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The Tatars (Old Turkic tatar; modern Volga Tatar: Татарлар, Tatarlar تاتارلار ), historically Tartars, is an umbrella term for Turkic peoples in the territory of the former Russian Empire (and as such generally includes all Northwestern Turkic speaking peoples).
The Tatars were the Turkic-speaking population of Tartary, the lands ruled by Turco-Mongol elites from the 14th century until the conquests of the Russian Empire in the 18th to 19th centuries. During the early modern period, a distinction was made between the European and Asian Tatar territories, by referring to Lesser Tartary and Greater Tartary, respectively.
The largest group by far that has been called "Tatars" by the Russians are the Volga Tatars, native to the Volga region (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), who for this reason are often also simply known as "Tatars", and their language as the Tatar language. Their number is estimated as close to 6 million (as of 2002). Besides the Volga Tatars, there are smaller groups of Turkic-speaking Muslims also still referred to as "Tatars", the largest group of these being the Crimean Tatars, numbering close to half a million, whose Crimean Tatar language is no longer intelligible to the Volga Tatars.
As various nomadic groups became part of Genghis Khan's army in the early 13th century, a fusion of Mongol and Turkic elements took place, and the invaders of Rus and the Pannonian Basin became known to Europeans as Tatars or Tartars (see Tatar yoke). After the breakup of the Mongol Empire, the Tatars became especially identified with the western part of the empire, known as the Golden Horde.
The Turco-Mongol dominance in Central Asia was absolute during the 14th and 15th centuries. The Crimean-Nogai raids into Russia were especially for the capture of slaves, most of whom were exported to the Ottoman Empire. The raids were an important drain of the human and economic resources of both countries. They largely prevented the settlement of the "Wild Fields" – the steppe and forest-steppe land that extends from a hundred or so miles south of Moscow to the Black Sea. The raids were also important in the development of the Cossacks.
The end of absolute Tatar dominance comes in the late 15th century, heralded by the Great stand on the Ugra river in 1480. The 16th to 18th centuries are characterized by the gradual expansion of Russia and absorption of the Tatar khanates into Russian territory. The Crimean Tatars attacked Russia in 1507, followed by two centuries of Russo-Crimean Wars for the Volga basin. Similarly, the Russo-Kazan Wars lasted for the best part of a century and ended with the Russian conquest of the Kazan khanate.
The last of the Tatar khanates was that of the Kazakhs, independent until 1822. Their last ruler, Kenesary Khan was proclaimed khan of the Kazakhs when the Russian Empire was already fully in control of Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs were prohibited by Russian law from selecting their leader after 1822. Kenesary Khan's popular rise was in defiance of Russian control of Kazakhstan, and his time as khan was spent on continuous fighting with the Russian imperial forces until his death in 1847.
The name "Tatar" was first recorded on the Orkhon inscriptions: Kul Tigin (CE 732) and Bilge Khagan (CE 735) monuments as :: Otuz Tatar Bodun ('Thirty Tatar' tribe) and : Tokuz Tatar ('Nine Tatar') referring to the Tatar confederation.
It became a name for populations of the former Golden Horde in Europe, such as those of the former Kazan, Crimean, Astrakhan, Qasim, and Siberian Khanates. The form Tartar has its origins in either Latin or French, coming to Western European languages from Turkish and Persian tātār "mounted messenger". From the beginning, the extra r was present in the Western forms, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary this was most likely due to an association with Tartarus.
The Persian word is first recorded in the 13th century in reference to the hordes of Genghis Khan and is of unknown origin, according to OED "said to be" ultimately from tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. The Chinese term for Tatars was dada 韃靼, especially after the end of the Yuan period (14th century), but also recorded as a term for Mongolian-speaking peoples of the northern steppes during the Tang period (8th century).
The appellation Tatar was also extended to other, non Turkic peoples, especially the Tungusic peoples of Siberia. The descendants of Tatars in Eastern Europe have partly lost their Turkic languages due to cultural assimilation, but may still retain a "Tatar" identity.
There are three Tatar dialects: Eastern, Central, Western. The Western dialect (Misher) is spoken mostly by Mishärs, the Central dialect is spoken by Kazan and Astrakhan Tatars, and the Eastern (Sibir) dialect is spoken by Siberian Tatars in western Siberia. All three dialects have subdialects. Central Tatar is the base of literary Tatar.
Of these Siberian Tatar dialects are actually independent of Volga–Ural Tatar; these dialects are quite remote both from Standard Tatar and from each other, often preventing mutual comprehension. The claim that this language is part of the modern Tatar language is typically supported by linguists in Kazan and denounced by Siberian Tatars.
Crimean Tatar is the indigenous language of the Crimean Tatar peoples. Because of its common name, Crimean Tatar is sometimes mistaken to be a dialect of Kazan Tatar. Although these languages are related (as both are Turkic), the Kypchak languages closest to Crimean Tatar are (as mentioned above) Kumyk and Karachay-Balkar, not Kazan Tatar.
The majority of the Tatar population are Volga Tatars, native to the Volga region and the Crimean Tatars of Crimea, there are smaller groups of Lipka Tatars and Astrakhan Tatars in Europe and the Siberian Tatars in Asia.
The present territory of Tatarstan was inhabited by the Volga Bulgars who settled on the Volga river in the 7th century AD and converted to Islam in 922 during the missionary work of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. After the Mongol invasion, Volga Bulgaria was annexed by the Golden Horde. Most of the population survived, and there may have been a certain degree of mixing between it and the Kipchaks of the Horde during the ensuing period. The group as a whole accepted the exonym "Tatars" (finally in the end of the 19th century; although the name Bulgars persisted in some places; the majority identified themselves simply as the Muslims) and the language of the Kipchaks; on the other hand, the invaders eventually converted to Islam. As the Horde disintegrated in the 15th century, the area became the territory of the Kazan khanate, which was ultimately conquered by Russia in the 16th century. Otuz Tatar Bodun ('Thirty Tatar' tribe). The name Tatar likely originated amongst the nomadic Tatar confederation in the north-eastern Gobi desert in the 5th century. The name "Tatars" was used an alternative term for the Shiwei, a nomadic confederation to which these Tatar people belonged.
Some Volga Tatars speak different dialects of Tatar language. Therefore, they form distinct groups such as the Mişär group and the Qasim group. Mişär-Tatars (or Mishars) are a group of Tatars speaking a dialect of the Tatar language. They live in Chelyabinsk, Tambov, Penza, Ryazan, Nizhegorodskaya oblasts of Russia and in Bashkortostan and Mordovia. They lived near and along the Volga River, in Tatarstan. The Western Tatars have their capital in the town of Qasím (Kasimov in Russian transcription) in Ryazan Oblast, with a Tatar population of 1100. A minority of Christianized Volga Tatars are known as Keräşens.
The Volga Tatars used the Turkic Old Tatar language for their literature between the 15th and 19th centuries. It was written in the İske imlâ variant of the Arabic script, but actual spelling varied regionally. The older literary language included a large number of Arabic and Persian loanwords. The modern literary language, however, often uses Russian and other European-derived words instead.
Outside of Tatarstan, urban Tatars usually speak Russian as their first language (in cities such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Tashkent, Almaty, and cities of the Ural and western Siberia) and other languages in a worldwide diaspora.
In the 1910s the Volga Tatars numbered about half a million in the Kazan Governorate in Tatarstan, their historical homeland, about 400,000 in each of the governments of Ufa, 100,000 in Samara and Simbirsk, and about 30,000 in Vyatka, Saratov, Tambov, Penza, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm and Orenburg. An additional 15,000 had migrated to Ryazan or were settled as prisoners in the 16th and 17th centuries in Lithuania (Vilnius, Grodno and Podolia). An additional 2000 resided in St. Petersburg. The Kazan Tatars speak the Tatar language, a Turkic language with substantial amount of Russian and Arabic loanwords. Most Kazan Tatars practice Sunni Islam.
Before 1917, polygamy was practised only by the wealthier classes and was a waning institution.
There is an ethnic nationalist movement among Kazan Tatars which stresses descent from the Bulgars and is known as Bulgarism – there have been graffiti on the walls in the streets of Kazan with phrases such as "Bulgaria is alive" (Булгария жива)
A significant number of Volga Tatars emigrated during the Russian Civil War, mostly to Turkey and Harbin, China. According to the Chinese government, there are still 5,100 Tatars living in Xinjiang province.
The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate. The Crimean Khanate was a Turkic-speaking Muslim state which was among the strongest powers in Eastern Europe until the beginning of the 18th century. The nobles and rulers of the Crimean Tatars were the progeny of Hacı I Girai a Jochid descendant of Genghis Khan who was Great Mongol ruler, and thus of Batu Khan of the Mongol Golden Horde. The Crimean Tatars mostly adopted Islam in the 14th century and thereafter Crimea became one of the centers of Islamic civilization. The Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians, and according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) signed after the war, Crimea became independent and Ottomans renounced their political right to protect the Crimean Khanate. After a period of political unrest in Crimea, Russia violated the treaty and annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783.
The number of Crimean Tatars is estimated at 650,000. The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate. The Crimean Khanate was a Turkic-speaking Muslim state which was among the strongest powers in Eastern Europe until the beginning of the 18th century. The rulers of the Crimean Tatars were the progeny of Hacı I Giray a Jochid descendant of Genghis Khan. The Crimean Tatars are subdivided into three sub-ethnic groups: the Tats (not to be confused with Tat people, living in the Caucasus region) who used to inhabit the mountainous Crimea before 1944 (about 55%), the Yalıboyu who lived on the southern coast of the peninsula (about 30%), and the Noğay (about 15%).
Crimean Tatars were present on the territory of today's Romania and Bulgaria since the 13th century. In Romania, according to the 2002 census, 24,000 people declared their ethnicity as Tatar, most of them being Crimean Tatars living in Constanţa County in the region of Dobruja. The Crimean Tatars were colonized there by the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 17th century.
The Lipka Tatars are a group of Turkic-speaking Tatars who originally settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the beginning of the 14th century. The first settlers tried to preserve their shamanistic religion and sought asylum amongst the non-Christian Lithuanians. Towards the end of the 14th century, another wave of Tatars—Muslims, this time—were invited into the Grand Duchy by Vytautas the Great. These Tatars first settled in Lithuania proper around Vilnius, Trakai, Hrodna and Kaunas  and later spread to other parts of the Grand Duchy that later became part of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. These areas comprise present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. From the very beginning of their settlement in Lithuania they were known as the Lipka Tatars.
From the 13th to 17th centuries various groups of Tatars settled and/or found refuge within the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. This was promoted especially by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, because of their reputation as skilled warriors. The Tatar settlers were all granted szlachta (nobility) status, a tradition that was preserved until the end of the Commonwealth in the 18th century. They included the Lipka Tatars (13th–14th centuries) as well as Crimean and Nogay Tatars (15th–16th centuries), all of which were notable in Polish military history, as well as Volga Tatars (16th–17th centuries). They all mostly settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, lands that are now in Lithuania and Belarus.
Various estimates of the number of Tatars in the Commonwealth in the 17th century are about 15,000 persons and 60 villages with mosques. Numerous royal privileges, as well as internal autonomy granted by the monarchs allowed the Tatars to preserve their religion, traditions and culture over the centuries. The Tatars were allowed to intermarry with Christians, a thing uncommon in Europe at the time. The May Constitution of 1791 gave the Tatars representation in the Polish Sejm.
Although by the 18th century the Tatars adopted the local language, the Islamic religion and many Tatar traditions (e.g. the sacrifice of bulls in their mosques during the main religious festivals) were preserved. This led to formation of a distinctive Muslim culture, in which the elements of Muslim orthodoxy mixed with religious tolerance formed a relatively liberal society. For instance, the women in Lipka Tatar society traditionally had the same rights and status as men, and could attend non-segregated schools.
About 5,500 Tatars lived within the inter-war boundaries of Poland (1920–1939), and a Tatar cavalry unit had fought for the country's independence. The Tatars had preserved their cultural identity and sustained a number of Tatar organisations, including a Tatar archives, and a museum in (Vilnius).
The Tatars suffered serious losses during World War II and furthermore, after the border change in 1945 a large part of them found themselves in the Soviet Union. It is estimated that about 3000 Tatars live in present-day Poland, of which about 500 declared Tatar (rather than Polish) nationality in the 2002 census. There are two Tatar villages (Bohoniki and Kruszyniany) in the north-east of present-day Poland, as well as urban Tatar communities in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Białystok, and Gorzów Wielkopolski. Tatars in Poland sometimes have a Muslim surname with a Polish ending: Ryzwanowicz; another surname sometimes adopted by more assimilated Tatars is Tataranowicz or Taterczyński, literally "son of a Tatar".
The Tatars were relatively very noticeable in the Commonwealth military as well as in Polish and Lithuanian political and intellectual life for such a small community. In modern-day Poland, their presence is also widely known, due in part to their noticeable role in the historical novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz, which are universally recognized in Poland. A number of Polish intellectual figures have also been Tatars, e.g. the prominent historian Jerzy Łojek.
A small community of Polish speaking Tatars settled in Brooklyn, New York City in the early 1900s. They established a mosque that is still in use today.
The Astrakhan Tatars (around 80,000) are a group of Tatars, descendants of the Astrakhan Khanate's nomadic population, who live mostly in Astrakhan Oblast. For the Russian census in 2010, most Astrakhan Tatars declared themselves simply as Tatars and few declared themselves as Astrakhan Tatars. A large number of Volga Tatars live in Astrakhan Oblast and differences between them have been disappearing.
The Siberian Tatars occupy three distinct regions—a strip running west to east from Tobolsk to Tomsk—the Altay and its spurs—and South Yeniseisk. They originated in the agglomerations of various Uralo-Altaic stems that, in the region north of the Altay, reached some degree of culture between the 4th and 5th centuries, but were subdued and enslaved by the Mongols.
The Baraba Tatars are a sub-group of Siberian Tatars. The Baraba Tatars take their name from one of their stems (Barama). They numbered at least 9,000 in 1990.
Cover page of Tatar Yana imla book, printed with Separated Tatar language in Arabic script in 1924.