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Constructing GrievanceEthnic Nationalism in Russia's Republics$

Elise Giuliano

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801447457

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801447457.001.0001

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Nationalism in a Socialist Company Town

Nationalism in a Socialist Company Town

Tatars, Russians, and the Kamskii Automobile Works in Naberezhnye Chelny

(p.126) 5 Nationalism in a Socialist Company Town
Constructing Grievance

Giuliano Elise

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the level of nationalist mobilization in a Tatarstan city, Naberezhnye Chelny. The majority of the residents of Naberezhnye Chelny were employed by a single state enterprise: the Kamskii Automobile Works (KamAZ). In the city's labor market, many Tatars were disadvantaged compared with Russians, but they also experienced significant social mobility due to Soviet development and ethnic affirmative action policies. Tatar nationalists downplayed this social mobility and chose to emphasize blocked opportunity and ethnic economic inequality at KamAZ. This chapter first provides an overview of the ethnicity of the KamAZ workforce before discussing how the people of Naberezhnye Chelny came to support nationalism in their city.

Keywords:   nationalist mobilization, Tatarstan, Naberezhnye Chelny, Kamskii Automobile Works, Tatars, Russians, social mobility, ethnic economic inequality, ethnicity, nationalism

The Kama River Truck Plant [KamAZ] is the Soviet crash project par excellence, the showpiece of the 1971–1975 Five-Year Plan. I’ve seen other Soviet installations, … [b]ut none … matches the Kama River Truck Plant as an archetype of the gigantomania of Soviet planners, as a symbol of Soviet faith that bigger means better and the Soviet determination to have the biggest at any cost. … It embodies industrial might created from a vacuum and materialized in a furious five-year flurry of storming. It emanates brute strength.

Hedrick Smith, The Russians

In 1969, Naberezhnye Chelny, named Brezhnev at that time, was a small rural town located in northeast Tatarstan with a population of thirty-eight thousand and no infrastructural links to the rest of the country. Soviet central planners, in a less than rational moment, decided this was the ideal spot to construct the USSR’s newest and largest truck and automobile production complex. So construction began on the all-union enterprise, Kamskii Automobile Works, or KamAZ. Technical training schools appeared, and enormous housing complexes were thrown up, each with its own stores, schools, and child-care centers. Young workers poured into the city, persuaded by the rhetoric of building the socialist future and attracted by the promise of large new apartments. In less than a decade, a small town had been transformed into the second-largest city in Tatarstan, as well as one of the Soviet Union’s major industrial sites. By 1990, the population had reached more than half a million people.1

The enthusiasm of the era is recorded in the City History Museum, where an exhibit dedicated to the construction of KamAZ shows smiling brigade workers busily constructing factory buildings and living in dormitories. The atmosphere portrayed at the museum of one very long and festive barnraising was (p.127) not simply propaganda. Passing comments made by sixty-year-olds reminiscing about the faith they had had in the future while working at KamAZ in the early 1970s suggest how well the Soviet central planners’ campaigns succeeded in channeling willing labor to new production sites in somewhat obscure parts of the country.2

During the Soviet era, Naberezhnye Chelny was the quintessential company town. KamAZ owned and managed not merely the factory, but city schools, residential buildings, services, public transport, clinics, and entertainment complexes. The enterprise employed approximately 80 percent of the city’s population. When macroeconomic contraction set in and demand for KamAZ cars and trucks began to shrink, KamAZ cut production, and people began to fear for the continued supply of positions and promotions. Because KamAZ was a monopoly employer in the city, residents faced a lack of viable alternative employers and job opportunities. Although moving out of the city was possible, the challenge citizens faced in obtaining residence permits and securing apartments and services in other cities made moving an undesirable option. Residents of Chelny therefore experienced increasing apprehension about jobs, promotions, education, and training, and anxiety about the prospects for their children. As economists Vladimir Gimpelson and Douglas Lippoldt state, the many Soviet citizens living in company towns or “enterprise-linked residential areas” were accustomed to a life in which loyalty to the enterprise was rewarded, and benefits and social activities depended on the workplace. Such households “found it extremely difficult to accept any disruption to these ties.”3 Given the precarious position of residents of Chelny, we might expect them to have conservatively clung to the status quo and to have supported the system of central planning in which their jobs, apartments, and services would remain secure. Instead, during the period of national revival, Naberezhnye Chelny had the highest levels of mass nationalism in Tatarstan. It was labeled the headquarters of the nationalist movement by locals, and a sizable portion of the Tatars living there supported the nationalist movement. Why?

The case of Naberezhnye Chelny clearly illustrates the argument of this book concerning the disconnect between economic conditions and people’s perceptions of those conditions. In the labor market in Naberezhnye Chelny—where the main employer was KamAZ—many Tatars were disadvantaged by comparison with Russians. They held a majority of blue-collar assembly-line jobs, while Russians dominated white-collar management. However, at the same time, Tatars in Naberezhnye Chelny experienced significant social mobility as a result (p.128) of Soviet development and ethnic affirmative action policies. The Soviet state encouraged Tatars to move to the city to work at KamAZ and established preference policies for Tatars at the factory as well as in the city’s feeder educational institutes. Therefore, many Tatars who migrated to the city for work rapidly moved up the professional ladder. In this sense, Tatars were more privileged in the city’s labor market than Russians. Thus, there were two economic realities for Tatars. The nationalists, however, chose to focus on only one: Tatar underrepresentation and blocked opportunity. The nationalist movement communicated the message of ethnic economic inequality, and a substantial portion of the Tatar population in the city responded. Despite friendly relations with ethnic Russians in the workplace for the most part, many Tatars started to support the program of the Tatar Public Center and its call for republican state sovereignty. Apprehension about future job security and employment prospects was arguably more severe in Naberezhnye Chelny than in Kazan. At the same time, nationalist leaders in Chelny strongly emphasized the point about ethnic economic inequality at KamAZ. These two variables interacted to produce a rise in mass support for Tatar nationalism.

There was, however, an alternative explanation for the high level of nationalist mobilization in the city. Many Tatars living in Naberezhnye Chelny migrated to the city from the republic’s rural countryside during the 1970s and 1980s to work at KamAZ. Two-thirds of the city’s Tatars were relatively recent arrivals, or in local parlance, “first-generation” residents, who spoke Tatar as their native language.4 In comparison with Kazan, a city in which most Tatars had lived for several generations and spoke Russian fluently, Naberezhnye Chelny was far less Russified.

Thus, several informants in Tatarstan offered another explanation for the city’s support of nationalism: the strong ethnic consciousness of the Tatars living there and their proximity to traditional ethnic culture. For example, Ramai Zagidyulovich Yuldashev, a young leader of Azatlyk, explained that Chelny’s Tatars supported nationalism because they were former agricultural workers (i.e., workers on collective farms) who hadn’t forgotten their culture.5 Another nationalist leader, Talgat Amadishin of the Naberezhnye Chelny branch of Azatlyk, echoed (p.129) this view: “People from the countryside supported us because people there kept their national traditions.”6 A government official and former academic in the Department of Interethnic Relations thought along the same lines. According to Raman Yurevich Belyakov, Tatars in Chelny supported the nationalists because of their common cultural identity. They were essentially rural dwellers and as such possessed “a different mentality” and culture than the urban Tatars. He told me, “The rural population knows their own language and supported the nationalists, of course, because if it weren’t for them, the Tatar national culture would have died out long ago.”7 Yuldashev, Amadishin, and Belyakov all believed that people’s ethnic identities and culture directly determined their political choices. Rural inhabitants and, by extension, rural migrants to the city, they argued, naturally supported a nationalist program because they embodied and reproduced authentic Tatar culture. This is standard party line for nationalists everywhere, and it is also a common assumption of Western analysts. Results from a research survey conducted by Leokadia Drobizheva, however, show that there was little support for nationalism among rural Tatars. Another scholar at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences reported the same thing: “In the countryside, nobody cares about politics, and nobody participates. When our survey asked people which nationalist groups they supported, they had only heard a little bit about them.”8 But because it is a standard nationalist belief to see a rural ethnic community as the embodiment of indigenous culture and the site of its current reproduction, it was difficult for some nationalists to square their expectations of rural Tatar support for nationalism with their observation of low nationalism in the countryside. As one nationalist explained, “There is a Tatar-speaking Tatar population here and a Russian-speaking Tatar population, and the real bearers of nationalism are the Tatar-speaking Tatars. But I think that the Tatar-speaking Tatars did less than Russian-speaking Tatars for the nationalist movement. I chided many of them for this.”9

A significant number of ethnic Tatars who were born in the countryside demonstrate the point that social origins do not directly determine interests. Local administrative and Communist Party leaders benefited from knowing the Tatar language, growing up in the countryside, and then learning Russian. Tatar-speaking Tatars in the countryside held many high-status positions as party administrators and chairmen of collective farms. Political leadership in (p.130) rural Tatarstan became “indigenized” as a result not only of korenizatsiia but also, as mentioned in the previous chapter, of the process of zemlyachestvo. In the 1960s under Oblast Party Committee (Obkom) first secretary Talbaev, rural Tatars began to enter posts in local and city administration through a system of clientelist networks based on region of origin. This meant that the majority of political cadres in the republic, in both country and city, were so-called first generation city residents born in the Tatar countryside. They spoke Tatar as their native tongue, usually received their early education in the countryside, learned to speak Russian, and then began a career in government administration. A Tatar sociologist writes, “For several decades, the political elite recruited new members from agrarian regions of the republic. … It still relies on a continuity of succession in which higher-ups find their cadres in the ‘provinces.’”10

Zemlyak networks tied Tatar-speaking Tatar administrative leaders in Kazan—led by former Obkom first secretary (and later president) Mintimir Shaimiev—to those in republican cities and rural regions. The administrators were district or city party secretaries (i.e. leaders of a raion party committee [raikom] or a city party committee [gorkom]) who became “heads of administration” (glav administratsiia) in 1993. Local party secretaries in turn mediated between Tatar-speaking Tatar kholkhoz chairmen, who then governed their local collective farms—communities made up of Tatar-speaking Tatars. The Soviet policy of indigenization of political cadres fused with local zemlyachestvo networks to produce a Tatar-speaking Tatar elite running the republic.

The nationalist movement, however, was composed of an elite from a very different social and geographic stratum: the republic’s urban intelligentsia. If the nationalist cohort of Russified Tatars were to take power in the republic, the positions and zemlyak network of elite rural Tatars would come under threat. Members of the rural, Tatar-speaking Tatar community who had done extremely well for themselves under the current zemlyak system but did not know what to expect with a new nationalist state preferred to maintain the status quo. Political scientist Mary McAuley argues that party leaders and nomenklatura administrators in Tatarstan more generally were “desperate to hold onto their positions” because they were unable to move into lateral positions outside their republic: “Careers had to be made at home and the costs of failure were high.”11

For a part of the rural Tatar nomenklatura, embracing the nationalists’ call for a full-scale Tatar language revival might place the zemlyak system in jeopardy. The republic would be confronted with a sudden influx of new Tatar speakers (p.131) into republican politics at all levels, rural and urban. This would destroy the rural Tatar elite’s monopoly on speaking Tatar—a skill it used in mediating between urban and rural elites. Within the space of a few years, highly educated, bilingual newcomers could build new lines of direct communication to the countryside that would render the zemlyak networks impotent. The newcomers, furthermore, might introduce the attributes of merit and ability, rather than connections and custom, as preconditions for administrative appointments. Therefore, contrary to the expectations of nationalists, an important segment of the Tatar rural population—administrative elites—was predisposed to oppose full-scale Tatar language revival. The point here is that cultural attributes should not be assumed to directly guide people’s political preferences toward support of nationalism. Even the seemingly fundamental and straightforward attribute of native language can establish varied preferences among people who speak that language.

Tatar language revival struck more of a receptive chord among urban, Russified Tatars than among rural, Tatar-speaking Tatars. According to the Tatar scholar Rustam Gibadullin, who conducted a survey of 694 Tatars in Naberezhnye Chelny from 1991 to 1992—the period in which popular support for nationalism peaked—the total percentage of respondents who favored linguistic Tatarization was rather low. Only 30 percent of even those respondents who had attended Tatar-language grade schools supported making Tatar the sole state language of the republic (as opposed to having both Tatar and Russian share official state status). More Tatars from the countryside who had migrated to Naberezhnye Chelny (28 percent) than Tatars from urban areas (13 percent) reported that they backed Tatar as the sole state language. Still, these data show that overall, a majority of Tatar respondents favored having both Russian and Tatar as Tatarstan’s official state languages.12

Finally, despite the fact that Tatar nationalists viewed rural Tatars as “true representatives of the Tatar nation,” distinct differences existed between urban and rural Tatars that challenge the nationalist idea that Tatars formed a cohesive ethnic group. Many urban Tatars in fact recognized that there were differences in attributes, mentality, social milieu, and interests between the rural and urban populations, and they variously described such differences as a psychological divide, a rural inferiority complex, a different way of thinking, a different mentality, and even a different culture. When I asked urban Tatars during interviews whether they had been born in the countryside, they consistently reacted in an offended and surprised tone. The lower social status of rural Tatars was (p.132) reinforced by their inability to speak Russian. Even urban Tatars who advocated Tatar language revival took pride in the fact that they spoke Russian, as revealed in comments made by Akhat Mushinskii, the leader of the Tatar branch of the International PEN club—an organization whose goal was to elevate Tatar literature to its rightful place in world literature.13 Mushinskii proudly and without a hint of irony told me, “I’ll let you in on a secret. Only people born in the countryside write in Tatar. Nobody born in Kazan does. I write in Russian, like Chingiz Aitmaitov.”14 Tatar nationalists failed to recognize that rural-urban, intraethnic cleavages could mean that rural Tatars did not share the interests and preferences of urban Tatars and might not perceive any connection between the social practices and beliefs of their daily lives and the nationalist program of urban intellectuals.

Tatar nationalist organizations, in fact, made very limited attempts to reach rural Tatars. They concentrated the bulk of their activity in the republic’s urban regions. As a result, Tatar-speaking Tatars responded weakly to the nationalist appeals. According to a local sociologist, Guzel Stoliarova, urban Tatars’ concerns simply did not resonate with the rural Tatars. This is not to claim that rural Tatars did not support any of the nationalist goals. On the contrary, the rural Tatar regions solidly voted for republican sovereignty in the 1992 Referendum on Tatarstan’s State Sovereignty. For example, the rural, majority-Tatar Aktanishskii, Arskii, Leninogorskii, and Sabinskii districts voted yes to sovereignty almost unanimously.15 However, as McAuley points out, soon after this vote, rural Tatars also voted for President Shaimiev and other nonnationalist candidates in elections to the Russian Federation Duma and Federation Council elections. McAuley hypothesizes that rural residents engaged in “ritual voting,” unlike urban residents, who practiced “preference voting behavior.” Voting in the countryside, she argues, represented “ritual participation in a collective (p.133) activity”—something expected of rural residents by their kholkhoz chairmen and local political leaders.16

I make the arguments here about rural regions to emphasize first, that rural nationalism was not an automatic outcome and second, that if rural Tatars did not automatically support nationalism simply because of their identity and culture, we cannot assume that rural Tatar migrants to the cities supported nationalism for these reasons either.

Ethnicity and the KamAZ Labor Force

By the early 1990s, the population in Naberezhnye Chelny was almost evenly split between the two largest ethnic groups there: Russians, who comprised 48.7 percent of the population, and Tatars, who made up 40.6 percent.17 Was the city’s ethnodemographic structure reflected in the factory? First, ethnic Russians clearly dominated the highest levels of management at KamAZ. The thirteen directors of KamAZ’s factories received their education and early training in various technical centers of the Soviet Union before moving into top positions at KamAZ.18 Nikolai Bekh, the president and general director, and the two deputy general directors, Vadim Paslov and Vladimir Sigal, were also ethnic Russians. The professional positions of these men only hint at their power, however, since KamAZ directors acted as de facto political leaders of Naberezhnye Chelny.19 Whereas Russians dominated top factory management, ethnic Tatars ran the city’s party structures and local administration. This arrangement was typical of many cities in republics throughout the USSR and was considered entirely appropriate, since these enterprises were all-union projects from their inception and were administered by central planners in Moscow.

The ethnic makeup of the middle and lower tiers of the KamAZ workforce differed from that in upper management. First, there was a lopsided situation in midlevel management as of the early 1990s: more than twice as many Russians as Tatars were “specialists,” a category that included section (tsekhi) managers, (p.134) foremen (masteri), engineers, technical workers, and supervisors (rukovoditeli), and white-collar workers/clerks (sluzhaschii). Of 22,437 specialists, approximately 60 percent (13,552) were Russian, and 28 percent (6,354) were Tatars.20 Moreover, within the category of specialist, Russians occupied the higher positions (head of section and assistant head of section), whereas Tatars occupied the middle and lower levels.21 Some of this ethnic imbalance could have been due to the fact that there were more Russian than Tatar employees at KamAZ overall: the workforce was 48 percent Russian and 39 percent Tatar.22 However, the ethnic composition of the blue-collar workforce nullifies this explanation because these workers were almost evenly split between Russians (44 percent) and Tatars (42 percent) (table 5.1).23

These statistics show that there were fewer Tatars than Russians in midlevel management at KamAZ. However, they fail to capture the fact that Tatars had been moving into the KamAZ workforce from the moment the factory opened in the early 1970s. Tatar social mobility was a direct result of policies enacted by the Soviet state in conjunction with KamAZ. Training institutes were established in the city as feeders for the factory. The most important of these was KAMPi (KamAZ Polytechnical Institute), where the language of instruction was Russian. Tatars from the countryside were given preferences in admission to the training institutes, such as extra points on their entrance exams and allowances for poor Russian-language ability. The majority of students at KAMPi came from the Tatar countryside.24 KamAZ itself developed a system of ranks for all employees to follow in order to advance professionally and obtain better salaries and nonmonetary side payments critical to the Soviet system. Farida Orlova, an ethnic Tatar and the head of the Department of Social Regulation at KamAZ explained, “A worker straight from school without higher education has to start (p.135)

Table 5.1 Ethnic composition of KamAZ workforce, 1989





Total KamAZ workforce





White-collar workers





Blue-collar workers





Source: Yu. V. Platonov and G. A. Kulakova, “Otchet po resul’tatam oprosa obshchestvennogo mneniia rabotnikov tatarskoi natsional’nosti po nekotorim problemam natsional’nogo rasvitiia” [Report on the Results of a Public Opinion Survey of Tatar Workers on Issues of National Development], KamAZ Center for Sociological Research, Naberezhnye Chelny, 1992.

at the bottom of the ranks. The hierarchy is: assembly line worker, skilled worker, foreman, shop head, head of department, manager. It takes twenty years to climb through the ranks.” The responsibilities and requirements necessary for individuals to advance professionally through each rank were clearly delimited. But KamAZ offered night school classes to Tatars that allowed them to skip several ranks. According to Orlova, “In this way, Tatars went from being a worker directly to head of department.”25 These policies and institutions helped Tatars catch up to the Russians’ level of professional achievement.

The efforts of KamAZ to educate, employ, and assimilate Tatars into urban factory life took place because it was a socialist enterprise operating in a centrally planned, rather than a capitalist, economy. Soviet enterprises operated under a soft budget constraint, meaning that directors were under no obligation to minimize costs and maximize profit. They had little interest in locating and maintaining a constant supply of cheap, blue-collar labor. Therefore, instead of drawing on the Tatar population as a relatively uneducated and thus inexpensive source of labor, the factory assumed the cost of educating and training Tatars so that they would become white-collar managers as well as factory workers. Ironically, because the socialist workers’ state was deeply concerned with establishing ethnic egalitarianism, the system institutionalized career advancement for Tatars, providing incentives to alter the life course of rural Tatars. From farmer to skilled worker and even brigade leader within one lifetime, the system tied Tatars to the factory’s assimilationist ideal. By the late 1980s, large numbers of Tatars were working side by side with Russians in almost all tiers and departments of the factory, though they were still outnumbered in white-collar management posts.

The static percentages of Tatar and Russian representation in the KamAZ workforce fail to capture how Tatars took advantage of the privileges granted them by the Soviet state to move into white- and blue-collar sectors of Naberezhnye (p.136) Chelny’s economy. Yet it was these frozen-in-time statistics that nationalists used to mobilize Tatars against an allegedly unjust status quo.

The Nationalist Movement

In the founding charter of the Naberezhnye Chelny branch of the Tatar Public Center, the group directly advocated placing Tatars in professional jobs. TOTs announced its goals—“train and promote national cadres [i.e. Tatars] for management positions [rukovodiashchie dolzhnosti], [and] to provide proportional representation of Tatars.”26 TOTs drew attention to this issue via grassroots tactics, such as holding demonstrations and sponsoring strikes at the factory and picketing KamAZ to get the management removed. According to the KamAZ sociologist Glusyia Kulokova, “The group claimed that [General Director] Bekh and all the others were Jews and that national cadres should run KamAZ. They wanted to remove all the directors.” She added, “They weren’t totally mistaken about this.” According to Kulakova, though the claim made by TOTs was rather extreme, the group was correct in asserting that most of the managing directors of the factory were not Tatars.

A study by TOTs of the ethnic composition of the KamAZ workforce found that a majority of the management positions at the factory were held by Russians.27 Publications by sympathetic Tatar intellectuals helped to bolster the nationalist claims about limitations facing Tatars. According to a study by Yagfar Garipov, Tatars were at a general disadvantage vis-à-vis Russians because they had not been working at KamAZ as long as Russians had. Three times as many Russians as Tatars had an employment term (stazh) of fifteen years or more, whereas one-third of Tatars had an employment term of five years or less. Garipov argues that this fact limited Tatars because longer employment terms facilitated employees’ advancement through the professional ranks and helped them in resolving residential problems or other daily bureaucratic needs.28 TOTs began to lobby for the promotion of more Tatars into management positions, and according to one nationalist leader, General Director Bekh occasionally responded positively.29 The TOTs leadership became more radical than the leaders in Kazan and organized many rallies and demonstrations in Naberezhnye Chelny, as well (p.137) as in other large cities, such as Nizhnekamsk. The group also attempted to organize a strike among the KamAZ workforce.30

Nationalist leaders continued to tell the same story about discrimination against Tatars seven years later. For example, the cochairman of the Naberezhnye Chelny branch of TOTs, Nailiia Ildanovna Iskhakovna, explained to me, “Tatars are fired more often than Russians. People come to me and tell me stories of how their husband was fired because the enterprise said it had to lay off workers, and then they find out that a Russian was appointed to that job.”31 In the words of one of the more radical nationalist sympathizers, a member of the cultural-political organization Bulgar Club: “At Kamaz, there are seventeen directors, only one of them was a Tatar. The Tatars are disappearing. The people in power all still have a communist orientation. There is discrimination here.”32

The Naberezhnye Chelny branch of the Tatar Public Center articulated a position that was more ethnically exclusivist than that of TOTs in Kazan. Whereas the latter vacillated between describing its goal as creating a national state (Tatarstan for Tatars) and a multinational state in which all ethnic groups shared equal rights, TOTs in Naberezhnye Chelny was more exclusivist or properly nationalist. The group frequently described the issue of Tatar underrepresentation at KamAZ and the subordinate position of Tatars compared with Russians as unjust and unfair. In its founding program, it articulated several solutions to rectify the injustice. First, because most of the managing directors at KamAZ were ethnic Russians who had come from outside Tatarstan to work in the factory, the group stated that other major enterprises in the republic should not be allowed to hire non-Tatar directors from beyond the republic’s borders. It also argued that new jobs at local enterprises should be given only to ethnic Tatars from outside Tatarstan who were migrating to live in the republic (the so-called Tatar diaspora). Beyond the factory in the city at large, TOTs supported ethnic privileges for Tatars through the creation of special zones where Tatar-owned businesses would be established and employ only ethnic Tatars. The group also called for the creation of Tatar-only work brigades in factories. Finally, TOTs’ founding document stated that all people holding leading positions in the republic, including enterprise directors, deputies to local soviets, and government workers, should learn the Tatar language.33

(p.138) Even after the campaign for nationalist separatism ended and TOTs had lost the popular support it enjoyed in the early 1990s, the group continued to address its appeals to workers at KamAZ to try to turn them against the Russian factory management. For example, it held a demonstration in 1996 where it tried to convince workers that according to the Russian government’s rules concerning the privatization of large enterprises they should own 51 percent of the shares of Kamaz but were being cheated by Tatarstan’s government, which actually owned the factory. They also claimed that KamAZ had funding available but was reneging on its agreement to build new housing, pools, and cultural centers and to provide social services. This anti-KamAZ demonstration had an ethnic element, according to the nationalists, because of the factory’s “special situation in which the management is Russian and the assembly-line workers are Tatar.”34

Popular Support for Nationalism

The Tatar Public Center established political cells at KamAZ early on in an effort to garner worker support. Instead of conducting its demonstrations in the Tatar language only, it was careful to use both Russian and Tatar. Azatlyk also organized cells at factories.35 However, in 1991, TOTs, along with other political organizations, was expelled from KamAZ when Boris Yeltsin passed a decree banning the Communist Party and all political organizations from the workplace.36 Some nationalist leaders maintained that if TOTs had been allowed to continue to operate, the group would have been even more influential than it was.37 Nonetheless, by the time TOTs was ejected from KamAZ, it had won support among a significant segment of workers at the factory.38 A September 1991 survey conducted by the KamAZ Center for Sociological Research indicates that 33.2 percent of workers supported TOTs, while another survey conducted a year and half later showed 44.6 percent of workers backing the group. Observing the group’s growing authority with workers during the period between the two surveys—which overlapped with the critical period in republican politics—a KamAZ report noted that 55 percent of Tatars “support one or another idea and (p.139) initiative of TOTs”39 and that TOTs significantly influenced worker support of republican sovereignty.40

The survey of Tatars in Naberezhnye Chelny conducted by Gibadullin in 1991 and 1992 found many “TOTs-ovites” in the city: 57 percent of Tatar workers supported the group, while 49 percent of specialists (spetsialisty) and white-collar workers (sluzhashii) did.41 A higher percentage of respondents (72 percent) supported the goal of republican sovereignty. Of this category, 61 percent understood sovereignty to mean independent statehood, and 12 percent understood it to mean a certain degree of administrative territorial independence.42

Finally, popular support for nationalism is shown by the results of the 1992 Referendum on Tatarstan State Sovereignty. First, the KamAZ survey conducted right before the referendum found that 83.3 percent of Tatars would vote for sovereignty.43 Next, although voting results of KamAZ employees do not exist, the results from the city in general show that 61 percent of city residents voted in favor of sovereignty. By comparison, in Kazan, 47 percent of the city’s population voted for it.44

Popular Perceptions of Ethnic Economic Inequality

KamAZ reports and survey research conducted by local scholars indicate that workers at KamAZ were concerned with professional mobility. As Yagfar Garipov noted in a study of KamAZ employees, “As a rule, people are very attentive to, and sensitive about the question of professional advancement.”45 This does not mean that they viewed it as an ethnic issue. Tatars and Russians worked together in each tier of the workforce (except upper management) and therefore interacted on a daily basis. In fact, it was explicit KamAZ policy for work collectives to be composed of members of different ethnic groups.46

(p.140) Did framing of issues of ethnic economic inequality by nationalist leaders convince people that Tatars faced less mobility than Russians or discrimination in general? Although surveys were not conducted before the period of national revival, there is evidence from the early 1990s that people were developing an awareness of imbalanced representation at KamAZ. For example, the assistant director of the KamAZ Center for Sociological Research stated that the managers often complained to her that there were fewer Tatar than Russian specialists, a charge that prompted her to organize a survey at KamAZ.47 The survey found that more than half of Tatar managers thought that there were insufficient numbers of Tatar managers in the city.48 Gibadullin’s 1991 survey of Tatars in Naberezhnye Chelny found that a majority (56 percent) thought that there were insufficient numbers of Tatar managers and bosses (rukovodiashchie kadry) in the city. Only 10 percent of Tatars reported that they viewed representation of Tatars among leadership cadres in a positive light.49 These two studies, both conducted around the time when support for the nationalist movement was peaking, indicate that a significant, though not overwhelming, percentage of ethnic Tatars believed members of their group were underrepresented in high-status professions.

Could Tatars’ perception of blocked Tatar mobility have been caused by the interethnic tension they experienced personally? Although this is possible, evidence from a 1990 survey at KamAZ conducted by the KamAZ Center for Sociological Research suggests it is unlikely. When KamAZ employees were asked to rate interethnic relations within their work collective, a clear majority of both Russians (84 percent) and Tatars (86 percent) described those relations as “completely normal.” Interestingly, when respondents were asked to rate interethnic relations at KamAZ in general, significantly fewer respondents—43 percent of Russians and 54 percent of Tatars—considered them normal. This fact suggests that workers’ perceptions of interethnic tension may have been related to the general political situation during national revival rather than to personal experiences with members of the other nationality.50

Results from the same survey also suggest that considerable percentages of Tatars were concerned with equalization of opportunity. The survey asked respondents to rank a series of factors that they thought would improve interethnic (p.141) relations at KamAZ. Forty-six percent of Tatars believed that relations would be improved by “raising the skills and educational level of Tatar cadres” (compared with only 19 percent of Russians), and 29 percent of Tatars reported that relations would be improved if the nationality of individual supervisors were taken into account when individuals were being hired or promoted. Only 11 percent of Russians held this view. Finally, slightly more Tatars than Russians (35 percent vs. 30 percent) believed that another way to improve interethnic relations would be to ensure that members of all nationalities were appointed to leadership positions in public organizations (obshchestvennye organizatsii).51 The data indicate that more Tatars than Russians linked education and training for Tatars, as well as Tatar professional representation and mobility, to the amelioration of relations between Tatars and Russians.

Finally, almost no KamAZ employees reported experiencing discrimination on the basis of their ethnic identity, a fact suggesting that the nationalist claim of blocked labor mobility and limited opportunity was more rhetoric than fact. In response to a question about whether they had encountered discrimination while finding a job, rising through the professional ranks at work, or petitioning the government bureaucracy over a personal matter, more Tatars (5–7 percent) than Russians (2.5–3 percent) answered affirmatively. For these respondents, the KamAZ workplace was not the most common site of ethnic discrimination; they were three to four times more likely to have experienced discrimination outside the factory walls, in everyday social situations such as on buses, in stores, waiting in line, or on the street.52 However, Tatar respondents in Gibadullin’s survey reported experiencing more moderate forms of negative behavior by non-Tatars in the city at large. In response to the question “How often do you encounter cases of ‘disrespectful’ [neuvazhitel’nii] or ‘scornful’ [prenebrezhitel’nii] reactions to your nationality?” 40 percent of Tatars answered “rather often,” and 43 percent answered “it occurs, but rarely.”53

Interethnic tension was perceived by city residents to be higher in Naberezhnye Chelny than in Kazan (table 5.2). A 1990 survey found that twice as many respondents in Chelny as in Kazan reported that interethnic tension in their city (p.142) was on the rise.54 Gibadullin also found that the majority of Tatars believed that inter-ethnic relations had worsened since Tatarstan’s declaration of sovereignty in 1990.55 Anecdotal evidence reinforces the statistical evidence. A journalist described instances of interethnic tension on public transportation and between Tatar sales clerks and Russian customers,56 and a young Kodak store clerk reported that such tension on the street, on public transportation, and in interethnic marriages had become worse during the late 1980s.57 Another nationalist reminisced, “Although it didn’t really exist during the Soviet era … there was a strong anti-Russian sentiment among Tatars in Naberezhnye Chelny. It was on the rise and then it dropped off.”58

These results suggest that although large numbers of Tatars reported that they did not directly experience discrimination at KamAZ or in terethnic problems in their own work collectives, they did perceive an increase in interethnic tension both at KamAZ and in the city at large. Moreover, the perception of this tension among Tatars was correlated with support for the nationalists. According to Gibadullin’s survey, more Tatar supporters of TOTs than either Tatar supporters of the Democratic Party of Russia or Tatar opponents of TOTs believed that instances of “disrespect” toward the Tatar nationality occurred frequently.59

Popular perceptions of Tatar underrepresentation and discrimination played an important role in generating support for the nationalist movement in Naberezhnye Chelny. Tatars there felt more disrespected than in other parts of Tatarstan.60 Although it is difficult to know the precise degree of concern with these issues among Tatars, some observers have claimed that highly educated, white-collar workers appeared more concerned with ethnic representation and discrimination than did blue-collar workers. The leader of Azatlyk, for example, stated that KamAZ workers joined his organization because of their experience of discrimination but also that intellectuals at KamAZ thought about ethnic representation more than workers did.61 The comments of Farida (p.143)

Table 5.2 Perceptions of change in interethnic relations in Tatarstan, 1990 (%)


Naberezhnye Chelny










Stayed the same










Difficult to say





Source: Roza Musina, “Etnokul’turnye orientatsii i mezhnatsional’nye otnosheniia,” in Sovremennye natsional’nye protsessy v Respublike Tatarstan, Vol. II (Kazan: Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, 1994), 54.

Orlova, a high-level manager at KamAZ, suggest the way in which some Tatars understood the connection between their ethnicity and professional mobility:

During the USSR, one was ashamed to be a Tatar, one was ashamed to be a Jew, one was ashamed to be anything but a Russian. To get a good job, you had to be a party member, and you had to be a Russian. People often tried to change their nationality. For example, I’m a Tatar but I married a Russian man and I took his last name. I was only able to achieve my high position [at KamAZ] because I had a Russian surname. This all began to change when democracy appeared.62

Orlova expressed the belief that Tatars were blocked professionally because of their ethnic identity and that she had obtained a good position only by “passing” as a Russian. Yet this is the same informant who, in her role as a specialist in the personnel department at KamAZ, carefully explained to me the policies the factory had set up to provide assistance and advantages to ethnic Tatars. Thus, like other Tatars, Farida discounted the fact that preference policies instituted by the Soviet state had contributed to professional advancement of Tatars at the factory. Instead, she perceived preferences for Russians and discrimination against Tatars and linked these phenomena to the Soviet system. However, she believed that this inequity and unfairness had ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the introduction of democracy.

The case of Naberezhnye Chelny demonstrates that people dependent on the state for their livelihoods, residence, and services may nevertheless mobilize against that state to establish a new national order. Popular support for nationalist renewal developed when group grievances emerged from the interaction of macroeconomic conditions and issue framings by nationalist leaders. When (p.144) the Soviet Union’s economic crisis during perestroika caused decreased production of cars and trucks at KamAZ, people experienced a tightening of economic opportunity and fear of unemployment. Nationalist entrepreneurs emerged to convey to people with Tatar identities that their coethnics were underrepresented in white-collar jobs at the factory by comparison with Russians and were unfairly victimized by current societal conditions. This contributed to a climate in which nationalist discourse about ethnic economic inequality convinced people to understand their personal professional trajectories as tied to others who shared their ethnic identity. The best way for people to improve their own position and the position of others who were part of the Tatar nation, the nationalists argued, would be to support a new national order. The first step toward that order was achieving republican sovereignty. Thus the particular issue framings by Tatar nationalists—which focused on rectifying ethnic underrepresentation by achieving state sovereignty—translated into considerable mass support for opposition nationalist organizations in Naberezhnye Chelny.


(1.) The city’s population was 506,000 in 1990 and grew to 525,000 by 1996. Statisticheskii ezhegodnik Respublika Tatarstan 1995 [Statistical Handbook of the Republic of Tatarstan, 1995] (Kazan: Goskomstat Respubliki Tatarstan, 1996).

(2.) Field notes, Naberezhnye Chelny, 1997.

(4.) Roza Musina, “Etnokulturnie orientatsii i mezhnatsional’nye otnosheniia,” in Sovremennye natsional’nye protsessy v Respublike Tatarstan, Vol. II (Kazan: Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, 1994). The Russian population in the city was also composed of relative newcomers, but they migrated primarily from outside the republic of Tatarstan. Only 35 percent of Chelny’s Russians were natives of Tatarstan. Also see Yagfar Garipov, “Sotsial’no-etnicheskaia struktura rabotnikov i mezhnatsional’nye otnosheniia na KamAZe,” in Sovremennye natsional’nye protsessy v Respublike Tatarstan, Vol. I (Kazan: Russian Academy of Sciences, Kazan Scientific Center, 1992), 68.

(5.) Interview with Ramai Yuldashev, Azatlyk, Kazan, January 22, 1997.

(6.) Interview with Talgat Amadishin, Azatlyk, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 24, 1997.

(7.) Interview with Raman Belyakov, Department of Interethnic Relations, Presidential Apparat, Kazan Kremlin, February 15, 1997.

(8.) Interview with Lilia Sagitova, Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, Kazan, December 19, 1996. For more evidence of low nationalist support among rural Tatars, see Leokadia Drobizheva et al., Natsional’noe samosoznanie i natsionalizm v Rossiiskoi Federatsii nachala 1990-kh godov.

(9.) Interview with Rustem Sultanovich Korzhakov, economist, Kazan, April 1, 1997.

(11.) Mary McAuley, Russia’s Politics of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 88.

(12.) R. M. Gibadullin, Tatarskoe naselenie naberezhnykh chelnov v tsifrakh etnosotsiologii, 1992 g. [The Tatar Population of Naberezhnye Chelny: An Ethnosociology in Numbers, 1992] (Naberezhnye Chelny: Magrifat, 1993), 43.

(13.) The International PEN club is a “worldwide association of writers … promot[ing] friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers. … [It] exists to fight for freedom of expression and represent the conscience of world literature.” http://www.internationalpen.org.uk/index.php?pid=2.

(14.) Aitmaitov is a famous writer and Russified Kyryz who led Kyrgyzstan’s national revival and then left the nationalist movement. Interview with Akhat Mushinskii, Tatar PEN Club, Kazan, March 4, 1997.

(15.) Data on the ethnic breakdown of the sovereignty vote either are not published or simply do not exist. I compiled this data by comparing the percentage of voters supporting sovereignty in each raion (from the official voting results) with data on the percentages of ethnic groups and rural population in each raion (from a statistical handbook). See Dokumenty (Protokoly, informatsiia, itogovye resul’taty) po resul’tatam golosovaniia na referendume Respublike Tatarstana ot 21 Marta 1992 goda [Documents on the results of a referendum on the Republic of Tatarstan], fond no. P2297, op. no. 2, delo no. 2, and M. R. Mustafin and R. G. Khuzeev, Vse o Tatarstane: Ekonomiko-geograficheskii spravochnik [All about Tatarstan: Handbook of Economy and Geography] (Kazan: Tatarskoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1994).

(16.) Eighty percent of rural voters voted for Shaimiev for the Federation Council. McAuley, Russia’s Politics, 104–8.

(17.) The next three largest nationalities are Chuvash (2.5 percent); Ukrainians (2.3 percent), and Bashkir (1.9 percent). Mustafin and Khuzeev, R.G. Vse o Tatarstane, 90.

(18.) In addition to KamAZ’s thirteen factories in Tatarstan, it has five more located in Bashkortostan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

(19.) The KamAZ anniversary book recognizes Bekh’s power. The caption to a photograph of Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and Nikolai Bekh standing together reads, “A Meeting of Three Presidents.” Kamaz 25, 137. McAuley describes the close tie between the Communist Party and KamAZ. Russia’s Politics, 93.

(20.) Yu. V. Platonov and G. A. Kulakova, “Otchet po resul’tatam oprosa obshchestvennogo mneniia rabotnikov tatarskoi natsional’nosti po nekotorym problemam natsional’nogo razvitiia” [Report on the Results of a Public Opinion Survey of Tatar Workers on Issues of National Development], KamAZ Center for Sociological Research, Naberezhnye Chelny, 1992.

(21.) Interview with Glusyia Akhatovna Kulakova, assistant director, KamAZ Center for Sociological Research, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 27, 1997.

(22.) A. Platonov, “Spravka: Nekotorye aspekty mezhnatsional’nykh otnoshenii v kollektive AO KamAZa” [Several Aspects of Interethnic Relations in the KamAZ Workforce], KamAZ Center for Sociological Research, Naberezhnye Chelny, 1991. Platonov is the director of the center.

(23.) Other nationalities, especially Ukrainians and Chuvash, form the remainder of the workforce. Data are from a 1996 KamAZ Center for Sociological Research survey, “Otchet o komplektovanii i rasstanovke kadrov aktsionernogo obshchestva KamAZa na 01.01.96 goda” [Report on the Organization and Composition of the Personnel of the Joint Stock Company KamAZ, January 1, 1996]. The same figures were found in a 1990 survey conducted by the KamAZ Center. The 1990 survey results are analyzed in Garipov, “Sotsial’no-etnicheskaia struktura.”

(24.) Interview with Nailia Ildanovna Iskhakovna, vice chairman of public relations, TOTs, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 20, 1997.

(25.) Interview with Farida Orlova, head of Department of Social Regulation, KamAZ, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 23, 1997. Respondent’s name has been changed.

(27.) The TOTs study began as a response to a report issued by Gosplan in Moscow stating that titular nationalities were well represented in management structures of major enterprises in the autonomous republics. See Goble, “Ethnicity and Economic Reform,” 24.

(29.) Iskhakovna interview, May 20, 1997.

(30.) Interview with Rashid Zakirov, public relations specialist, KamAZ and former TOTs member, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 19, 1997.

(31.) Iskhakovna interview, May 20, 1997.

(32.) Interview with Rashid Kamarovi Khafizov, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 17, 1997.

(33.) TOTs also called for renaming streets in Tatar, something that ultimately occurred in many cities in the republic. See “Primary Goals of National Reform in Naberezhnye Chelny” Azatlyk 5 (1990) cited in Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization, 2003, 91.

(34.) Field notes, January 1997; interview with Damir Iskhakov, Kazan, January 1997.

(35.) Amadishin interview, May 24, 1997.

(36.) Political organizations were expelled according to Order N-347, O vyvedenie organizatsii i struktur politicheskikh partii i massovykh dvizhenie iz A. O. Kamaza. [On the removal of organizations, political parties and mass movements from KamAZ] Kulakova interview, May 27, 1997.

(37.) Iskhakovna interview, May 20, 1997.

(38.) In comparison with Kazan, a significantly larger portion of Chelny’s population was of working age or younger: 92 percent compared with Kazan’s 79.7 percent. Data from Goskomstat.

(39.) Platonov and Kulakova, Otchet po resul’tatam oprosa, KamAZ Center for Sociological Research, 1992.

(40.) Taslima Islamshina and Guzel Khamzina, “V molodykh gorodakh sklonny k radikalizmu” [In Young Cities Prone to Radicalism] Tatarstan, no. 9 (1993): 22–23.

(41.) Note that Gibadullin’s survey was conducted independently of KamAZ. Gibadullin, Tatarskoe naselenie, 88.

(42.) Ibid., 60.

(44.) Dokumenty (protokoly, informatsiia, itogovye rezul’taty).

(46.) The factory had previously organized monoethnic collectives but had decided to do away with them. Kulakova interview, May 27, 1997.

(50.) This 1990 study surveyed 1,538 KamAZ employees; 45 percent were Russian and 42.3 percent were Tatar. Two-thirds were blue-collar workers and one-third were white-collar workers. This was the first survey conducted by KamAZ’s Center for Sociological Research that asked respondents explicitly about ethnicity. Earlier studies had asked only about plan fulfillment and workers’ issues. Garipov, “Sotsial’no-etnicheskaia struktura,” 65.

(51.) Interestingly, many Tatars (61 percent) answered that achieving state sovereignty would improve interethnic relations. Also, many Tatars (58 percent) and Russians (66 percent) answered that “improving living conditions and raising the welfare [blagosostoianie] of the population” would improve relations. Garipov, “Sotsial’no-etnicheskaia struktura,” 75–76. Obshchestvennye organizatsii here means trade unions, sports groups, women’s organizations, hunting organizations, etc.

(52.) Garipov explains this discrimination as caused by stress over lack of goods and by “the absence of basic courtesy” rather than as an expression of nationalism. “Sotsial’no-etnicheskaia struktura,” 78.

(55.) Thirty-five percent of Tatars reported that interethnic relations had worsened; 29 percent thought they hadn’t changed and 17 percent thought they had improved. Ibid., 57.

(56.) Interview with Akhtiam Sabitov, journalist, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 30, 1997. Respondent’s name has been changed.

(57.) Interview with Kodak store clerk, Naberezhnye Chelny, May 26, 1997.

(58.) Amadishin interview, May 24, 1997.

(59.) Fifty-five percent of TOTs supporters believed disrespect toward Tatars occurred frequently, compared with 38 percent of DPR supporters and 24 percent of TOTs opponents. Gibadullin, “Tatarskoe naselenie,” 87.

(60.) Zakirov interview, May 19, 1997.

(61.) Amadishin interview, May 24, 1997.

(62.) Orlova interview, May 23, 1997.