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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

Friday, Dec. 26


Celebrate Boxing Day by playing various tabletop games during the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening tonight at 5 p.m. Spread the Christmas cheer and goodwill by making other people regret their decision to come and try to match their intellectual prowess against yours.



Saturday, Dec. 27


Indulge cultural and material needs simultaneously during the free classical music concert at the Galeria shopping mall in the heart of the city. Starting at 7 p.m., shoppers and mallwalkers will be able to hear the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Strauss softly lilt over the constant buzz of people bustling from store to store, trying to get their shopping done before New Year.



Sunday, Dec. 28


Prepare for the holidays at the Russian Winter New Year’s Fair on Moskovskaya Ploshchad, which concludes today after starting on Dec. 22. Games and attractions as well as numerous performances will be on offer for those looking to get into the spirit while numerous vendors will help make sure you have something for everyone on your list.



Monday, Dec. 29


Learn how the Swedes observe Christmas, or Jul, in their land of ice and snow, during aSwedish Christmas celebration at the Lermontov Children’s Library this afternoon at 4 p.m. Activities explaining and demonstrating Sweden’s cultural traditions will be accompanied by traditional dishes and sweets.



Tuesday, Dec. 30


Today is the final day of the Christmas Market at the Europolis shopping center on Polyustrovsky prospekt. Indulge your holiday sweet tooth by tucking into some gingerbread men, or attend one of the master classes that will teach you about how to make beautiful, festive decorations for your tree using only your hands.



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