Kazan. Part 3. On the City’s Ethnic Identity, Tatar Language, The Other Side of Kazan

I am in my room in Kremlin Street listening to some Tatar music eating another new type of the locally made chakchak. Why is it we want to listen to national music to get us closer to the place we are visiting (that now I seem a bit more knowledgeable about)? There is this amazing ethnic song by a young Tatar singer which is dedicated to Söyembikä, the mysterious historic figure the tower I mentioned before is named after. I think these vocals are really capable of taking me on a trip back in time, all the way through the turbulent history of this region. The modern Tatar music seems similar to what we hear in the rest of Russia with the only difference being is that it is in the Tatar language. 

A mix of Russian, English and a word in Tatar (in the right-hand corner)
A street sign in Russian, English, Tatar

The Republic of Tatarstan officially has two official languages — Russian and Tatar. Tatar is the second most spoken language in Russia. Apart from Tatarstan, it is used in a few Russian regions. Overall, it has around 7 mln speakers globally. Before 1928 the Arabic script was used to be later replaced by the Latin and Cyrillic one. Despite the Tatarstan Parliament’s attempt to maintain the Tatar language as essential to the national identity, studying it is no longer mandatory at schools (it was till 2017) as it was seen to undermine the instruction of Russian. In Kazan in particular, only ¼ of students get their school instruction in Tatar. This decision has been causing mixed reactions on the national level as well as general public. On the initiative of Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov the year 2021 is announced the Year of Native languages and National Unity. Overall, there is still a high level of divide as to the linguistic policies in the Republic. This situation reminded me of my discoveries during my one day trip to Minsk, the capital of the Republic of Belarus. Honestly, I used to mistakenly consider my country mostly monolingual, but after these new revelations on linguistic policies, I start seeing some issues possibly caused by imperial ambitions more clearly. 

Is there any subordination between Russians and Tatars living in the country’s most multinational region? Today I have tried to explore the semiotics of different parts of the city. I have already walked the city’s oldest Bauman Street. It is one of the most touristy places and obviously somewhat mimics Moscow’s main pedestrian Arbat Street. Walking a bit further, I found myself in Petersburg Street. It was funny that this street, which indeed imitated the ambiance of our capital of the North, had huge grey clouds hanging over it, while looking behind me I saw «Arbat» totally clear. It seemed as if the nature itself had conspired in reacreating both Russian capitals. Did the city really have to merge its identity like this to please the other two capitals? Kazan has officially been given the permission to be branded as The «Third Capital of Russia». But what about this brand’s identity? 

Bauman Street (the equivalent of Moscow’s Arbat)
A cafe in Petersburg Street

On my way to the Old Tatar Quarter, I decided to have lunch at Tugan Avilim («our village» in Tatar), a complex recreating a typical Tatar village. Of course, the place is touristy and a bit tacky, but don’t we want an exaggerated version of the local culinary scene while travelling? I have a complicated relationship with villages and can’t romanticize them. I remember one summer I spent at my granny’s home village. Even though I was born in a small town and was used to working in a garden planting fruit and vegetables, I found living there not convenient at all. Of course, we understand that the real «essence» of Tatars might still be residing in those small remote villages in houses looking like those around me here. Despite current tensions surrounding the linguistic policies, it must still speak Tatar as well. I guess it is better to get an idea of a Tatar village here in Kazan where history is meticulously collected and displayed in the grand fashion rather than travelling to one of the real villages. I had Tatar azu (meat stew containing vegetables and pickles). I used to cook this dish quite often as well and I found that it was similar here in its homeplace too. Despite a traditional furnace in the corner, what was missing in this restaurant was the rustic feel of a village kitchen, which must be the reason these places get romanticized in the first place. 

Tugan Avilim (Туган Авылым)

Continuing my way to the Old Tatar Quarter, I made my way along Nazarbaev Street. This street is named after the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, an independent state since 1991. Actually, the Tatar and Kazakh languages are related as they are from the same Kipchak group of Turkic languages. They say there is a level of mutual understanding between the speakers of Tatar and Kazakh. The vibe in this avenue was somewhat different from the previous streets. There were a few Central Asian restaurants as well. I also saw a Tatar school in the street. 

A Tatar school sign (in Tatar, there was one in Russian as well)

After crossing the Lower Kaban («boar») Lake, I found myself in the Old Tatar Quarter. This settlement started after Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan. As a result, Tatars had to relocate to the Lake Kaban. There are quite a few merchant houses which had their own architectural style. Despite being touristy, the area felt somewhat intimate as if I was just about to look through one of the windows and see a Tatar family preparing for a meal. One of the main streets (as well as the Kazan airport) is named after Gabdulla Tuqay, a poet, a literary critic and a translator. He is considered one of the greatest national poets. He also contributed a lot to the development of the literary Tatar language. Actually, he was largely inspired by his visits to Tatar villages. I guess peoples that have had to negotiate their identities have to rely on the literary talents to claim their place. This probably explains why this job is still glorified in these streets, while today people in humanities have been somewhat marginalized. 

A Tatar merchant house
A street scene in the Old Tatar Quarter

Of course, there were a few mosques and the most famous one is Mardzhani Mosque. It was built in 1766 when a decree by Catherine the Great put an end to persecution of Muslims in the Russian Empire. Unlike the Kul Sharif Mosque, this one felt more casual where you would see people attending regular services. I decided to have a quick look at the courtyard and saw little girls on their bicycles wearing burkas. For some reason, I felt they had to be saved from having to do this. I also got some sidelooks from their mothers — does wearing a burka give you a special privilege to look down on those who don’t do that? Anyway, it was not up to me to decide so I left.

A view of the Old Tatar Quarter
Lake Kaban and a monument to Shihab al-Din al-Marjani, a Tatar theologian and historian

I stopped by a souvenir shop next to another mosque without intending to buy as the entrance looked really inviting. The shop assistant was very nice and even gave a taste for the language pronouncing some Tatar for food. It is always nice to meet a representative of the culture. She talked about cats and Catherine the Great who ordered some Kazan cats, that were known to good at catching mice, be brought to St.Petersburg. So I got two cat statues to bring back home. 

Kazan cats

Crossing the Lake Kaban away from the Old Tatar Quarter, I was wondering what it is like for non-Muslims living in a city with mosques. Actually, there is a synagogue in mine but I don’t care (it could well be a mosque as well) as long as no religion is imposed on me. Overall, the city doesn’t seem oppressively religious. Of course, I have seen some womenwith their heads covered. My sister says they would have rebelled if they didn’t like the status quo. I am more ambivalent about that as among my international friends from my times in the US there were some people following this tradition. I’d like to believe it was a conscious choice for them rather than something imposed by their governments.

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