Born in 1937, Mintimer Shaymiev was the first person to hold the title of President of Tatarstan, an autonomous republic within Russia, when he was elected in 1991. An ethnic Tatar, he was relected three times serving until 2010. His background is nothing extraordinary, hailing from the village of Anyakovo, in the Aktanyshsky District of the Tatar ASSR. Later he graduated from the Kazan Agricultural Institute in 1959, and worked as an agricultural engineer, joining the communist party only in 1963 where he was deputy head of the regional agricultural department.

His rise through the ranks was steady and by 1983 he was the first deputy chair of the Tatar Council of Ministers, before becoming first secretary of Tatarstan’s Communist Party organization in 1989. In April 1990 he was elected speaker of Tatarstan’s Supreme Soviet who later that year proclaimed the sovereignty of Tatarstan that led to his election as President in 1991. His tenure brought about great change and freedoms for the Tatar people as they emerged a separate autonomous region within Russia, but by 2010 he felt a new generation of leadership was required and, proposed to then President Dmitry Medvedev that Rustam Minnikhanov was his preferred successor who took the helm on January 27th 2010. Open Central Asia had the privilege of finding out more.

OCA: Mintimer Sharipovich, please tell us a little about you and what are you doing now?

Mintimer Sharipovich: After retiring from the post of President of Tatarstan, I became State Counselor of the Republic of Tatarstan. This status is stated in our law, which was specially adopted in March 2010 by the State Council. The position was established for the full use of the experience and knowledge of the President of the Republic for the good of the republic. Within my power I do have the right to initiate legislation. I think the existing forms of interaction between the leaders of the higher authorities of the republic are quite effective. Therefore, a special need for active participation in the daily management of the republic is not required. Sometimes I meet with the President of the Republic and exchange views on current issues as well as the longer-term problems.

Nowadays I mainly focus on realizing a large-scale project to revive the ancient town of Bolgar and the island-town of Sviyazhsk located in the territory of the republic, on the beautiful banks of the great river Volga.

Personally, in my daily routine, almost nothing has changed, except that I have one more day off! At the beginning I could not get used to the fact that on Saturday I do not go to work. With this new free time one of my dreams came true which is that I got a dog. He is a West Siberian husky puppy named Mahmaem, which is the nickname from a poem of our great poet Tukai. We have long walks with him on weekends.
And as always, every day I go swimming as well as keeping up sailing, in which during the past year I sailed 540 kilometers. Of course, my life passion is chess. And I still visit games and watch sports on TV. I love sport: football, hockey, biathlon, basketball and volleyball. I have always paid great attention to the development of sport and for Tatarstan to become recognisable throughout the world for its sporting achievements. We founded the hockey team, “Ak Bars”, a football team, “Rubin”, a basketball team, UNICS, volleyball teams, “Zenit-Kazan” and “Dinamo-Kazan” and others. We successfully hosted the World Summer Universiade in 2013 and the World Championships in Aquatic games in 2014. In the capital of the republic, Kazan, we completed the construction of a modern football stadium, which will be a host to the World Cup games in 2018. Only through sport can unite people! In my opinion, there is no more powerful ideology than sport.
OCA: Tell us more about the project for the restoration of monuments of Tatarstan in the ancient towns of Bolgar and Sviyazhsk?

MS: It was my old dream and I’m glad I have the opportunity to realise it now. At the end of 2009, when I decided to leave the post of President of the Republic, I described the history and significance of these monuments to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and explained that the funds allocated by the federal budget for the preservation of monuments was not enough to prevent their natural degradation. The idea of the revival of Bolgar and Sviyazhsk was supported by the country’s leadership. We agreed to solve the problem of the restoration of these historical objects by equal funding from the federal and republican budgets.

And in March 2010 we started the revival of the ancient Bulgar (a Muslim civilisation of the tenth century), and the island-town of Sviyazhsk (an Orthodox civilization of the sixteenth century). For our country, where national and inter-religious values are honoured, this is especially important and I sit as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for this “Revival” fund. We did same when we restored the Kazan Kremlin. The success of the project has identified widespread support, thanks to which the revival of heritage has become a national cause. The Republican Fund “Revival” has as its motto, “from the heart and to the heart” and is supported by people of different professions, different ages, different ethnicity and religious affiliation.

A huge contribution to the project comes from investors of large-scale enterprises, which have committed themselves to the restoration of historical objects as well as the creation of infrastructure to benefit local residents. World experts on the protection of cultural monuments are part of the International Expert Council that is headed by the rector of Kazan Federal University Ilshat Gafurov.

I must say that this cause has completely engulfed me. Over the past six years, much has been done and the case for the revival of historical and architectural monuments of the cities Bolgar and Sviyazhsk is gradually coming to the end. We have achieved international recognition from the World Heritage Committee and the UNESCO World Heritage List. But in my opinion, the most important thing is that the revival projects make us spiritually richer, and as I always say, “our society finds spirituality”.

OCA: Mintimer Sharipovich, you were President of Tatarstan for nearly twenty years. During this time Tatarstan reached new heights, both in politics and in social and economic development as well as in the cultural sphere. What would you say has been your greatest achievement?

MS: I think the main achievement is that over the years we have managed to raise the authority of Tatar people and strengthen the national consciousness. All the events of the post-Soviet years have proved that the Tatars are a peaceful, creative people, who have played a huge role in maintaining the integrity of the Russian Federation. It has cardinally changed the attitude to our people. Compared to other nations, the attitude to Tatars has often been ambiguous. The whole ideology of the Soviet Union and the history books unfairly interpreted the role of the Golden Horde and the Tatar-Mongol irruption.

In the life of Tatarstan’s people there have been many positive changes. We managed to hold large-scale international events that allow our multinational country to become more recognisable in the world. We reached inter-ethnic and inter-confessional consent in Tatarstan.

Tatarstan’s socio-economic policy is aimed at improving the living standards of the population, bringing it closer to European standards. It has allowed us to realise complex large-scale social projects in the hard post-Soviet years, such as the Programme of liquidation of wreck housing, make available social mortgages and provide the gasification of settlements among many others. The celebration of the 1000th anniversary of Kazan in 2005 and the holding of the 2013 Summer Universiade were a couple of these successful projects that improved the quality of life in Tatarstan and created a positive image of Tatarstan across the world.

Of course, today we have new approaches to the solution of contemporary problems on the basis of what has been achieved in recent years. This is largely a departure from dependence on raw materials, the creation of innovative products, based on the available scientific, technical and industrial potential of the republic. A prime example is a satellite city of Kazan, Innopolis, which is one of the few new Russian cities. We call it Science City. It was created for the development of innovative IT and high technology within a special economic zone.

In general, the creative work of Tatarstan over the last twenty-five years has allowed us to introduce to the world community a successful “Model of Tatarstan” as an example of a unique way of state-building within the framework of the Russian Federation. This direction remains unchanged even today, in the new socio-political situation in the country.

OCA: How do you keep in touch with Tatars who live abroad?

MS: We, Tatars, are one of the most mobile people. We have a very popular proverb, “Hereketke – bereket”, which means “In mobility is well-being”. Therefore, at the present time Tatars live in every federal state of Russia. Scientists and anthropologists acknowledge that it is not only such qualities as diligence and inventiveness, but also a unique phenomenon of Tatars – tolerance. Throughout our history, Tatars did not initiate any conflict on ethnic and religious grounds. It’s real, tolerance is a fixed part of the Tatar national character. Today, when the world is open to us, we are open to the world and it is possible, perhaps, that there is no country in the world, where no Tatars live.

Since the beginning of the post-Soviet years Tatars living abroad rushed to us to see their native land with their own eyes. Therefore, by Republic of Tatarstan Presidential Decree in June 1992 the First Congress of the World Congress of Tatars (WCT) was convened, in which we decided to establish the organisation “World Congress of Tatars” and its executive committee. The congress was attended by delegates from Tatarstan, the Russian Federation, CIS countries and abroad. Since then, this has provided the main link between us and Tatars living in the Russian regions as well as in the near and far abroad.

Tatarstan has significant experience in supporting the Tatar diaspora abroad. This activity is carried out within the framework of Russian state policy in support of compatriots, in accordance with Article 14 of the Constitution of the Republic, according to which “The Republic of Tatarstan will assist in the development of national culture, language and preservation of the identity of Tatars living outside the Republic of Tatarstan”. The work of the executive committee of the WCT with foreign compatriots coordinates with the International Affairs and Human Rights Commission. Today, the International Union of Public Associations “World Congress of Tatars” unites 140 Tatar national-cultural organisations in the near and far abroad. Our main aim is unite the Tatar nation around positive goals and creative tasks of their historical homeland – the Republic of Tatarstan and, in general, the Russian Federation.

The WCT regularly holds its congresses, they were held in 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012, as well as major forums with the involvement of various categories of Russian Tatar population abroad. For example, in many foreign countries, there are official representatives of Tatarstan, who, on behalf of the Republic, assist in the organisation of the “Sabantuy” national holiday in foreign countries. Therefore, in recent years, this festival has become a global phenomenon, recognised by all peoples of the countries in which Tatars live.
Much is being done and on the state line. From the first years of my presidency, we laid a good tradition: in each foreign country we visited on official business I met with representatives of the Tatar diaspora. Now this tradition has successfully continued with the current President of the Republic, Rustam Minnikhanov. This means that our compatriots have the opportunity to address their requests and suggestions directly to the first person of the country. At the instruction of Rustam Minnikhanov we opened a unique internet project of distance learning for the Tatar language “Mother tongue” as well as several educational portals, such as “Belem.ru” and Tatar Social Network “Tatar Ile”.

In earlier times, we even could not even dream about these achievements. I remember when we saw our compatriots from abroad in the early 90s when they arrived at the first Congress of Tatars. And now the world is open – to communicate, share experiences, ask advice, to meet and to cooperate!

OCA: We know how sincerely admired your work is by Ravil Bukharaev, but what do you think about his work and about him as a person?

MS: We are proud of Ravil Bukharaev. He is a worthy son of the Tatar people. He may be in the last years of his life, living and working away from homeland, in a completely different cultural environment, but, despite this, it is not easy to find a man more Tartar than Ravil Bukharaev. And not only because of his brilliant poetry and prose that are always present showing the native images of Kazan and Tatarstan. By showing the world the verses of our great poet, Gabdulla Tukai, and other classical poets, and our story in English, he has actively promoted our history and culture to the entire planet. Of course, this is a fine example of loyalty to his people, his religion and role model for the younger generation. I like especially his translations of the Tukai poems. Tukai was translated and converted by many prominent poets, but Ravil, knowing the Tatar language perfectly, translated these immortal poems into Russian and English directly and thus preserved the national character and profound wisdom. He had all his life followed the instructions of the great Tukai, which in his own translation is: “Love life, love the motherland and all that which is related to the life of your native people”, that is worthy of deep respect and admiration.

I am glad that I was lucky enough to not only communicate with him, but also to be the hero of his books. Even during his lifetime, I repeatedly thanked him for his interest in my work as the first President of Tatarstan. His view on the recent history of his native land has uncovered new meanings and aspects of important events for the republic, in which I had to directly take part. Ravil Bukharaev is a unique human. His talent has absorbed a big world, but at the same time, he has managed to keep a touching love for his roots and to his homeland.