Karan, Tatarstan -- THIS IS the place where "Russia" now falls apart or stays together. This is the next act in the endless melodrama of the death of communism. This is . . . where? Well, let me back up a few steppes.
Moscow -- the hated "center" or, as some of its former peoples colorfully call it, the "black hole" -- still considers Tatarstan to be an autonomous republic that is part of Russia. But Tatarstan, as declared unanimously by its own parliament on Aug. 30, 1990, says it is an independent state.
That already, not surprisingly, is causing problems. The "nation's" vice president, university professor Vasily Likhachev, told me that, while the final aim is total sovereignty and independence, "We have already seen that it is very easy to declare sovereignty but very difficult to achieve it." Russian President Boris Yeltsin greeted the Tatars "illegal" enthusiasm with a tart, "Have as much independence as you can."
But once you get beyond that small confrontation, the whole situation becomes even more confusing. Kazan, or Tatarstan, or this part of the Russian republic (or whatever this rich, historic area is at any one moment these days) last year began negotiating with the other regions and republics, quite deliberately excluding Moscow. It is welcoming foreign businessmen, who are coming, and it is making foreign economic agreements right around and under Moscow's always nosy nose.
But most important, the suddenly wide open Tatar state, which was a "closed" city to foreigners until 1988 because of its many defense industries, has now signed a historic economic agreement with Moscow in which they negotiated as equals.
Under the colonial relationship of the entire Bolshevik period, Russia took all of Tatarstan's oil (extraction of which has gone down from 100 million tons a few years ago to 30 million tons today, largely because of ecological concerns) and riddled the area with big defense industries. Under the new agreement, Tatarstan will now keep 50 percent of her oil, thus establishing an astounding precedent.
"For the first time since 1552, the Russians and the Tatars sat down at the table and concluded an agreement," Linar Latypov, the prime minister's leading economic aide, told me, as even this sophisticated man's voice betrayed a slight amazement. "There was no treaty on paper -- all these centuries.
"The next step is political agreement. This is very serious and complicated, because that would mean independence, and that would set the precedent for the other republics. You can understand that, if one republic is given independence, there will be a mass reaction."
To understand the importance of Kazan -- and how this area out in the middle of the rich fields of the Volga could radically transform Russian history -- one must look back at the Tatars' history.
Of all the cities of ancient Rus, Kazan in the winter's snows is somehow the most compelling, with its lovely old Russian wooden houses and baroque mansions. The original Tatars of the Mongol khans' Golden Horde swept out of Asia in the 13th century to found the city. Ivan the Terrible crushed it in 1552 and constructed an astonishing white Kremlin that still broods over the confluence of the Volga and Kama rivers. Beautiful Kazan University was founded here in the early 1800s, and through its hallowed halls walked writers and poets from Tolstoy to Gorky to Pushkin. Finally, a strange and fixated young man named Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, then 17, was plucked from his picturesque wooden family home here to jail in 1887.
But it was another period here that was, like today, both crucial to the world and virtually unknown to it. The historic Volga Tatars, who remained Moslems even in the face of all the endless persecution of Christian Moscow, were for centuries the elite of the Moslem world. Their sons were educated in Paris and in the glittering centers of learning in the Middle East.
Most important, theirs was a uniquely liberal Islam under the reformist concept called "Jadidism." Had these liberal Moslem concepts spread, as they surely would have except for communism, the entire Middle East and Central Asia would have been a far more open and tolerant place today.
In a real sense, it is that old Tatar spirit of reaching out to the world (in a different manner than that of the Mongol khans) that one sees renascent in Tatarstan today. Its people, for instance, are now making a persuasive effort, under their Watan, or "Homeland," Society to reach the millions of Tatars living abroad.
Still, the major problem here in attempting to change swiftly to a foreign investment-supported market economy, as in Russia proper, is psychological. One snowy cold morning, Dr. Mirza I. Makhoutov analyzed the situation. He is the former minister of education, the republic's major educator, and the man who is working with American educators to found a promising new community college here.
"The psychology of people living in a planned society is that they are accustomed to work by decrees, where they have the order from above," this handsome, craggy-faced man said with concern. "Now we have market relations -- but nobody knows what that is.
"In the past, the government guaranteed the life of the person. So people are only waiting. The individual person is saying, 'Now I have no workplace anymore.' And our big enterprises are closing, not all at once but one after the other. Every enterprise was linked with thousands of others -- from the West to the Far East. Now the country is divided." He smiled wanly. "We say the 'horizontal linkage' is interrupted."
Here, as across the face of the former Soviet Union, primitive collective forms of societal organization are painfully attempting to change to sophisticated modern forms of organization. Formerly colonies within, places such as Tatarstan now form the new liberation movements. Enormously rich and highly industrialized (it produces more than the three Baltic republics put together), Tatarstan could certainly make it economically, with a lot of "ifs."
But whatever happens internally, it looks like Tatarstan's internal declaration of independence will have a pivotal effect on other areas. Western Siberia, for instance, already has strong feelings of separatism.
Napoleon once said, in a sour mood over the Russian steppes and snows, that, "If you scratch a Russian, you find a Tatar." If you scratch Russia today, you find a real Tatar problem.
Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on international affairs.