The physical appearance of the Tatar varies from blue-eyed blondes to more Mongoloid features. In general, they have oval faces with little facial hair. They speak a unique language called Kazan Tatar, although many now claim Russian as their mother tongue. They are a settled people, mostly peasants and merchants, who have completely lost their traditional tribal structure.
The Tatar have had a strongly urbanized civilization since the tenth century. It has survived both the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century and the Russian conquest of the sixteenth century. In the 1800's, Tatar cities ranked among the greatest cultural centers of the Islamic world.
The Tatar often seek work outside their native region, following a trend of mobility established before 1917. Some work in manufacturing industries and petroleum refineries. Many work in farms where they raise grains, hemp, legumes, and other fodder crops.
In urban areas, the Tatar live no differently than modern Azeris. However, those living in rural areas still hold to their pre-Revolutionary traditions. For example, up to three generations may live under one roof. Today, there are no villages with a strictly Tatar population.
Among the Tatar, the father is the legal head of the household. He is also in charge of the family income and how it is spent. The women usually cook, carry water, wash clothes, and tend to the livestock while the men do more strenuous labor.
Although the Tatar are primarily Islamic, many still observe sabantuy, or "rites of spring." This is an ancient agricultural festival that is celebrated simultaneously with the anniversary of the founding of the Russian Tatar Republic on June 25. These celebrations have their origins in shamanism (the belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits).
The younger generation of Tatar wear contemporary city-style clothes. However, the older collective farm members wear traditional dress. Many Tatar will identify themselves as Muslims before they will identify themselves as Tatar. Unlike devout Muslims, however, 25% of the Tatar will eat pork. Soviet researchers have also reported that very few Tatar observe the prescribed Islamic fasts.
Most of the Tatar are Hanafite Muslim. While Muslims believe that there is only one god, many Tatar still honor saints and holy places. Some beliefs in supernatural powers such as the "evil eye" (the ability to curse someone with a glance) still exist from their pre-Islamic days.
The Tatar's Volga area has been an Islamic stronghold since the ninth century. Nevertheless, the Tatar's beliefs remain more liberal and intellectual than the beliefs held by the more orthodox Muslims of Central Asia or the Caucasus. For instance, in many of their mosques, prayer times have been arranged so as not to conflict with work schedules. Women have also been encouraged to join the men at the mosques, instead of praying at home, as is the usual custom.
The Tatar's view of Christianity has been scarred by the Russian Orthodox Church's attempts to convert them through coercion. During the 1600's and 1800's, their mosques were frequently burned. The few who were "converted" by these measures returned to their Islamic faith when oppression ended.