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Mathias Hankel

Three Quarters of Kazan – Impressions of a City at the Wolga River

The night train ride from Moscow to Kazan was the longest ride of my life so far.
I left from Kazanskiy Vokzal in Moscow and arrived in Kazan about 14 hours later.
Loaded heavily with a hiking bag pack and a trolley case which was way too large, I tried to get to the international office of the Federal University of Kazan somehow.
The first impression was shocking: the whole city was under construction. All over the city center, the streets and sidewalks were torn open and construction workers cut sidewalk pieces into the desired shape with a jigsaw.
The exposure to noise and dust was quite impressive. As the September sun was burning, my trolley case did not want to roll properly and sweat was dripping down my forehead.

This is how the first day of my study trip to Kazan began. I wanted to study and live in Russia, but St. Petersburg or Moscow were not what I wanted. I was looking for a multicultural city, an interesting city. It was not supposed to be some boring monocity, but a city with history and vibe, not too big and not too small.

For pragmatic reasons, Kazan was my choice as my local German university and the University of Kazan have a partnership. My language exchange partner Ania forwarned me: It is a Tatar city, not a Russian one, full of Muslim Tatars, there was something wild and exotic about it and it would be impossible there for me to enjoy Russia’s authentic attitude towards life and feel the Dusha.

Construction site next to the river bank of the Kazanka, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

Construction site next to the river bank of the Kazanka, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

At my arrival day, I moved into my student dormitory room in the Derevnya Universiade on the outskirts of the city. I shared the comfortable room with bathroom, hallway and kitchenette with Dima and Naïl, two geology students from Kyrgyzstan. The dormitory was recently newly built and was one of the most modern and luxurious ones of the Russian Federation. It was built up for the athletes of the upcoming Universiade next summer. The Universiade are the Olympic Games for college students and Kazan won the bid for it.

With this selection, also the investments came in, as college athletes from all over the world should get the best impression of Russia. It was the trial for the Olympic Winter games in Sochi so to say. Therefore, we had the honor to sleep in the beds of the athletes. All of these benefits also had their downsides: The dormitory was closed from 11:00 pm to 06:00 am, there was a security gate with a guard at the fence of the site and the rules of the house did not allow for almost anything and prohibited almost everything. In general, our Komendantka imposed a rather strict regimen: no visits by outsiders and unannounced room inspections were conducted on a regular basis.

Right after my arrival, the many exotic names that I had never heard before were very fascinating to me. Marat, Bulat, Gülnaz, Alsu. A little more than half of the inhabitants of Kazan are Tatars and I was happy about the variety of names that existed with all the Natashas, Anias and Alekseys, who live in Kazan as well of course. This was the start and almost the end of the differences between the Russians and the Tatars. That was surprising. As Berliner by choice who spent his first student years in the multicultural neighborhood of Wedding, I expected exciting relationships between Russians and Tatars, conflictual and loving at the same time. But, the similarities outnumbered the differences. In Eastern Europe, meat in general is supposed to be wrapped in dough, regardless of it being called Pelmeni or Elesh.

What is Tatar Identity About?

What exactly makes up Tatar identity then? From a cultural perspective, most certainly the language. Tatar is an official language of equal rank and even Russian children have to learn Tatar as a foreign language in elementary school. In other parts of the Russian Federation this is unimaginable. But the urge for autonomy and negotiating skills of the Tatar political elite made it possible to avoid the fate of the Chechens for the republic. Being a visitor, I wanted to study the language of both of my hosts and went to a freshman Tatar language class together with my fellow students Andrea, Kristina and Elvira. It must have been quite a curiosity as the Tatar TV Channel TNV Planeta produced a short TV report about how Russians and their European friends were practicing monologues about their first encounter and the weather. Didactics of language teachings have just recently been developed, but are moving forward fast.

Torn up street in front of a traditional Tartarian Mosque, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

Torn up street in front of a traditional Tartarian Mosque, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

Tatar language history is very interesting. In total, three different alphabets have been used over time– at first, the Arabic alphabet, then during the course of Lenin’s national politics Latin and finally Cyrillic after Stalin’s rollback. I was making progress even though the opportunities to apply my language skills were limited, because I did not find many conversation partners. And in the end, Russian turned out to be much more convenient to use often times. A typical example was my Tatar landlord Ilsur: Born in Kazan, middle-aged and with a Soviet educational background. He was not even able to form a proper sentence in Tatar. However, there are many young people who like to use the Tatar language and there is even rap music in Tatar. In a nutshell: the Tatar language is the main source of Tatar identity.

What is the City’s Identity About?

But what constitutes the city’s identity then? The Kreml of Kazan represents this in some way. It was built after Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1552, ended the yoke of the Tatars once and for all and annexed the first non- Russian people to the Grand Duchy Moscow. For the Tatar people this was a traumatic experience. They were exiled from the city center across the Bulak river and to Kaban lake, where the Staraya Tatarskaya Sloboda (old Tatar settlement) was supposed to be built. The Kreml of Kazan protected the city of further invasions by the Tatars.

Reconciliation with history was made possible in the early 2000s when the mosque of Kul Sharif was rebuilt and inaugurated inside the Kreml of Kazan. The original building was destroyed during the conquest of Kazan. From an architectural point of view, the new construction in radiant white and sparkling light blue does not mirror its predecessor very much. It is more oriented towards patterns of Arabic and Turkish architecture. Authentic Tatar mosques can be found in the Staraya Tatarskaya Sloboda, where the Tatar people were once exiled to.

Loading of mutton on Korban Bayram, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

Loading of mutton on Korban Bayram, Author: Mathias Hankel ©

I visited this part of the city during Kurban Bayram, the Muslim Sacrifice Feast and was able to experience some religiousness that otherwise would not be exposed in public to such an extent. Muttons were carted to Kazan from all over Tatarstan, then butchered and sold in cold temperatures in back alleys. I have never seen anything like this at home in multicultural Wedding before. For me, the Staraya Tatarskaya Sloboda was the most exciting part of the city: beautiful industrial buildings made of bricks. bourgeois houses in which the elite was residing and traditional Tatar wooden houses at the Kaban lakeside.

Kazan – a Vibrant City?

Undoubtedly, Kazan is one of the more prosperous parts of Russia. On Victory Day, the modern Metro line was extended by three more stops. It is booming, young people are moving to the city to work and study there. New apartment blocks are popping up. The fact that the middle class is growing is visible when watching street traffic: Those who can afford it, buy a Lada or a Kalina and get stuck in traffic, but still more convenient than being stuck in traffic in overcrowded busses like the students or babushkas. I thought a lot about alternatives for a more humane city planning and use of urban space. Often times, I was concerned that such a metropolis has only one pedestrian area, the Ulitsa Bumana, basically no parks in the city center and the Kazanka riverside is blocked by construction.

I reflected upon the fact that people are not demanding more participatory rights when it comes to issues of city planning and do not take part in shaping their immediate environment. I was only able to explain it to myself in the following way: even though people work day in and out, their community is generally financed by bonds; in Tatary mostly by the revenue of the national oil corporation Tatneft. How are citizens supposed to decide on the use of the financial means they have not generated themselves? This is a difficult theoretical question of democracy.

I spent 9 months in Kazan, three quarters of a year. Ania’s concerns have not been confirmed. When people ask me if I love the city, unfortunately I have to deny that. I would say, I share the thrill with the city and am glad about minor big successes such as the – even if not very well reflected – planting of hundreds of trees. When will I come back? When the second Metroline will be open and Kazan got over the Soccer World Championship!


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Houses in Staraya Tatarskaya Sloboda, Author: Mathias Hankel ©
Mathias Hankel
Traveler and journalist

    Mathias lives in Warsaw and studied political science at the free University of Berlin. He has traveled around Central and Eastern Europe, staying for longer periods in Kazan, Minsk and Kharkiv.

    Themes: Reportage, Russia,
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