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Kazan: In Search of a Recipe for Its Melting Pot

Liliya Karimova
Kazan: In Search of a Recipe for Its Melting Pot

A group of tourists are listening to a local tour guide in front of the Kul Sharif Mosque located inside the Kazan Kremlin. Photo courtesy Ainaz Lenina.

Kazan, Russia, has a rich history dating back to centuries before the Russian conquest in the 1550s. This history combines early pre-Islamic elements, a Muslim heritage that began with the conversion to Islam around the eight century, and features from the post-conquest period when Kazan was part of the Russian Empire. Before the conquest, Kazan was the capital of the Kazan Khanate and a multi-ethnic city. Today the city’s ethnic makeup is dominated by Russians and Volga Tatars in nearly equal proportions (about 48 percent and 47 percent, respectively). In post-Soviet times, Kazan has been hyped as a “Russian version of Istanbul—where Asia and Europe meet and combine”. The city has been vying to become Russia’s third capital, after Moscow and St. Petersburg, and has been trying to position itself in both Russia’s past and its present. More fundamentally, the Tatars view Kazan as their historical homeland and as a modern cultural center. As such, post-Soviet Kazan symbolizes the Tatars’ quest for an identity that is rooted in the pre-Soviet, Muslim past yet forward-looking in embracing post-Soviet modernity. The former is evident in the multiple mosques, Muslim educational institutions, and Muslim-oriented specialty stores that have sprung up across the city over the past twenty years, the latter in attempts to integrate Kazan into some global trends, such as sports and tourism. Present-day Kazan is a reflection of these efforts.

The Tatars’ desire to cultivate an identity that is grounded in their Muslim past yet definitively modern is not entirely new. In the nineteenth century, Tatar intellectuals and reformers, known as Jadids, sought to reconcile Islamic and Western scholarship in an attempt to navigate their unique position as Muslims within and beyond the Russian Empire. Without rejecting Islam, the Jadids emphasized the need for critical thinking, and in so doing they not only transformed the learning process but also developed a kind of cosmopolitan Islam that many Tatars are proud of today.

Much of the Tatar intellectual and cultural heritage, including that of the Jadids, was lost in the Soviet era as a result of the official state policy of atheism. Out of a dozen mosques functioning in Kazan before the revolution, only one intermittently functioned in Kazan up to 1988—the Marjani Mosque founded in 1766 by a decree of Catherine the Great. Two mosques were destroyed; others were repurposed. With the Russian language dominant in its streets, Soviet Kazan could hardly claim to be a bustling Tatar cultural center. Whatever Tatar ethnic or religious elements existed in the city carried little political significance. Even the Kazan Kremlin, the heart of the city, was viewed chiefly as the place where the Soviet republic’s government was located. Looking at Kazan of the 1980s, one would hardly be aware of the cultural revival fostered by the Jadids. In fact, in the 1980s Kazan was probably better known for its gruppirovki, local street gangs that shook up the city and challenged the existing (Soviet) social order.

It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing quest for greater independence by its former republics that the city’s character began to change as the Tatars embarked on a search for an identity that would combine their Muslim past with their aspirations for future stability, economic prosperity, and greater freedom from Moscow. In the early 1990s, Tatar activists, intelligentsia, and youth regularly gathered in Kazan’s Freedom Square, where Tatarstan’s Parliament and the Opera and Ballet Theater are located, to demand greater independence from Moscow. The 1992 referendum on the republic’s sovereignty enabled the regional government to defend Tatarstan’s special status in Russia. Unlike other predominantly Muslim regions, the prosperous and oil-rich republic was touted for its successful and peaceful negotiations with Moscow. Kazan’s character reflected these political transformations.

The Tatars’ quest for ethnoreligious revival at the grassroots level literally spilled into Kazan streets. One of the symbols of the Tatar identity, the Mukhammadiya medrese in the Old Tatar settlement of Kazan, was the subject of much controversy in the 1990s. After continuing protests the building, which had housed a publishing house under the Soviets, was finally returned to the medrese in 1998. The city’s old mosques also began opening their doors, and new mosques were built. The most striking example of the latter is the Kul-Sharif Mosque, whose (re)construction within the walls of the Kazan Kremlin began in 1996. Named after a Tatar imam, statesman, and poet who served there, the original mosque was destroyed during the 1552 siege of Kazan, and Kul Sharif was killed in the battle. The (re)construction of the mosque—one of the largest in Russia and Europe—within the walls of the Kazan Kremlin allowed the Tatarstani government to reclaim its power with respect to Moscow in a symbolic way, while garnering popular support among ordinary Tatars. The mosque opened its doors in 2005 to mark the millennial anniversary of Kazan.

The Tatars’ rediscovery of history was not a return to the past but an attempt to combine their pre-Islamic, Muslim, and pre-Soviet heritage with economic progress and global trends such as tourism and sports, trends that would also be welcomed by and attractive to non-Tatars. Thus Kazan’s anniversary was embraced by the city’s and the republic’s officials as an opportunity to make Kazan a cosmopolitan symbol of prosperity and success within Russia. In 2005, a new M-shaped bridge connected the old, historical part of Kazan with a new residential district; Kazan’s first metro line also began operating the same year. The Old Tatar settlement of Kazan—a place where Tatars were resettled after the siege of Kazan, away from the then city center—was renovated to attract tourists.

Today the city boasts a new airport, an expanded metro system, multiple shopping centers, and a downtown area filled with new architectural designs and numerous tourist attractions, which compete and sometimes clash with the older elements of the city. Kazan’s tourism industry is booming, and colorful English-language posters inviting tourists to visit Kazan can be seen not only in Tatarstan but also in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Kazan has also succeeded in positioning itself as Russia’s sports capital, a title the city officially received in 2009. The city hosted the 2013 Summer Universiade, the equivalent of the Olympic Games for university athletes; the 2014 World Fencing Championships; and the 2015 World Aquatics Championship. Among other Russian cities, Kazan has recently hosted the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and will host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Though Tatarstan’s sovereignty is slowly withering away (an important treaty with Moscow, which gave Tatarstan some bargaining power, expires in July 2017, with little prospect for renewal), being known as Russia’s sports capital has allowed Kazan to highlight the region’s significance in a nonconfrontational way, and with financial support from Moscow. However, as Russia struggles to find economic stability while burdened by international sanctions and a recent economic crisis, Moscow’s financial support for the regions will likely wane. Without it, large-scale projects such as the sporting events in Kazan will be difficult to realize in the future.

Today Kazan’s residents and officials proudly call their city the “Third Capital of Russia,” a title granted to Kazan by the Russian Patent Office in 2009. In the course of a day, a visitor to Kazan can easily spot mosques alongside Orthodox cathedrals, Muslim restaurants and fashion stores, as well as new shopping malls, entertainment centers, and brand-new sports facilities. This bricolage of pre-Soviet past and post-Soviet modernity reflects the Tatars’ search for identity and a better future. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent Kazan can continue capitalizing on its rich history while balancing its residents’ forward-looking ambition for a prosperous future within Russia, as expressed through development projects that symbolize Western modernity.

Thanks to Audrey Altstadt for her comments on an earlier draft of this article.

About the Author

Liliya Karimova

Liliya Karimova

Former Title VIII Research Fellow;
Professorial Lecturer, Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication, the George Washington University
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