German-Russian Exchange: Obama the Tatar
Kazan is a shining example of peaceful coexistence: there is hardly anywhere else in Russia where Christians and Moslems live together in such harmony as they do here. 13 up-and-coming young journalists travelled to the Tatar capital to find out for themselves. By Verena Hütter
Friday is wedding day in Kazan: a Moslem bride and groom pose for the photographer in the mosque of the Kazan Kremlin. Just a few metres away, in the car park outside the Kremlin walls, a bride dances to loud music blaring from the car radio – she has just been married in a Russian Orthodox service.
Everyday life in Kazan. This city in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, 900 kilometres east of Moscow, is regarded as a shining example of peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Christians. The German-Russian youth portal To4ka-Treff (a project of the Stiftung Deutsch-Russischer Jugendaustausch (i.e. Foundation for the German-Russian youth exchange) and the Goethe-Institutes of the Eastern European/Central Asian region)invited 13 up-and-coming young journalists to explore the city on the banks of the Volga river from 1 to 5 July 2009. Architecture and Identity was the topic of the workshop organized by the Goethe-Institut Moscow in cooperation with Kazan University and funded by the German Federal Foreign Office within the framework of the European-Islamic Cultural Dialogue.
Images from five days in Kazan
The workshop participants, all of them young journalists, came to Kazan from Kazakhstan, Chechnya, Moscow, Passau, Berlin and Frankfurt. They all share a passion for each others’ languages, and were keen to find out whether a citizen of Kazan feels like a Tatar, a Moslem, or a Christian – and how the identity of the city’s population is reflected in the local architecture.
Bolghar – a bridge between the Orient and the Occident
Students of Kazan University invited the workshop participants to stay in their halls of residence, and together with their tutor Olga Donetskaya organized an excursion for the very first day – a 120 km journey by ship down the Volga to Bolghar. According to mediaeval legend, the terminally ill daughter of a monarch was cured here by wandering Moslems. They caused a birch tree to grow, whose branches healed the princess. The marriage of one of the Moslems and the patient marked the birth of Islam in Tatarstan. Since 1969, Bolgar – which today is no more than a handful of villages – has boasted an open-air museum of the excavated monuments of the city that was destroyed in 1236. The minaret, mosque and church are connected to the restored Black Palace. Geese waddle across its extensive grounds, a goat calmly chews the cud and an artist paints the view of the ruins and the Volga. Bolghar is UNESCO-listed and is set to become a World Heritage site. Every year, 20,000 Moslems from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Bolghar.
“When people live directly next to one another they get a feeling for how to respect one another”, Renat Nakifovich Valiullin explains to the To4ka participants the next day. Valiullin is Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs in the Tatarstan Republic’s Cabinet of Ministers. The religious council plays an important role as a government supervisory body, monitoring relations between the state and a large number of religious associations. Around 50 percent of the population of Tatarstan are Moslem Tatars, and a further 40 percent or so are mainly Orthodox Russians. More than 1,400 religious organizations are registered; in Kazan alone there are 53 mosques. Perhaps the key to the city’s peaceful dialogue is to strictly uphold the right balance: when the state pays for a mosque to have a new roof structure, it ensures at the same time that a Russian-Orthodox church receives similar funding, for new chairs for instance.
“One must be educated to be tolerant”
Ten years ago, the religious council also helped to establish the Russian Islamic University in Kazan. The state provided the university building in 1989, while the Islamic Bank for Development financed the restoration. Three years of students have since completed their studies at the Islamic University, attaining a BA degree. Around 500 students, 30 percent of them women, study theology, linguistics or Islamic business and finance here.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Rafik Muhamechovich Muhamechin, proudly reports to the workshop participants that his students come to Kazan from 23 different regions throughout Russia. Muhamechin has no regrets whatsoever that the Kazan students do not live in an exclusively Moslem-influenced region – after all, the vice-chancellor explains, everyday temptations (“a girl’s long legs”, “a cool beer on a hot day”) are “tests” that in his opinion can only strengthen a Moslem’s faith. Muhamechin believes that it is his duty to expand the university and give increasing numbers of students the chance of an education. As he says “one must be educated to be tolerance. An educated person is automatically tolerant.“
Tolerance and openness would even appear to be the name of the game in Kazan bars: the lead singer of a band performing in a small bar dedicates his first song to the Kazan football club Rubin – his second song is for Barack Obama. In a third song he praises Irish pubs, and finally gives his very own interpretation of Let me entertain you by Robbie Williams, singing in Russian and drinking a toast to Michael Jackson with the guests in the bar.
From the end of July, the workshop participants will be providing further exclusive insights into other special characteristics of Kazan and its population on the To4ka-Treff website – in Chechen, Tatar, Russian and German.