500,000 were Siberian Tatars living in western Siberian towns and villages. Over 1 million Tatars--a majority of whom were probably exiled Crimean Tatars--were also found in Soviet Central Asia--mostly in the Uzbek and Kazakh republics.
Each of the three Tatar groups speaks a distinct language, although all belong to the West Turkic-Kipchak group of languages. The language of the Crimean Tatars also contains a large number of Arabic and Persian loanwords. The Siberian Tatars have no written language of their own and use the literary language of the Volga Tatars.
In 1989 over 83 percent of all Tatars and 96.6 percent of those residing in the Tatar Autonomous Republic regarded Tatar as their native language. A high percentage of Tatars were also fluent in Russian. The educational level of Tatars in the Soviet Union varied. Tatars living in their own autonomous republic or elsewhere in the Russian Republic were not as well educated as the highly urbanized Crimean Tatars who lived in the Soviet Central Asian republics.
Tatar representation in the CPSU both in the Soviet Union and in the Tatar Autonomous Republic has been consistently low. In the 1980s, they were particularly underrepresented in the Central Committee of the CPSU.