Kazan: Phoenix in the Snow
Text and photos Ray Nayler
Cobblestoned Kremlyovskaya Ulitsa in Kazan’s upper town, looks at first glance like the well-preserved and lovingly restored center of any Russian provincial city. Then one notices beyond the white Kremlin gates the ice-white minarets of an enormous, ultramodern mosque, its blue-domed roof rising well above the domes of the nearby Orthodox cathedral.
This is the gleaming, new Qol Sharif Mosque, built with contributions from several Islamic states and named for the statesman and poet who died unsuccessfully defending Kazan Tatarstan, from the onslaught of Ivan the Terrible’s troops in 1552. Though the mosque is new and decidedly space-age in appearance, it somehow manages to fit in harmoniously with the white walls of the Kazan Kremlin, the snow on the streets, and the feeling of revival in the city. Opened in 2005, Qol Sharif Mosque replaces an edifice now lost to history: the original Qol Sharif Mosque, which was razed when the city fell to the Russian armies. According to historical speculation (mostly by Tatars), St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow incorporates many of the architectural elements — such as the eight “minarets” and central cupola — of the original Bulgar mosque. This claim, like almost every historical claim in Tatarstan, is a contested one.
Few peoples have a history more controversial, and more rewritten, than the Tatars, and few cities have a history more shrouded in mystery and purposeful distortion than Kazan. The story of the city’s past depends on whom you ask and what they have to gain (or lose) from the telling. These days, with a resurgent Tatarstan flexing political muscle and making attempts to regain a sense of its cultural heritage, history with a capital ‘H’ is again being contested, bringing a whirlwind of revisionism to the republic and its capital.
If I could place my personal border between East and West anywhere, it would be in Kazan. It would be an invisible line that runs through the city and a river loosed from its banks onto a dry plain, wending its way through the stones, changing its course with the seasons and the weather. Sitting in the Rubai Chaikhana, lounging on the cushioned benches at the low tables, drinking loose-leafed black tea from pots girded with organic Central Asian designs, and hearing the distant peal of the bells of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, it becomes hard to place just where, geographically, one is located. Walking in the Kremlin between the rocket-shadows cast by the minarets of Qol Sharif and the oriental, flame-shaped domes of the Annunciation Ca- thedral, one feels at a crossroads. The leaning Syumbike tower seems too Western to bear the Islamic crescent on its peak, while the domes of the nearby Assumption Cathedral nearby seem too Eastern to bear the Orthodox cross.
Here one can feel alternately at the edge of and at the center of the world. There are Tatar signs written in Cyrillic script, Karl Marx Street with a view of the mosque in the upper town, and playful Moderne mansions and dusky-eyed Tatar girls breathing clouds above the frozen sidewalks. There is the sudden Allah u Akbar from the distant spires calling the faithful. Here, Russian and Tatar — or let us say “Russianness” and “Tatarness” — are mixed in the architecture, in the sights and sounds, in the way of life, and in every individual. Here, the passages of empire are written in stones — stones here today as well as those of the past buried under the streets, stones preserved only in maps or in memories.
Kazan is a city that throughout its disputed history has been continually resurfaced and reshaped by the ebb and flow of power. This is a city finished and then destroyed again, smashed and then rebuilt upon its own ashes, decayed to a husk, and then infused again with a new life. It is a city time and again consumed by fire and war but which has also enjoyed long periods of peace and prosperity. History has been capricious with Kazan, by turns both cruel and kind.
Ray Nayler travels to Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, in search of the border between East and West.
Tatarstan’s cultural roots lie in the Volga Bulgar empire, established by Bulgar nomads from the Azov region of Central Asia. It is contested whether the Bulgars were of Turkic origin or not, but it is believed that the modern day Chuvash language is the only surviving remnant of the Bulgar Turkic languages, distantly related to modern Turkish. Whatever their origins, the Bulgars conquered and supplanted the Finno-Ugric- and Turkic-speaking peoples of the region and accepted Islam as their state religion in 922. They evolved as a state, signing treaties with Kievan Rus before falling to Genghis Khan in 1236 and becoming a vassal state of the Golden Horde. It was during this time that Bulgar culture thrived, some of the greatest poetry was composed, and contributions to scientific thought made.
The Kazan Khanate, formed after the collapse of the Golden Horde, signed a treaty of “Eternal Peace’ with Moscow in 1486 and was then summarily conquered, and the city of Kazan burned, by the forces of Ivan the Terrible in 1552. Ivan the Terrible and successive tsars — who referred to the Bulgars as Tatars and conflated them with the Golden Horde and the Mongol Yoke under which Muscovy had suffered — then began a repressive system of Christianization, destroying all mosques in Kazan and forcing Tatars to the outskirts of the city.
Kazan was destroyed again and again in fires and notably in the Pugachev Rebellion. After this uprising, Catherine the Great allowed Tatars the freedom to worship in their own fashion, and in 1766 the first stone mosque was built in Kazan. However, when the Bolsheviks again swept the city with anti-religious propaganda during the 20 th century, many mosques had their minarets removed, and the buildings were used for other purposes. Repression was not, of course, limited to Islam. The Peter and Paul Cathedral, a Russian Baroque confection dating from 1709, ironically survived the Soviet period as an observatory before being restored following the collapse of the USSR.
Today, Tatarstan is enjoying a cultural revival as well as one of the most liberal agreements with the Russian government of any of the ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. The city recently celebrated its millenium
anniversary. Though somewhat spurious (most historians put the founding of Kazan somewhere in the 12 th century), it was a great excuse for the city to accelerate a number of oil money-fueled construction projects, finishing the metro and opening the mosque.
The city’s struggles continue, as once again it looks to remake itself — perhaps this time as an example of tolerance and peaceful co-existence of Christianity and Islam, keeping their religious bickering confined to history. One encouraging sign is that in a city that is almost evenly divided ethnically, fully one-third of marriages are between a Russian and a Tatar.
The result of all this tumult is a strange, hybrid of Russian imperial mansions, a Kremlin with minarets jutting above its walls, cobblestones, and Turkic syllables whispered between couples as they pass. The light here is strange, unreal, giving one a sense of temporal displacement: Kazan is far to the east of Moscow, twelve hours on an express train, but it shares the same time zone. The effect of this is that the sun rises strangely early. By noon, the city is swept by icy blue shadows, the sun a coin already dropping to the horizon. By 5 p.m., the city is enveloped in a primeval darkness. The premature disappearance of the sun, the darkness at a time when there should be light, makes everything seems a bit off — as if the city exists at some remove from the rest of the world, in its own strange space. It’s a suitable feeling for a city so unique in heritage.
Where to stay:
The Italian-managed Hotel Giuseppe provides something extremely rare these days: accommodation that is worth every penny of the price, with a sumptuous breakfast buffet, immaculately remodeled rooms, and impeccable service just two blocks from the Kremlin gates. And all of this for slightly less than the price of the charmlessly remodeled (and nearly always full) Soviet monster Tatarstan. Nobody else in the city comes close.
15/25 Kremlyovskaya Ulitsa,
tel. (843) 292-0938, 292-6439
Where to eat :
There are plenty of good restaurants along Kremlyovskaya and Baumana, but for amazing Uzbek food (many mistakenly think this is a traditional Tatar restaurant), colorfully costumed wait staff, and the atmosphere of an upscale Central Asian chaikhana, Rubai is the place to go.
23B Profsoyuznaya Ulitsa,
tel. (843) 292-6464
What to see:
Start at the city’s gorgeous Kremlin, take a tour of the Museum of Islam at the Qol Sharif Mosque, and soak in the incensed atmosphere of the Assumption Cathedral. Try to decide for yourself whether the legendary leaning Syumbike tower was built by Russians, Tatars, or Italians. Then stroll down Baumana. It’s also worth taking a ride on the city’s ultra-slick new metro, though at seven kilometers and one line, it falls a bit short of Moscow’s spider web. Kazan is a very walkable city, though winter temperatures can be 10 to 15 degrees colder than in Moscow. Be warned.