I spent last weekend sleeping on trains first to Kazan, and then to Nizhniy Novgorod, two popular tourist cities in Russia with beautiful, old kremlins and quaint pedestrian streets. I left Moscow with two of my friends last Thursday evening on the train and woke up in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. We stumbled off the train at 7 am, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and found our way to our hostel. After some brief freshening up we headed back into the cold, gray weather to begin a day of sightseeing.
What is the Republic of Tatarstan?
Now, I’m assuming most of you have not heard of Kazan or the Republic of Tatarstan before, so I want to explain that a little bit. Tatarstan is a federal subject of Russia that has its own president and governmental system, but still ultimately answers to Putin and the Moscow Kremlin. Tatars, one of the many ethnic minority groups within Russia, are a Muslim people who currently make up a little over half the population of Tatarstan and have their own language, customs, foods, and beliefs. All the street signs in Kazan are written in both Tatar and Russian, the republic’s official languages, and you’re just as likely to see people heading to church on Sunday morning or to their afternoon prayer at the local mosque.
The first thing we did in Kazan was brave the wind and rain to find the kremlin. While it had less gold-domed churches than Moscow’s, Kazan’s kremlin boasted beautiful government buildings, rows and rows of souvenir shops, and both an Orthodox church and a Mosque, not 1000 feet from each other. While I’ve at this point seen my fair share of Orthodox churches and have now been in three different kremlins, Kazan’s might have been my favorite. Where else in Russia (or in the world, possibly), am I going to be able to look up and see crescent moon-topped minarets next to cross-embellished onion domes in the official government center?
Kazan’s mosque & religious tolerance
We arrived at the mosque just in time for prayer, so we waited at a nearby café until it ended and tourists were allowed back in. I then wrapped my head in my newly purchased scarf and went inside. As someone with a strong interest in different religions and customs of the world, this experience meant a lot to me. I’ve been in cathedrals all over the place. I went in Japanese temples and lit incense. But I always vaguely assumed for some reason that mosques were off-limits.
Being inside the mosque—seeing beautiful Arabic script curl its way across the blue and gold domed ceiling, visiting the attached Islamic culture museum, all while remembering that I was in Russia—made an impact on me in a way I’m not sure I can explain. Although Russia is not necessarily known as the most tolerant or accepting of countries, and in a lot of ways I’ve most certainly observed that to be true, Tatarstan has found a way, perhaps because of history, to look past religious differences and provide a place for people to live side by side. The culture museum explained the repression the Islamic community in Russia has faced over the years, especially during Stalin’s time, but now, life seems different. The xenophobia, or should I say Islamophobia, that the United States tends to experience and propagate as a whole was absent in Kazan. People go about their daily lives next to each other. Shopkeepers assumed my Greek friend was Muslim, but not in a way that evoked anything other than mild interest, if anything at all.
Perhaps the ethnic history of the region has fostered this acceptance. Perhaps the fact that it’s so ingrained in the culture, and has always existed as such, allows it to be just another facet of life and existence as either a Russian or a Tatar in Kazan. I’m not blind to the injustices that take place here, but at least in one small pocket of the country something that looms so large in the collective American consciousness does not exist, at least in the same way. Perhaps it might in Moscow, where things certainly operate differently. As Americans, we tend to think we are the pinnacle of freedom, tolerance, and acceptance, which anyone who reads the news can see is still far from true. And while Russia certainly has problems of its own, perhaps we can take pages out of each other’s books to build a more tolerant society across the world.
The Kremlin. Photo courtesy of kazan-kremlin.ru, as none of my pictures really captured it well