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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 academys 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.

Its 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 arms length. After Vladimir Putins 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

Thursday, Aug. 28


Learn more about the citys upcoming municipal elections during the presentation of the project Road Map for the Municipal Elections being presented this evening in the conference hall on the third floor of Biblioteka at 21 Nevsky Prospekt. Steve Kaddins, a coordinator for Beautiful St. Petersburg, which gives residents an online forum to lodge complaints about infrastructure problems in the city, will be on hand to answer any questions. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. and is open to all.



Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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