These traditions supposedly come from pagan Turkic rites of trying to persuade the Gods to bring a fine harvest (though I cannot see the connection between arm wrestling and spiritual fertilizer). The word saban signifies spring crops or sewing, and tuy means wedding or grandeur.
One old-style house I enter seems to be of similar manufacture as a Russian hut with those bright, carved shutters. The embroidery work in the distinct cold hues on the ichigi boots has been set up for attraction and is surely Tatar. A woman sits behind a table of vareniki, blini, and kystiby (potato quesadillas) in distinctly Russian dress.
In this section of Sabantuy, there are food stands. “Can we buy this food?” a hungry visitor asks.
“It’s for show,” the food lady answers.
“Where are the meat-triangles? Where is the Shurpa noodle soup?” Another visitors questions.
“This isn’t a Tatar hut,” is the answer. “It’s a Ryazan hut.”
Some Ryazan people are of similar Turkic dissent and even preserve the language, but they were baptized when Ivan the Terrible finally captured the Khanates and surrounding kingdoms in the late middle ages.
This lack of distinction of who participates in Sabantuy is a larger question of the Volga peoples. The Chuvash, who are like the Tatars, but Christian, had not been traditionally nomadic. One result: they eat more cabbage. The Bashkirs have an extremely similar language, and there are more Tatars living in Bashkiria. Of all the Tatar traditions that have seeped into Chuvash and Bashkir and the larger culture, though, Sabantuy is perhaps the greatest success. All these Volga peoples celebrate Sabantuy, and there is no exclusion. Anyone is permitted to join the party: for example, though Tatars are traditionally Muslim, I enjoyed some excellent pork shashlik at their Sabantuy.
It is the festival of the diaspora. Way back when, Stalin wanted to deport the Volga Tatars off to Siberia but was advised against it. There were too many of them, they were too organized, had too big a sense of community to send off without a problem. Turkic peoples make up between 6-10% of the population of Russia, and those with a Tatar babushka here or there are even more numerous. What is more, the Kazan Tatars have cousins in Siberia, Crimea, Uzbekistan and now Germany and the United States. If there are 8 or 10 million Tatars, that might not seem like a nation without borders, but compared to some microstates of Europe that’s a significant population. Plenty of famous Russian have Tatar roots, including the ranks of the great Yusupov clan, the family whose wealth outstripped even the Royal Romanovs.