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Walking a Tightrope: Faith and Identity in Tatarstan

Published: July 13, 2010 (Issue # 1591)


KAZAN — The chalk-white limestone walls of the Kazan Kremlin create a striking impression of the city as they rise dramatically from the bank of the Kazanka River, just before it converges with the mighty Volga. The Kremlin, dating from long before Ivan the Terrible ravaged and rebuilt the city in 1552, is not only the main tourist attraction in the city. It is also by far the most essential concentration of political power and cultural symbolism in the Republic of Tatarstan.

The Russian-Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral, completed in the 16th century, is overshadowed by the nearby mastodon minarets of the Kul Sharif mosque, recently rebuilt as a memorial to the original mosque that was burnt to ashes under Ivan the Terrible. Both buildings have great symbolic value for the two populations dominating the Russian federal republic — Orthodox Russians and Muslim Tatars.

Tatarstan, one of the richest and also one of the most independent federal entities of Russia, seems always to have treated its conquerors with defiant acceptance. Today, still trying to find a way through the rubble of the Soviet legacy of ethnofederalism, Tatars are holding on to their federal rights and work to define their Tatar identity through language, history and religion.

Building Tatar identity

One of the less remarkable buildings within the Kazan Kremlin houses the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences. At the academy’s institute of history, from an office crammed with historic Tatar regalia, Dr. Rafael Khakimov (or Khakim, as his de-Russified name reads on several of his books) works with Tatar identity building and the definition of the Tatar way of practicing Islam. The republic, in which 52.9 percent of the 3.8 million population is predominantly Tatar and Muslim, seeks a form of Islam compatible with post-Soviet and modern-day Russian life. Claiming to pick up the thread where the pre-Revolutionary Jadidist movement left it under Soviet rule, Khakimov has written several essays about Tatar identity building, cultural and religious practices and federalism.

“It’s all about tolerance,” said Khakimov. “In this area, Christianity and Islam, Russians and Tatars, have been co-existing for more than 500 years. That means we can both practice our religions, and still respect each other.”

In the first years after the fall of the U.S.S.R., Tatar politicians were the ones who took most seriously the promising words of Russian president Boris Yeltsin to the republics about “taking as much sovereignty as they can handle.” Mintimer Shaimiev, a former Communist apparatchik who became the first president of the republic in 1991, played a long political game securing federalism and Tatar autonomy, while holding nationalist groups and secessionists at arm’s length. After Vladimir Putin’s power centralization project, however, the game became tougher. Shaimiev has succeeded in establishing a strong Tatar state, but the conflicting interests of the white Kremlin in Kazan and its red counterpart in Moscow are visible in practically every political question. Stepping down in January this year, Shaimiev chose Rustam Minnikhanov as his successor to continue treading the fine line between building a Tatar national identity and keeping Moscow happy enough to yield federal rights.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Oct. 22


English teachers can expect to receive a few useful pointers today from Evgeny Kalashnikov, the British Council regional teacher, during the EFL Seminar this afternoon hosted by the British Book Center. The topic of today’s seminar is “Grammar Practice.”


Young Petersburgers will get the chance to jumpstart their careers at “Professional Growth,” a job fair and forum featuring more than 40 major Russian and international companies vying for potential candidates for future positions. The forum not only is a chance to network but also to learn more about the modern business world and to understand what it takes to get the job you want.



Thursday, Oct. 23


AmCham’s Public Relations Committee meeting is scheduled to meet this morning at 9 a.m. in their office in the New St. Isaac Office Center.


Sportsmen get their chance to stock up on all kinds of gear at the Hunting and Fishing 2014 exhibition starting today at Lenexpo. Everything from rods and reels to boats, motorcycles and equipment for underwater hunting will be on sale so that any avid outdoorsman can always be prepared.



Friday, Oct. 24


SPIBA’s ongoing “Breakfast with the Director” series continues today, featuring Tomas Hajek, Managing Director of the Northwest Division at Danone Russia. Hajek will be discussing collaborations between businesses from different cultures. The meeting is at 9 a.m. at the Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel and all who wish to attend must confirm their participation by Oct. 23.


Get your gong on at “Sounds of the Universe,” a concert at the city planetarium this evening incorporating six different gongs to create relaxing songs that will transport you upwards into the stratosphere. Tickets are 700 rubles ($17).



Saturday, Oct. 25


AVA Expo, the eighth edition of the event revolving around all things pop culture, returns to Lenexpo this weekend. Geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks will have their chance to talk science fiction and explore a variety of international pop culture. Tickets for the event can be purchased on their website at avaexpo.ru.



Sunday, Oct. 26


Zenit St. Petersburg returns home for the first time in nearly a month as they host Mordovia Saransk in a Russian Premier League game. Currently at the top of the league thanks to their undefeated start to the season, the northern club hopes to extend the gap between them and second-place CSKA Moscow and win the title for the first time in three years. Tickets are available at the stadium box office or on the club’s website.



Monday, Oct. 27


Today marks the end of the art exhibit “Neophobia” at the Erarta Museum. Artists Alexey Semichov and Andrei Kuzmin took a neo-modernist approach to represent the array of fears that are ever-present throughout our lives. Tickets are 200 rubles ($4.90).



Tuesday, Oct. 28


The Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel plays host to SPIBA’s Marketing and Communications Committee’s round table discussion on “Government Relations Practices in Russia” this morning. The discussion starts at 9:30 a.m. and participation must be confirmed by Oct. 24.



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