“But where in Russia are you from?” People always ask after learning about my country of origin, their curiosity fueled by President Putin’s recent exploits in territorial expansion and Russia’s prominence in international news.
“It’s a city that’s, uh, east of Moscow,” is the answer I usually resort to.
For most Americans, it seems Russia is a distant landmass looming ominously over tiny European states and taking up too much space on the map with its green nothingness. In fact, my interrogators often ask for clarification on whether Russia is an Asian or a European country (trick question, it’s both: most Russians and Europeans refer to the two continents as “Eurasia”). Your average Joe is normally aware of exactly two Russian cities – Moscow and Saint Petersburg – with only a vague idea of where in Russia they can be found and a strong conviction that there is nothing else in that former “evil empire” worthy of his attention. So to correct the common misconceptions of Russia as a snowy expanse full of black bears, vodka, and communists, in the next few articles I will try to present to you a brief but informative look at my native city of Kazan.
With a whooping 1.17 million souls, Kazan ranks as the 6th most populous city in Russia and lies on the banks of Volga, the longest river in Europe (only 26 miles shorter than the Mississippi). It holds the honorary title of “the third capital of Russia” for its stable economic growth, ever-expanding population, and its recent popularity as a tourist destination. Kazan also serves as the one and only capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of Russia’s federal subjects (similar to a state in the U.S.) with its own official language, religion, and constitution.
Beyond your typical travel brochure facts, however, there is an exhilarating aspect to this city often overlooked by visitors. Sunni Islam is the most widespread faith in Tatarstan with a little over half the population in the region identifying as Muslim. In the city of Kazan itself, the population consists of approximately 47 percent Russian Christians and 48 percent Tatar Muslims with a number of smaller confessions such as Judaism and Catholicism making up the other 5 percent.
Kazan traces its diverse, at times peculiar, and often explosive cultural heritage to the 13th century invasion of the Russian mainland by the Mongols. The ethnic group known as the Tatars established their khanate in and around modern Tatarstan (giving the republic its current name) and remained a key player in the development of the region to this day. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Tatarstan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) government, heavily dominated by Tatar Muslims, made moves to declare independence from Russia. Although their attempts were unsuccessful, the leadership nonetheless secured significant autonomy in ethnic, cultural, and religious affairs. This elevated position enabled the local government to perpetuate the spread of Tatar/Muslim culture and traditions in school curricula and public life.
While opening the door to incessant squabbling over jurisdiction and funding between local and federal governments, the complex interplay of Russian and Tatar practices also forces them to enact broader and more open-minded policies so often lacking in other parts of the country.
Growing up as a Russian Christian, I heard my share of complaints from parents, teachers, and politicians about the forceful indoctrination of children in Islam, the unnecessary inclusion of the Tatar language into the curriculum, and the supposedly unjustified favoritism of Islamic holidays. From the other side of the aisle, the Muslim population expressed similar frustrations about the destruction of Tatar heritage, the suppression of religious expressions in schools, and the overall privileged treatment of Russians in all spheres of public life. But despite the infighting unavoidable in the politics of governing a multiethnic region, this environment also gave rise to something incredibly precious in the modern world: tolerance.
As someone who came from a city housing more mosques than churches, I remember first finding post-9/11 America and its general wariness of Islam somewhat surreal. Kazan’s perhaps most famous and treasured monument, the Qolsarif mosque, with its light blue dome and a golden crescent sparkling in the sun proudly stands over the city center. Huddled against it is the Kremlin, constructed by Ivan the Terrible as a symbol of Russian glory, which houses an Orthodox church inside. The harmony of these buildings also serves as a testament to the acceptance and peace between the two religions so often pitted against each other. Russians and Tatars commute to work every morning, taste each other’s national foods, celebrate religious and ethnic holidays together, sing along to the same songs, and often forget to reflect on how different, how lacking in flavor, their lives would be without one another.