Photographer Shamil Khairov is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography.  From the series ‘My Tatars in Mordovia’.  To see Shamil’s body of work, click on any image.




There are about 7,000,000 Tatars in the world. Genetically, the three main groups that form the Tatar nation – the Volga Tatars, Siberian Tatars and Crimean Tatars – do not share a common ancestor and were formed independently.  

The Mishar Tatars are the second largest subgroup of the Volga Tatars (after the Kazan Tatars), and they populate the western side of the Volga.   

My family originates from Mishar Tatars in Mordovia, one of the national republics within Russia, where Moksha and Erzya Mordvins and ethnic Russians account for the majority of the population. There are about 55,000 Tatars living in Mordovia and they make up about 8% of the republic’s population. For centuries Tatars coexisted on these lands with these three ethnic groups, but until the 1980s inter-ethnic marriages were very rare.   




The village where my parents and all four grandparents come from is situated only 15 kilometers from the republic’s Russian-speaking capital, Saransk. Since mass collectivization, starting in the 1930s the core enterprise in the village was collective farming (kolkhoz), but the wages were very low. Particularly after WWII, the younger generation sought jobs in Saransk or migrated to Moscow or other big cities, as was the case with my parents and other numerous relatives. This resulted in a semi-traditional pattern of life: the new city dwellers did not feel comfortable in the urban environment, partly due to their poor command of Russian, and they used every opportunity to go back to their native village on weekends or holidays.



I grew up in the city but throughout the 1970s I spent every summer in the village in our grandparents’ house along with my cousins, who also resided in Saransk and Moscow. Up until the 1980s, the only language spoken in the village was Tatar. However, due to mass migration from the countryside to big cities during the Soviet period, the children of working migrants grew up in Russian-speaking environments and became bilingual or even lost their Tatar language (and identity). Many of them are married to non-Tatars and their children are only exposed to the Tatar language when they visit the village, which has resulted in the expansion of the Russian language and urban culture there. Tatar is no longer a language of instruction in the village secondary school. However, a new mosque was built in the 1990s on private donations, particularly from wealthy Tatars living in Moscow.




During the 21st century, the village has started to expand, as many people have built second homes, restored the abandoned houses of their grandparents, or bought land for a dacha. The village is now squeezed between two motorways, and it takes only 20 minutes to commute to Saransk, so now many Tatars lead a semi-urban life.  

Tatars are Sunni Muslims. They celebrate the main Muslim holidays, respect the elderly, and have gatherings with meals and prayers for the dead. But they also do not mind having parties with alcohol, dancing and singing Tatar, Russian and Soviet songs. 




This series resulted from my trips to Saransk and our native village in 2010 and 2018 where I met relatives living there permanently as well as those there on their summer holidays from Saransk, Moscow and St. Petersburg.


All images and text © Shamil Khairov



 See also:

The Blue Village: On the far side of Lake Onega

By Shamil Khairov




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