Staunton, November 30 – The ethnonym “Tatar” has a long a complicated history, one that reflects both the understanding and confusions of investigators and officials and that highlights both real links and imaginary ones, according to Pavel Gusterin, a specialist on Central Asia and the Middle East at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research.
In a note for the Centrasia.ru portal, Gusterin says that the term first appears in Chinese sources as a designator for nomadic groups to the southeast of Lake Baikal. The name “Tatar” derives from the Chinese “ta-ta” which some link to what horseman say to their horses to get them going.
Other scholars, although Gusterin does not mention this, have suggested that this doubling of a syllable is a way of indicating that the people so designated do not speak the language their neighbors know as in the case of the Greek “bar-bar” which becomes “barbarian” and the Turkish “ga-ga” which survives in the ethnonym “Gagauz.”
Gusterin, however, does cite one nineteenth century French orientalist who explained why the Tatars are sometimes called “Tartars.” According to Jean-Pierre Abel-Remusat, some Chinese dialects have a sound close to “r” and thus when they said “ta-ta,” it came out sounding like “tar-tar.” That name is also found in Arabic and Persian sources.
However that may be, the Chinese initially used the term “ta-ta” to designate peoples who would later be identified as Mongols and Tunguses but then began to restrict its application to nomads who attacked China. The Mongols continued to be called Tatars because the mother of Chingiz Khan was from a Tatar tribe.
In the middle of the 13th century, Europeans began to use the term Tatar to designate the Mongol conquerors of Eurasia and the residents of the new kingdoms and khanates formed in the Volga region, the Caucasus, in Crimea, in Siberia and elsewhere. Over time, Europeans came to distinguish between the Mongols and the Tatars, retaining the latter term for the latter groups.
But because the number of Mongol conquerors was so small, they were rapidly swallowed up by Turkic groups and became in many cases Turkic speakers. Thus, “the name ‘Tatars’ was retained despite the disintegration of the Mongol states.”
Gusterin says there is a parallel between what happened in this case with what happened among the Slavs. In the former, the chain of identities was “Mongols-Tatars-Volga Turks;” in the latter, “Varyags, Rus, and Eastern Slavs” – “with only this difference: the Rus did not conquer the eastern Slavs.”
In the khanates the Golden Horde established, the Russian researcher says, only the elites were called Tatars. But as the khanates disintegrated or were conquered, the term was transferred to the population as a whole, and that process led Russian researchers and officials to call all their populations “Tatars.”
Thus, from the 15th to the 19th centuries, Russian sources used the term “Tatar” to designate “the Azerbaijanis, the peoples of the North Caucasus, the Crimea, the Volga, Central Asia and Siberia, including the Astrakhan, Kazan, Crimean and Siberian Tatars.” But they stopped using it for the Mongols, Tibetans, Tunguses, and Manchurian nationalities.
By the early 20th century, Gusterin says, “the majority of Tatars [as Russians used the term] called themselves Tatars,” as was shown by the results of the first Soviet census in 1926. The following year, the Soviets published a list of them, which included the Crimean Tatars, the Volga tatars, the Kasimov Tatars, and the Tobolsk Tatars.
They were officially recognized by the Soviet state as “separate peoples.” In addition, there were listed the Belarusian Tatars, whose ancestors had been brought form Crimea to Poland but who had adopted the Belarusian language while remaining Muslims. And Moscow promoted the distinctiveness of these various identities in contrast to other Turkic groups with historical names like the Balkars, the Bashkirs, the Karachays, the Kumyks and the Nogays.