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Slavs and Tatars, Not Moscow Not Mecca, 2012, publication, Revolver Verlag/Secession, off-set print, 23x31cm, 108 pages. Courtesy the artists
When I first came across the name Slavs and Tatars, four or five years ago, I thought they must be one of the newly popular, of-the-moment artists' groups in Russia, perhaps from some place not normally included in the international contemporary art circuit — perhaps even from one of the proud cities on the Volga where Slavs and Tatars have been coexisting for centuries: Nizhni Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Astrakhan… I assumed, without knowing anything about the work, that the collective addressed a crucial in-built complication in Russian culture.
Slavs and Tatars have been united in troubled but often productive symbiosis for many centuries. Both ethnicities are hybrid and complex, each consisting of different peoples with different features, cultural as well as facial. It was only in the fifth and sixth centuries that Slavic-speakers left their supposed homeland in today’s northern Ukraine and spread across much of southern and eastern Europe. In the complicated geography of the so-called Dark Ages this almost immediately led to encounters with Turkic-speakers — Avars, Pechenegs, Bulgars and others — who were originally from north-eastern Asia. The Tatars, or Tartars, enter history around the same time, when several nomadic peoples formed a confederation around Lake Baikal. They were part of Genghis Khan’s army in the thirteenth century, and when his empire broke up they remained in charge of its western parts. Today’s European Russia lived under the ‘Tatar Yoke’ well into the sixteenth century. The many Tatar words in contemporary Russian are evidence of a long shared history.
Later I discovered that my assumption about Slavs and Tatars was only partly right. They are a popular and of-the-moment collective; they have a connection to