Shuchi Agrawal 2017-09-16
Kazan: The melting pot

Next to the Kremlin was the Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan, which contained an ornate archaeology collection and told us about the history of the Tatar people and the wars that they fought with Russians and others. We learned about how Tatarstan became part of Russia, and about Bulgarian and Turkish influences on it. These influences remain alive in the city today, not only in historical parts but also in the many authentic Turkish restaurants in the city, and the language, which drew its origins from Turkish. We also found out that one of the causes of the name of the river Volga was actually a corruption of the word Bulgar, which denotes the Turkic nomadic warrior tribe that came to live on the shores of the Volga in Tatarstan over a millennium ago! They came to live there around the seventh century, and soon converted to Islam. In fact, this descent from Bulgars is quite important to Kazan Tatars, as it led to the start of an ethnic nationalist movement called Bulgarism, which lays emphasis on descent from Bulgars. Proponents of this movement have supposedly sprayed messages in graffiti like булгария жива, meaning “Bulgaria lives”. Unfortunately, we did not get to see these.

Epiphany Church’s Bell Tower

More signs than these alone reveal that, to some extent, Kazan people dissociate from the rest of Russia in many ways. Through history, Kazan has often found itself in some opposition to Russian people, and seems to have been forced into Russia in a way. A different ethnicity and culture results in their having different facial features, religious inclinations, architectural and artistic styles, traditional clothing, and countlessly many other things. Their buildings and architecture don’t share the Soviet style of apartments to the extent that apartments in cities like Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod exhibit. And even though we came as Victory Day approached, at a time when most cities like Moscow, Sergiyev Posad, Nizhny Novgorod and others displayed great festive spirit through displays of flags, Kazan didn’t seem to prepare for celebrations in quite the same way. I learned later that celebrations for Victory Day are done slightly differently from those in Moscow and other places. Another interesting reason is that many people in recent years in Kazan (and other regions that have a troubled past with the rest of Russia) have started to boycott the iconic orange and black ribbons and flags for St George’s Day. This is quite ironic as Kazan has the main ribbon-producing factory for these, but the reason behind the opposition is that some Kazan Tatars, among many “minorities” in Russia, have begun to identify this ribbon as Russia’s assertion of its imperial victory over Kazan in the past. So unlike in other cities, such flags no longer decorate the streets of the city on Victory Day. Instead, many activists have started distributing red and green ribbons, which represent the Republic of Tatarstan.

My friends and I experienced Tatar culture, through aspects like food and clothing as well. We went not only to a Tatar stolovaya, to get common Tatar home food, but also to the traditional Tatar-themed restaurant Tugan Avylym, where the staff wore traditional Tatar clothes. We discovered how meat-intensive the cuisine is, and how significantly its taste seems to differ from Russian cuisine. From its abundance of fish soups, it seems to be quite reminiscent of the Volga, and from its inclusion of a wide variety of cattle meats like horse meat and jerky, it seems to emerge from a farming community, despite the absence of most vegetables in their diet. Their meats look rather raw, and surprisingly turn out to be well cooked and spiced, and are often presented just so – without gravy, sides, or vegetables of any kind. Their food is rather elemental, and seems to present ingredients in their direct form. Even their national pie is clearly wheat pastry with rice and dry fruit stuffing.

Other interesting things about Kazan are its enthusiasm about college sports – the city has been home to international college competitions in sports and is quite proud of having hosted such events. Even at the time of our visit, athletic events were taking place in the area around the Museum of Tatarstan. I later meant international journalists from all over the world who visited Kazan to cover sports events.

For all its differences, Kazan still shares a lot with Russian culture. The people of Kazan too drink compote, kvaas and tea, and enjoy intensive rock culture. They offer the same warmth, openness, and Russian hospitality that the people of more traditionally Russian towns do. They take pride in their unique heritage and like to help foreigners explore it. They also offer traditional Russian snacks, like true country blinis that are hard to find in Moscow. They also share the tradition of puppet theatre – Kazan is known to have one of the best puppet theatres in Russia. Alongside this puppet theatre is a famous art café, known for very unusual architecture, and also the complex containing Tugan Avylym.

Aside from these places, we also visited the Epiphany Church with the Bell Tower, and the Kazan State University (“the birthplace of organic chemistry” where Tolstoy had studied and where Lenin had been expelled from as a student).

We subsequently visited the Temple of All Religions, which was a highlight of the trip. Although it is far from the main city – about an hour by public transport – it is situated in a beautiful area across the river. The Temple has 12 towers already and after construction it will have 16 – one for each major world religion, including mine (Hinduism). A few of these towers/cupolas will also represent religions that are no longer practice. The complex will interestingly include an astronomical society, a puppet theatre and a school of philosophy. The entrance to the temple, which was closed upon our visit, said in Russian that it is forever under construction. I’ve heard that this means that the world may never stop producing new religions.

People of Kazan take great pride in the Temple and its construction. Part of this pride comes from the project’s being undertaken by a noble who lived in Kazan, and from the architect’s (Ildar Khanov) being a graduate from one of their own local universities. Another cause of pride is Kazan’s title as the crossroads where Europe meets Asia; and where Christianity meets Islam.

Our final stop was a bar in Kazan. The first place we tried to enter didn’t let us in, as my American friend wore clothes that are far too casual to pass even as daily wear in most of Russia. Luckily, the second time was a charm – we passed by Cuba Libre, an interesting liberal bar that particularly likes foreign tourists who speak English or Spanish. We discovered that the staff itself is interested in tourists and places like America, and have made efforts to visit. With some Spanish drinks, we closed our visit to Kazan.