As everything from mosques to sushi bars open in preparation for the cityís 1000th anniversary, the Tatars of Kazan are rediscovering themselves.
By Vernon Howell
As the train approaches the city I look out the window and see, rising from the white walls of the Kremlin, a massive mosque. With its great blue dome and four minarets stabbing at the clouds, it dominates the skyline. Then I notice that the song on the tinny train radio is in some strange new language. The music is corny pop, but the vocals are harsh and guttural, and I canít make out one familiar word. Stepping off the train I see bilingual signs, Russian and some other language everywhere, and Cyrillic letters Iím not familiar with. Thereís a strange flag flying over the station, and itís green and white and red. I go inside and find a portrait of President Putin in an Asian skullcap. Heís smiling, as if to say, ďYouíre in Tatarstan now. The rules are different here.Ē
For 999 years, Kazan has stood on the border between Europe and Asia. For the last five 500, though, the city has been fully Russified, a colonial outpost of Moscow. But now, as Kazan crouches on the edge of its 1000th anniversary, the Tatars have a Tatar president, and are free to explore and express their native culture. This is why Iíve come: Iím curious to see how far the Tatars have emerged from the shadow of Russian dominance.
Kazan was originally populated by a tribe called the Volga Bulgars. They were farmers and traders who didnít stand a chance against Genghis Khanís grandson Batu when he arrived with the amassed forces of the Golden Horde in the fourteenth century. The Bulgars fell quickly, as did all the other tribes in the area ó Chuvash, Mari, Udmurt and Russian alike. For the next three hundred years Russian princes lived under the ďTatar Yoke,Ē paying tribute to their Mongol Tatar masters, for fear of reprisals that were bloody and swift.
But the Tatars were not only warriors. Throughout these three centuries Kazan was a center of learning, famous for its beautiful eastern architecture. Poets, philosophers, and religious teachers lived in the ďcity of a thousand spiresĒ which became a gateway between the cultures of Europe and Asia. In 1552, however, Ivan the Terrible waged war against the Khans. Kazan was razed to the ground, the central Kul Sherif mosque destroyed, and those Tatars not killed were banished from the city. The Tatars spent the following centuries either integrating with their Russian masters or enduring varying levels of oppression, depending on which tsar was in charge. The Soviet period, of course, was worst of all for Islam, and many mosques were demolished or profaned.
I walk from the train station to my hotel, then head for the Kremlin. The mosque I saw from the window of the train is the Kul Sherif, rebuilt 500 years after Ivan the Terrible destroyed it. Like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, its resurrection is an assertion of renewed faith, of reconnecting with historical identity. The Kul Sherif is the new symbol of the republic. Itís on all the postcards, mugs and celebratory banners.
Kazanís white-walled Kremlin is beautiful. Walking around I see Unescoís HQ for the Lower Volga region and, of course, a grand palace for Mintimir Shaimiyev, the president of Tatarstan. Numerous government ministries are based here also, with Tatar flags emblazoned above the doors. I pause by the Suyumbeki tower, a leaning, red brick edifice that until recently was Kazanís most notable landmark. The story goes that Ivan IV laid siege to Kazan in the first place because the beautiful princess Suyumbeki refused to marry him. In the end she said she would, but only if he built a tower taller than the cityís highest mosque in a week. The efficient Ivan succeeded. Suyumbeki, rather than leave her beloved city, jumped from the tower.
A local mufti speaks to believers in his Kazan mosque. Photograph by Gennady Smirnov.
Curiously, however, I canít find the Kul Sherif. There are too many buildings hemming me in. Fortunately I bump into Yelena Misko, an archaeology student whoís assisting in a dig nearby. She shows me the path: I have to walk across a muddy patch of ground and climb over a building site. Then in the distance, separated by a deep pit, I see the massive, unreachable temple. Itís impressive. ďThe exterior is finishedĒ says Yelena, ďBut the interiors need work. It will be open in time for next yearís anniversary celebrations. Two thousand people can fit in there. The Tatars are very proud.Ē
ďWhat about Russians?Ē I ask. The Assumption Cathedral nearby looks rather shabby and is closed for repairs that donít seem to be taking place.
ĒThere is unity in Tatarstan,Ē she says. ďThere is no tension between the peoples.Ē
I leave the Kremlin and head back to the center. On the way I see that, though the Tatar influence may be growing, the city in many ways remains very Russian. Beautiful churches and old, pre-revolutionary buildings are dotted throughout the center. Kazan seems to have escaped seven decades of Soviet vandalism relatively unscathed. It hasnít escaped the vagaries of nature, however. The city is built on unstable soil, and consequently many houses have collapsed. Still standing, however, is the famous Kazan University. Both Tolstoy and Lenin studied here; an amusing statue of a young Lenin stands opposite the white columns of its facade.
I reach Ulitsa Baumana, Kazanís mini-Arbat. Walking along it I pass houses bearing plaques dedicated to the Tatar geniuses who lived in them, among them Musa Jalil, a poet murdered by the Nazis. At the end of the street stands the facade of the elegant Kazan hotel, which is awaiting reconstruction. Surprisingly, Ulitsa Baumana is home to the kind of boutiques one does not expect to find in provincial Russia: Sisley, Mango and Benetton. Thereís even a Yakitoria sushi restaurant.
Like the Arbat, Ulitsa Baumana is lined with cafes. And like the Novy Arbat, music is pumped out of speakers all day every day, which has to be annoying for the people who live there: itís still a residential street. I meet Shamil Biktash, a local journalist in the Cafe Antaliya to talk Tatar culture. Is it experiencing a revival?
The entrance to a mosque in Kazanís Tartar quarter. Photograph by Gennady Smirnov.
ďAt the start of the Ď90s,Ē says Shamil, ďTatarstan declared its sovereignty. For three or five years, the federal government didnít intervene at all and we were practically independent. Under Putin, however, weíre less autonomous. But we still celebrate our day of sovereignty on August 30.
ďTatar culture is growing stronger, but it is still weak. For example, in Kazan there are 2000 streets, but only 67 are named after Tatars. On the other hand, 1000 mosques have been built in the republic since 1991, and the Tatar language is now compulsory for all school children, including Russians. There are websites devoted to the language, and moves to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the Roman. Soon the Constitutional Court will decide if thatís legally possible.
ďIn Kazan, however, only 30 percent of the population is Tatar, so for Tatars here their first language is Russian. Only in places like Bugulma, Elmet and Aznaqay will you find pure unadulterated Tatar.Ē
What about customs, I ask? Do the Tatars embrace their old traditions?
ďOur biggest festival is Sabantui. Itís a pagan festival that marks the end of sowing. We celebrate it on or around the longest day of the year, usually June 22. There are lots of games: for example, you place a coin in the bottom of a basin under yoghurt, then the contestants have to pull it out with their teeth. Itís very messy and very funny. Putin did this on TV. There are also wrestling competitions, and racing competitions. Itís celebrated all over Tatarstan, but the main celebrations in Kazan take place in a field at the foot of the Kremlin.Ē
I leave Shamil in the late afternoon and find Iím not sure what to do with my evening. The problem with this being the 999th anniversary of Kazan is that everything is in a state of preparation for next year. The ballet and opera are closed for renovation. Meanwhile the circus and theater seasons havenít started yet. Iíd like to see a Tatar language play in the Kamal Theater, but the woman at the kassa informs me that, alas, performances do not begin until the week after. Finally I take a bus into the suburbs to watch Alien vs. Predator. Vadik, standing next to me in the queue tells me proudly that Kazan now gets new films as soon as the rest of Europe. It may not be a sign of a Tatar cultural renaissance, but it definitely shows, like the fancy clothes shops on Ulitsa Baumana, and the IKEA and MEGA on the outskirts of town, that Tatarstan is catching up with the world.
FIVE THINGS TO DO
||While away a lazy afternoon cafe hopping on Ulitsa Baumana. Quality Julius Meinl cappuccinos can be had for a third of Moscowís prices. Later, take part in a little open air karaoke by the statue to Fyodor Shalyapin, the great Russian opera singer. |
||Go paddling in the Volga. Kazan has a long, pleasant beach with secluded spots where you can pass a sunny afternoon lying in the sun or dipping your feet in a clean stretch of this almost mythic river.|
||Wander among the old wooden houses and mosques of the Tatar quarter, pausing at Ebivoi at 20 Ul. Parizhoi Kommuna to buy yourself some colorful Tatar robes or decorative plates.|
||Try Echpochmak, the tastiest of traditional Tatar pastries. A triangular concoction of potato, meat and onion, itís sold from street vendors around the center. |
||Visit the Wax Museums on Ulitsa Baumana. There are two separate displays of the worldís greatest heroes and villains on this street. The wax Putin is uncannily lifelike. |
ONE THING NOT TO DO
||Donít go into the Tatar State Museum. Itís excruciatingly dull.|
I decide to spend my second day in the historic Tatar quarter. Itís not marked on tourist guides in any detail, but Shamil tells me that at least seven old mosques survived there. Logically, if Iím going to find some Tatar spirit, something that makes this city unique and different from the rest of Russia, then itíll be there.
I cross a canal, moving away from the center. It doesnít take long to reach the neighborhood. The wooden houses are over a hundred years old, and a good number are dilapidated, but people still live in them, so, though not very glamorous, the quarter is alive. I notice too that the people here look different. They have dark eyes, olive skin. However, although Iím blue eyed and almost bleached white, I donít feel alien here. The atmosphere is open, welcoming.
I pass the Nurullah Mosque, on Ulitsa Parizhkoi Kommuna. The plaque on the wall outside gives the name in three languages, including English. Architecturally itís rather odd: the tsars had laws restricting Tatar buildings stylistically, so this brick built green and white mosque has a decidedly Russian feel. And yet itís all the more exotic and unfamiliar for that. A steady stream of the devout is passing in and out of its doors.
I walk on, take a few twists and turns and pass the wooden house of Kamal, a great Tatar author. I find a shop, Ebivol, selling traditional Tatar costumes, skull caps and ornamental plates. Then I come to another mosque, the Gosmanov Soltanov on Ulitsa Kamala. Outside thereís a bustling bazaar. Men and women are shopping for hats, gloves, toys and bootleg CDs. Men pour coins into freestanding gambling machines. The area is buzzing with life. I buy a CD of Tatar pop music, songs of love and nostalgia for the village, and continue walking.
I walk until the crowds melt away and the streets are quiet. I find another mosque, a simple green one. I canít see its name, but the ironwork on the gate is beautiful. Though a little nervous, I enter. By the door thereís a huge rug of the Kul Sherif, and standing guard, an old man who introduces himself as Marat. Though Iím worried I might be an intruder, heís welcoming. I take off my shoes and pass through to the prayer hall. Like the exterior, itís plain and unadorned. I notice a small room containing little wooden desks. Marat explains to me: ďItís not only a mosque, but a school, too. For 70 years we werenít allowed to study our culture, to know our religion. Now we learn. I learn too. Iím in my sixties, but I am a student!Ē
I thank Marat and go. I canít say Iíve found a ďpureĒ Tatar spirit, but then neither have the Tatars ó yet. This is only the beginning of a flowering, of a people finding themselves again, after a long hibernation. Itís fascinating to watch. Now is a good time to visit Kazan.
How to Get There
Trains between Moscow and Kazan are frequent and depart from Kazansky Station near metro Komsomolskaya. A second class (kupe) one way ticket costs between 700 and 1000 rubles, depending on the train. Travel time is between 12 and 15 hours. Tickets can be bought at the station, though we recommend paying a small surcharge to buy them at a railway ticket office in the metro, as customer service in Kazansky Station is execrable. Kazan has an airport, and flights depart from Domodedovo on a daily basis for $120. The flight lasts one hour.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Tatarstan (Tel. 32 68 79) at 2 Ulitsa Kuibysehva is a recently renovated Intourist-style hotel in the heart of the city. Single/double rooms go for $15/18. Also central, the Hotel Duslik (Tel. 32 61 19) at 49 Ulitsa Pravo-Bulachnaya occupies several floors of the State Circus Hotel. It offers pleasant, Holiday Inn-style rooms from 750 to 1250 rubles. An office in the train station provides flat rentals starting at 600 rubles per night.
Where to Eat
Myasnoi Udar at 48 Profsoyuznaya is an American-style grill house that offers large servings of steak and other meaty delights at Moscow prices. Cheaper is Pizza Giuseppe at 15 Kremlyovskaya Ulitsa. Itís cozy, friendly, and just a stoneís throw from the Kremlin. A sparkling McDonaldís stands at 70A Ul. Baumana, doing a roaring trade in Big Macs.
When to Go
Next year. Kazan currently resembles a construction site as the city prepares for next yearís millennium celebrations. Catch the Sabantui festivities in late June, or visit on August 30 for the grand opening of both the Kul Sherif mosque and Kazanís new metro system.