Who are the Kereshen people? This is a difficult question to answer. At the most basic level, Kereshens are an ethnic and confessional community whose members are scattered over a wide area in the Volga and Urals regions of Russia. Specifically, they are located in the Kama Basin of the Tatar Republic, in the Bashkir and Chuvash republics, and in the Cheliabinsk and Kuibyshev oblasts of the Russian Republic. Only recently has the group been counted (2002 Russian census) because between 1930 and 1970 the Russian government did not recognize Kereshens as a distinct nationality.
Since the fall of communism in 1991 ethnic groups within Russia and the former Soviet Union have gained new freedoms. Additionally for the Kereshens, this autonomy is accompanied by a search for identity. Historically, Kereshens have been identified with the much larger group of Tatars occupying the same territory in the Volga region of Russia. They do not want to be absorbed by another culture and lose links with their own traditions and cultural achievements. For the most part, they are surrounded by a community of several million Muslim Tatars, and are sometimes known as Christian Tatars. However, they do not recognize themselves as such. The majority of Kereshens consider themselves to be descendants of a Turkish-speaking tribe that was baptized during the sixth century in the days of the Bulgarian Empire. However, they do desire strong relationships with the Tatars around them with the goal of a healthy, flourishing Tatarstan. At the most basic level they are searching for significance.
As stated above, Kereshens are an ethnic and confessional community. They are easy to identify as one observes certain aspects of their ethnicity including history, language, and distinct customs. In fact, many of the Kereshens themselves place great emphasis on these ethnic distinctives. Though these aspects are important, and can be used in identification, the aspect that most characterizes the Kereshen people is that of religious identity. Today, Kereshens are defined most clearly by their religion—namely Christian Orthodoxy. Therefore, the thesis of this work is to identify the Kereshen people as a confessional group clearly characterized by Orthodoxy. This task will be accomplished by examining different aspects of their religion with the purpose of providing a basis for their identity.
Although ethnicity, history, language, and cultural aspects of their identity will certainly be examined, the thrust of this research will be in the area of religion. The research in this thesis will be reported in four chapters. Chapter One will serve as an introduction examining historical aspects with the aim of answering certain questions. These questions include: (1) Who are the Kereshens historically? (2) Where do they come from? (3) Where have they been located throughout history? (4) What role have they played in the Tatar nation, as well as the larger history of Russia? (5) Are they a separate people from the Tatars? (6) What is the Kereshen problem?
Chapter Two will focus on the religious history of the Kereshens and will begin by briefly outlining their religious history from before the nineteenth century until the present day. However, the thrust of this chapter will be the aspect of apostasy, its significance, and a response to this apostasy displayed in the life of Nicholai Il'minskii. His life and influence are crucial from a religious aspect and absolutely essential in the formation of Kereshen identity.
In Chapter Three, the emphasis will turn from particular historical aspects of their religion to the history of Orthodoxy itself. Some general facts of Orthodox history will be stated before moving to Orthodox history in Russia. The chapter will conclude with some historical implications for an Orthodox worldview that are clearly identified in the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the church and the Great Schism of 1054.
Chapter four is concerned with certain theological aspects of Orthodoxy that will be used to identify the Kereshens as the aspects are applied in practice. Two broad areas of Orthodox theology will be the bases for particular ideas and practices to be applied in the Kereshen context, thus identifying them as a confessional Orthodox community. These major areas will be considered under the headings of theology proper and theology as worship. Theology proper will include the understanding of apophasis in Orthodoxy as well as the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and the Filioque Clause. Theology of worship will consist of aspects surrounding the sacraments and icons.