From Khanate To Kitsch

Rebranding The Land of Mongol Warriors & Ivan The Terrible

Even as Putin stresses the rhetoric of Russkiy Mir, a plucky little republic called Tatarstan is trying to brand itself as a land of ethnic harmony—never mind its bloody history stretching back to the Golden Horde.

12.25.14 10:55 AM ET

Earlier this week, some Moscow elite—in a flurry of designer clothes and mink coats—boarded private jets and flew 500 miles east to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan republic, famous for being Russia's driver of ideas and economic development. The purpose for the gathering was a unusual event, as it was the first time Russian region had come up with a conceptual brand for its image, one that would be recognizable to both local and international visitors, and attract more interest to a republic with a deep history long distinct from Russia's.

In the light of current tensions with the West and President Vladimir Putin's rhetoric of strengthening Russkiy Mir, or the Russian World, the country—with its rich diversity of over 185 ethnic groups—is once again facing identity questions. Was Russia in its heart European or Asian? And could the word "Russkiy," or 'Russian', offend ethnically non-Russian citizens around the country? They live in 21 republics, besides the recently annexed Crimea, where the Crimean Tatars live, and each group is proud of its own culture and history. Tatars are the third largest ethnic group after Russians and Ukrainians—almost three million Russian citizens identify themselves as Tatars.

Tatarstan, historically divided almost evenly between Muslims and Orthodox, Tatars and non-Tatars, has long prided itself on its diversity, and sees itself as a great example for Moscow and the rest of the country for how to come up with "a cultural code."  The new authors of the brand, a publicity agency, are calling it "Heritage of Tatarstan," hoping to attract tourists to the region's picturesque landscape and make the Tatarstan homeland recognizable to the world. "[The city of] Kazan today is doing what Moscow was supposed to do the day before yesterday," said Sergei Brilyov, a famous Moscow journalist, and host at presentation in Kazan.

On the plane ride, guests were having a lively discussion about their expectations for the symbol that Tatarstan, a republic with 3.8 million people, should choose to represent its new image. One Moscow theatrical director and designer, Pavel Kaplevich, suggested Tatarstan should choose a woman's portrait for a brand:  "There are so many beautiful Tatar women, including the famous poetess Anna Akhmatova and wonderful composer Sofial Gubaidulina—but for some reason Kazan was not keen on having a female face for their brand," he said.

The brand logo turned out to feature a graceful archer on horseback, in a Tatar national costume, poised to shoot his arrow. The symbol had nothing to do with aggression, Tina Kandelaki, the head of Apostol company, the brand's inventor, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview; instead it demonstrated "the way for survival on Tatarstan's land."

Tatarstan wasn't always so peaceful. In its over 1,000-year history, the land has soaked in the blood of millions of people. In mid-13th century Volga-Kama Bulgaria, the original name for the settlement, was invaded by Mongol-Tatars and became part of the Turkic Golden Horde. It was later renamed the Kazan Khanate and inherited both Bulgar and Mongol ethnic features, language, religious and cultural traditions. Ivan the Terrible fought for Kazan and slaughtered Tatars with abandon, and eventually annexed Kazan in 1552, making it a part of the Russian state.

Today, citizens across Russia, from the Muslim republics of the Northern Caucuses to Buddhist Republics like Tuva, Kalmykia and Buryatia are wondering if the new Russian World idea, so central to Putin's claim on Crimea and to backing eastern Ukrainian Russian speakers, would mean a rise of Russian nationalism. "It's become something very nationalist, very xenophobic," says Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent interview. "Russkiy Mir at the moment means nothing. Putin, because of his acts in Ukraine, he lost Russkiy Mir as a phenomenon. Now, it belongs to history."

Kandelaki, the head of Tatarstan's rebranding, agreed that the words "Russkiy Mir" or Russian World, could sound controversial—but she thinks Tatarstan's history of harmony will win out. "We live on enormous territory, our eyes have different shapes, we believe in different religions," she said. "We worked hard for a year trying to pack all the key historical and cultural points into one symbol, that hopefully would attract more interest to Russia and Tatarstan in particular and make its people proud."