A wedding feast is in full swing in the imam’s office of Kazan’s Qolsharif mosque, a gleaming white,
blue-domed landmark atop the city’s citadel. As my interpreter Olga Kassimova and I tuck
into round duck pies, called belish, and achpochmak, triangles of pastry stuffed with
chopped meat and potatoes, Rustem Zinnurov, the 34-year-old imam, spells out the Russian
city’s well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance.
“Muslim-Christian relations here are more than just tolerant,” he contends. “They are fraternal.”
In a city whose 1.2 million inhabitants split about evenly between Tatar Muslim and Russian Orthodox
Christian backgrounds, this is no small accomplishment. For example, he says, the Muslim holiday of
'Id al-Fitr, here called by its Turkish name, kurban bayrami, is a day off work for the whole city.
The mosque itself, the largest in Russia, has a museum that shows not only Islamic history, science
and traditions, but also displays relating to the Bible and the Torah.
An unequivocal sign of the city’s fraternal interfaith relations is the mosque’s location itself, occupying
symbolic pride of place inside Kazan’s citadel or kremlin. Listed as a World Heritage site by the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the kremlin also hosts the
gilt-domed Annunciation Cathedral, and it has been a monument to Russian rule since Czar Ivan IV
(“Ivan the Terrible”) conquered the Tatars in the 16th century. Across town, the Russian Islamic
University, founded in 1978 as the country’s first institute for advanced Muslim education, provides
both religious and secular courses of study.
Who, then, are the Tatars? Little known in the West, Tatars are a Turkic people, the largest minority in
Russia. But there is also a global Tatar diaspora, with communities stretching from Japan to Poland to
San Francisco. The Tatar language, written in Cyrillic characters in Russia and Latin and Arabic letters
elsewhere, resembles Turkish with some Arabic words and is spoken by some seven million people
around the world. Among famous Tatars are the ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, composer Sofia Gubaidulina,
Olympic tennis player Dinara Safina and, in Hollywood, actor Charles Bronson.
Converted to Islam in the 10th century by emissaries from the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir in Baghdad,
the nomadic Tatars were absorbed into the Mongolian Golden Horde, and they dominated Russia for
centuries. They owe their name to their reputation as superb horsemen: Tatar means “mounted courier”
in Turkish. “Tartar” (with its extra r) is a European corruption, probably derived from Tartarus, the
abyss of damned souls in Greek mythology, in order to malign the equestrian invaders as barbarian devils.
Situated at the confluence of the Kazanka and Volga Rivers some 800 kilometers (500 mi) east of
Moscow, Kazan is also the 1005-year-old capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan. It is rich in oil
and natural gas, and quite likely it is also the most unexpectedly vibrant place you’ve never heard of.
Far smaller than Moscow or St. Petersburg, the city boasts a diverse cultural scene that vies with its
Apart from world-class theater, music and museums, there are international festivals devoted to opera,
ballet, Muslim film, live rock bands and hip-hop. Its circus is top in the country, and it’s home to Russia’s
first school for aspiring rock musicians. “Europe-Asia,” an annual festival of contemporary music, brings
together composers and performers from all over Russia as well as France, the us, China, Mongolia,
Tajikistan and other countries. New buildings are sprouting up in preparation for the 2013 Universiade,
a sort of summer Olympics for university students that is expected to draw 12,000 athletes from 170
countries to compete in 26 sports.
The city’s professional ice hockey team, Ak Bars Kazan, is one of the strongest in Eastern Europe’s
Kontinental Hockey League, having won the Gagarin Cup in both 2009 and 2010. The team’s name
refers to an ancient national symbol among Turkic peoples: the winged snow leopard, which appears
on the team’s jerseys.
As part of the campaign to spruce up Kazan’s historical sites, the home where novelist Leo Tolstoy
lived with his aunt while he was a university student is being renovated, along with the building where
the early-20th-century author Maxim Gorky once worked as a baker. The homes of writers Sharif Kamal
and Gabdulla Tukay, known as the Tatar Pushkin, are also being restored to serve as centers for the
promotion of Tatar literature. The stately brick house where Lenin lived before he was expelled in 1887
from Kazan University is now a museum recreating the plush bourgeois interior of the onetime home of
the budding revolutionary.
If Lenin were to wander Kazan’s streets today, he would no doubt be astonished how quickly this city,
like much of Russia, appears to have turned its back on the Communist past to embrace capitalist
economics. Behind Tatarstan’s parliament, construction is under way on apartment blocks embellished
with faux-French Renaissance façades. Down the hill, neighborhoods of pastel-colored homes, spreading
along the banks of the Kazanka before it flows into the Volga, “are the most sought-after, most expensive
houses in Kazan,” says my interpreter Kassimova, a 21-year-old education major. In a city where
income averages 10,000 rubles (about $325) a month, one of these riverfront homes costs around five
million rubles (around $163,000), she says.
At the heart of the city’s historic center is Bauman Street, a kilometer-long pedestrian concourse that
connects the kremlin to a shopping mall and entertainment complex. Lined with shops, restaurants,
cafés and nightclubs, the street is as eclectic as the city itself. Down the way from a French boutique
selling pricey jewelry and stores with the latest mobile phones are once-gracious offices of turreted
brick that now appear abandoned. Break-dancers September/October 2011 27 and Tatar folk musicians
take turns performing in front of the statue of Feodor Chaliapin, Kazan’s illustrious operatic basso.
Halfway between the Dom Tatarskoy Kulinarii restaurant, which serves Tatar specialties in a grand
setting, and the ever-busy McDonald’s with its tables spilling out onto the sidewalk, there sits a bronze
replica of the carriage of Catherine the Great. (The gilt original, with its glass windows and painted
sides depicting mythological scenes, rests in the National Museum.)
The 18th-century empress has been much respected here ever since she overturned many of the
anti-Tatar measures instituted at the beginning of the 1700’s by her predecessor, Peter the Great.
Where Peter forced Tatar Muslims to convert to the Orthodox faith, Catherine lifted the ban on stone
mosques, and in 1771 she allowed the establishment of two religious schools (madrasas). In one oft-repeated
anecdote, Orthodox priests complained to her during a 1767 visit that minarets were being erected that rose
higher than the church steeples. Her reply, the story goes, was to declare, “My rule is on earth; what happens
in the skies is God’s concern”—giving tacit permission to let the minarets stand.
Under the Soviets, both Tatar culture and Islam were again repressed along with other regional
identities and Christianity. “We were seen as barbarians,” explains Guzel Valeeva-Suleymanova, a
professor of decorative arts in the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences. In 1974, her father, Fuad Valeev,
was exiled as a Tatar nationalist for writing books on Tatar ornaments.
“It was dangerous to promote Tatar arts,” she says from her office inside Kazan’s kremlin. “The Soviets were
completely opposed to the idea that we had our own culture. They wanted to be seen as bringing civilization
to us.” Even in the late 1970’s, when she was studying for a doctorate in art history at the prestigious Moscow
Institute for the Decorative and Applied Arts, she faced discrimination when her research asserting that Tatars
influenced Russian decorative arts was met with ridicule. “Russians had to dominate Tatars, even artistically,
not the other way around,” she recalls.”My research was seen as esthetic heresy.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, there was a surge of interest in the Tatar legacy. “Suddenly,
we had access to books about the Tatars that had been published abroad,” the professor explains.
Valeeva-Suleymanova and other scholars were able to begin compiling a truer history of the Tatars, the Golden
Horde and the Khanate of Kazan, the last independent Tatar monarchy, which flourished from 1438 to 1552.
“Before perestroika, all this history was forbidden, so that’s why we are now so concerned about getting
at the truth and reclaiming our past,” she says. According to her, the Golden Horde, caricatured as a brutal
band of marauding Mongols roaring out of the East in the 13th century to swallow Europe, deserves more
respect. “It was really a very well-organized and prosperous state,” argues Valeeva-Suleymanova. “The Russians
called it ‘golden’ because it was so wealthy.”
Packed with Tatar treasures and artifacts, the National Museum, the Millennium Museum and the kremlin’s
Khazine Gallery display extraordinary silver filigree jewelry studded with turquoise, amethyst and other gems;
dresses meticulously stitched with floral patterns in silver and gold thread as well as bell-shaped velvet caps
with elaborate embroidery. Although both women and men still occasionally don traditional costume for
weddings and celebrations such as the June harvest festival of Sabantui, the centuries-old traditions of Tatar
decorative arts are nonetheless rapidly disappearing, says Valeeva-Suleymanova.
“These high artisanal crafts are dying because they are too expensive,” she laments. During my stay, in fact,
a local official publicly protested the influx of Chinese-made imitations of kalyapush velvet caps that were
selling for a fraction of the price charged by Kazan craftspeople.
In contrast to the discouraging prospects for most Tatar handicrafts, Tatar language and literature appear
to be thriving, according to two of the republic’s most prolific authors and the director of the Tatar state theater.
Earliest Tatar manuscripts date back more than a millennium, explains Razil Valeev, whose office in the slab-like
parliament building overlooks Liberty Square. A soft-spoken member of Parliament who wears as many hats as
anyone in Kazan, 64-year-old Valeev is chairman of the parliamentary committee on culture, science, education
and nationalities; president of Tatar PEN, an affiliate of the international writers’ organization; and poet, playwright
and author of musical comedies with some 43 published books and 200 poems set to music.
Valeev credits the region’s high cultural tolerance to its correspondingly high levels of literacy. “We read many books,
including works on Islam, so it’s with our eyes, not our ears, that we understand the religion,” he says. “Perhaps
that is why we have no fanaticism here.”
Nor is there repression, claims Valeev. Unlike PEN’s Moscow office, which frequently protests the mistreatment of
authors and journalists, the Tatar branch has not been involved in defending writers because, he maintains, they
have been free to publish what they like. Instead, the local PEN has promoted Tatar literature, helping publish 20
books by Tatar authors in English, among them the works of Gabdulla Tukay and anthologies of contemporary
poetry and prose by some of its 30 members.
In 1999, Valeev and other parliamentarians drew up a proposal to re-adopt the Latin alphabet for writing the Tatar
language, as it had been used for a dozen years from 1927-39, following widespread use of an Arabic-based script.
(In 1939 Stalin imposed Cyrillic to force Turkic minorities to write in a script Soviet authorities could read, and pull
them from Turkey and the Turkic heritage.) The proposal made sense, Valeev suggests, since the Cyrillic alphabet
lacks some letters needed in Tatar, which obliged Tatars to invent their own quasi-Cyrillic combinations to write
their own language. “Sending a Tatar text message in Cyrillic is a nightmare,” he says, frowning. Nonetheless,
Moscow rejected the proposal.
More recently, Tatar—and all 100 or so minority languages in Russia—faces an even more serious challenge.
Seeking to increase federal control, in September 2009 the Russian government passed a law limiting the teaching
of minority languages in public schools; however, the measure has yet to be enforced.
“It’s a barbaric law,” protests Tufan Minullin, one of Tatarstan’s most popular playwrights. “All the representatives
in the Tatarstan parliament are strongly opposed to it, so I don’t think it will go into effect.” Perhaps, but if it came
to a showdown between the republic and Moscow, there is little doubt as to who would prevail.
Despite the city’s rapid growth, Kazan’s young people are increasingly impatient with Russia’s political and economic
prospects, and they are looking outside the country for education and contacts—particularly to Turkey. The dramatist
cites his own 23-year-old grandson as an example. Although the exuberant, 76-year-old writer has had some 50
plays staged in all 11 of the Tatar theaters across Russia and is one the fiercest advocates for the Tatar language,
he admits he is encouraging his Tatar-speaking grandson to continue his studies not in Tatar, but in Turkish and English.
“The cultural and economic ties between Tatarstan and Turkey are growing quickly,” Minullin explains.
Another indicator of emerging links to Turkey and Turkic-speaking regions is the weeklong Navruz International
Theater Festival of the Turkic Peoples held in June in the Kamal Tatar State Academy Theater. Bringing together
groups from more than 18 countries and regions, the festival presents around two dozen plays.
Overlooking the blue-green waters of Kaban
Lake, the theater’s modernist concrete building occupies a symbolic position between the old Tatar district and the
historically Russian part of the city, with its Italianate and French-influenced architecture. As kayaks and pedal boats
glide along the lake and a fountain sprays water high into the air, director Shamil Zakirov gives my interpreter and me
a tour of the theater.
A broad-shouldered man of 71 with an elfin grin and eyes twinkling below his traditional tubeteika
skullcap, Zakirov has run the theater for 26 years, nearly a quarter of its 106-year existence. Inside the airy,
glassfronted lobby, he shows us photographs on display of the troupe’s 60 actresses and actors.
They keep busy. The theater stages an astonishing 280 performances a year, says Zakirov, generally playing to
large audiences in Tatar, with simultaneous translations into Russian and English through headphones available
at each seat. In addition, many in the repertory cast take roles in television and film and also participate in festivals
around the world, from London and Helsinki to Bogotá and Istanbul. “Kazan is becoming a theatrical capital of Russia,”
Every year, the theater sponsors a competition entitled “The Modern Tatar Play,” which receives around 100
entries from aspiring dramatists. Ten plays are chosen for publication, and two or three of these are given full-fledged
stagings. One of the most compelling discoveries so far was “The Mute Cuckoo,” a 2006 winner by 41-year-old writer
Based on a true story, the play portrays a friendship between a Finnish Tatar soldier and a Soviet Tatar soldier during
the 1939 Finnish–Soviet conflict. Despite being on opposite sides, the men are connected by a shared language, songs
and childhood memories. The Finnish soldier is imprisoned and later released to return home, but the two men never
see one another again. It is only recently, after the opening up of the Soviet Union, that the children of the two soldier friends
meet and recollect the friendship between their fathers.
“It’s a story about the conflict of allegiances,” Zakirov explains, “how individuals are torn between their ethnic
loyalties and their duty to a country.” The play proved a hit not only in Kazan, but on tour to Almaty, Baku, Helsinki
and London. “Audiences left the theaters in tears,” he recalls.
One warm July evening, after an early dinner, I set out on a walk through the old Tatar district to survey the few
remaining wooden houses, built by prosperous merchants in the late 19th century. Young couples, families with kids,
all generations are out and about, strolling along the lakeside promenade in jeans, T-shirts, light dresses and shorts.
Although women dress modestly, few wear head scarves. I’m struck by the wide variety of Kazan’s citizens: tall
blondes with high cheekbones, women with dark black hair and red hair, Asian faces, and others with a more
It’s blessedly peaceful away from the ubiquitous music, usually soft rock, that is the constant aural background of
Bauman Street and in restaurants everywhere. Facing the promenade are a smattering of wooden houses painted
in cheery colors of aqua, bright blue, green and yellow. Some are decorated with finely carved designs, but all appear
dilapidated. As the sky turns pink in the dusk, the smell of grilled meat wafts uphill from a lively, open-air restaurant
hugging the lakeshore.
Later, I bring up development and preservation with Rozaliya Nurgaleeva, director of the State Visual Arts Museum.
She rolls her eyes in frustration. “With the huge construction boom under way, everyone conveniently forgets about
preserving old buildings,” she says inside her office in the museum, which occupies a palatial 1906 mansion. “The
government refuses to learn the lesson that investing in restoration and preservation can have a far-ranging effect
on our future as a cultural center. Tourists aren’t interested in visiting buildings they can see anywhere else. They’re
interested in our historic specificity, what we offer that no one else does,” continues Nurgaleeva, who trained as an
architectural restorationist before becoming an art historian.
With her short black hair and stylish black glasses, the museum director is brimming with ideas to broaden the
appeal of her institution. Its eclectic collection ranges from 13th-century icons to portraits by 19th century society
artist Vladimir Repin, landscapes by Russian impressionists and a stand-out abstract canvas by Wassily Kandinsky,
as well as Tatar paintings, glass, carpets and other decorative arts. Despite the wide-ranging holdings, the museum
“was truly sleepy,” she says. “I wanted to shake things up,” she adds with a grin. Her first step was to conduct
surveys in supermarkets to find out what Kazan’s middle classes knew about the museum. Woefully little, as it turned out.
She launched art competitions, not just in Kazan, but across Tatarstan, and she invited budding artists to visit
the museum and send their work over the Internet for evaluation and advice. She organized programs for children
to work with painters and psychologists to introduce the youngsters to color, drawing and technique. A course for
pregnant women encourages them not only to draw and paint, but to dance and write as well, composing letters to
their future children. In addition to exhibit-themed poetry readings, there are now evening jazz concerts that include
long intermissions for exploration of the museum’s collections. “It’s all part of attracting a new public,” says Nurgaleeva.
Her ambitions are shared across from the kremlin at the National Museum of Tatarstan, where plans are afoot to turn
an entire city block into one of the largest cultural complexes in Russia. According to museum director Gulchachack
Nazipova, the 7.5-billion ruble ($250-million) project will feature interactive exhibitions covering every region of the
republic, workshops on fine art and decorative arts, reading rooms, a lecture and concert hall—and a planetarium—and
a hotel and a restaurant.
“The idea is to draw families to stay for the weekend in the hotel, eat in the café and restaurant, and have a playground
and activities for the children so the whole family can take advantage of the museum,” she says, sounding thoroughly
entrepreneurial. “We’ve already started work on the project, but are awaiting more financing, both from the state and
private investors,” she continues. Her hope is that by combining historic restoration with new construction, the massive
complex could serve as an example for future development.
Despite Kazan’s museum revival, there are only four or five contemporary art galleries. Nonetheless, the city has produced
a number of artists. The 42-year-old painter Alfia Ilyasova, vice president of the local artists’ society that comprises some
200 professional members, has devised “Scrolls” as a resourceful solution to the dearth of galleries.
Seated on benches inside the Khazine Gallery, a state-run arts museum occupying a former military school in the kremlin,
Ilyasova describes how artists create works on fabric that are then rolled up into transport cylinders and sent to various
cities, where the works are displayed in temporary exhibition spaces, complete with catalogues published by the local
venues. So far, “Scrolls” has toured Russia and Turkey with financial backing from Türksoy, a cultural organization of 14
countries and regions with Turkic languages that is supported by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Originally
launched with a handful of Kazan artists, “Scrolls” now stretches across Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East and has
multiplied to embrace some 300 contributors, most from Tatarstan and Turkic-language countries such as Kazakhstan,
Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—but also a dozen or so from Arab nations like Kuwait and the United Arab
This sort of artistic exchange, independent of state control, was unimaginable during the Soviet period, says Ilyasova,
as was religious expression. “My grandmother, who was both a Communist true believer and a secret Muslim, was afraid
to wear earrings and other jewelry that had Arabic lettering,” she recalls. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it became
possible to practice Islam openly. Ilyasova’s response was to fashion art inspired by Muslim traditions. One such canvas
depicts the angel Gabriel appearing to converts in 10th-century Bolghar, the Tatar capital at the time.
In a nearby room, the artist shows my interpreter and me two of her “Scrolls,” both dedicated to her ancestors.
The first piece is a five-meter (16') roll of burlap inscribed with runic Tatar characters that date from medieval times.
“It’s a letter from a grandfather to his grandson,” she explains, “instructing him to carry on the Tatar heritage for future
generations.” Hanging from a wall, the companion work is a roll of white cloth that incorporates chain-stitch embroidery
decorated with patterns of flowers, fruit and leaves. “It’s a homage to my grandmother, who did stitching like this,”
It’s extraordinary how proud Kazan’s residents are of their Tatar identity. It comes across in Ilyasova’s evocative
tributes to her clan, in poet Valeev’s defense of the Tatar language, in theater director Zakirov’s promotion of young
playwrights and in art historian Valeeva-Suleymanova’s love for indigenous decorative arts. Perhaps it’s because the
Tatars had to fight czars and dictators that they still bristle at being stereotyped as “barbarians,” and they cling so firmly
to both their culture and their hardwon fraternal relations with their fellow Russian citizens.
Perhaps not surprisingly, according to Valeev, the key to preserving Tatar identity is maintaining strong generational ties.
It has always been this way, he says. Under the czars, the Tatars isolated themselves so as not to fall too much under
the influence of their Russian rulers. “Each village was like an independent little state and each family shared a small
part of that state,” he explains. “In this manner, they were able to conserve centuries of heritage.”
But these days, Tatars are well aware of the delicate balancing act of their existence, perched between Europe and Asia,
borrowing from both.
Citing worries about loss of family structure and about Moscow-style unbridled capitalism, the
poet-politician argues, “We need to take the example of Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, which have a high
standard of living, but have managed to conserve their customs and traditions. Unlike other parts of Russia that are less
tolerant and perhaps more corrupt, we need to encourage capitalism with a human face.”
In addition contributing regularly to Saudi Aramco World, Paris-based
Richard Covington ([email protected])
writes about culture, history and science for Smithsonian, The International Herald Tribune,
U.S. News & World Report and The Sunday Times of London.
Photojournalist Sergey Maximishin ([email protected])
has been regularly recognized since 2001 by both the Russia Press Photo Contest and World Press Photo. A former staff
photographer for Izvestia, his work appears frequently in leading world magazines. He lives in St. Petersburg.