Tatars are a Turkic people and share geographic, cultural, and linguistic origins and traits with other Turkic groups such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and others. Different Turkic groups hail from different parts of central Asia, with the Tatars originating from what is today Eastern Europe and the far west end of Asia (present day Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and surrounding areas). The term Tatar itself is complicated as it has changed meaning throughout history. The name previously more broadly referenced the Turkic peoples living under Genghis Khan and Mongol rule in the aforementioned areas of Europe and Asia—the area that was named the “Golden Horde” of the Mongol Khanate. However, since the conquest of many of those areas by the Soviet Union, the term refers to Turkic people living mostly in Russia.
There are a number of different types of Tatars including the largest group, the Volga Tatars, but also Crimean Tatars, Siberian Tatars, and others. Currently, the majority of Tatars live in the Republic of Tatarstan, a federal subject of the Russian Federation. Although regional dialects vary, Tatars speak the “Tatar” language, usually in addition to Russian. One major difference between Tatars and other peoples in the Russian Federation is that the majority of Tatars are Muslim. Only a few other federal subjects including Chechnya and Dagestan share Islam as the dominant religion.
Tatars have had difficulty under Russian rule over the past century. The Soviet Union, which despised religion in all forms, resented the faith of Tatars and other Turkic groups in Russia, even closing the vast majority of the mosques in the country during its reign. The Tatar language was heavily suppressed as well. In addition, famines in Tatarstan in the early 1920s wiped out huge parts of the population with no aid from the government, who instead settled non-Tatars in Tatarstan to weaken the region. Only a few years later, Joseph Stalin forcibly deported Crimean Tatars along with many Greeks, Bulgarians, and other groups to remote areas of Siberia and present day Uzbekistan; Soviet propaganda portrayed Tatars and other groups as Nazi sympathizers during WWII, but in reality the deportations seem to be nothing more than an example of ethnic cleansing and genocide. For this reason, Crimean Tatars still living within Crimea have been particularly upset with the Russian invasion of the peninsula, as they are afraid of being under Russian rule once again. Unfortunately, this was not the only mass deportation and massacre of Tatars; a similar occurrence happened earlier under czarist Russia, which also held anti-Muslim sentiment.
Independence movements in Russian controlled Tatarstan have existed for decades, with one major movement occurring just before the 1920s famine genocide (perhaps this was a response by the Soviet government to the separatist movement). In 1992, the people of Tatarstan voted for independence in a referendum, but the results were ignored by the Russian government. As recently as 2008, separatist groups have asked for independence and UN recognition, but have been ignored by both Russia and the UN. Russia is not likely to give up Tatarstan easily, as it has vast oil resources. However, despite some support, contemporary independence movements seem to be the exception and not the norm.