Traveling in Tatarstan along the Volga River in Russia............................Ramdas Iyer, 2013
01.12.2013 - 19.12.2013
As the train was getting cold, our conductor was shoveling coal into the furnace that kept our carriage warm. Since this coach was cut off to be picked up by another train, a coal furnace was provided for each carriage. This was a non-elite passenger train that connected Yekaterinburg to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan. My fellow passengers was a young family of Tartar Muslims coming home to Kazan for the winter holidays from the oil fields Of Northern Siberia. Traveling on the Trans-Mongolian and the Transiberian, I was living the modern version of Genghis Khan and his assault of Europe in the year 1252.
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The Mongol Empire which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.
By the time of the great Kublai Khan's death ( grandson of Genghis, Emperor of Mongolia and China under the banner of the Yuan Dynasty ) in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate Khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde Khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the west; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty based in modern-day Beijing.
The history of the Mongol Empire has always fascinated me and in my travels I have seen many of their conquered lands and read about the history of different Khanates: Khiva( Uzbekistan and Khoresm), Ilkhanate (Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), Mamaluk( Egypt and Turkey) and the Chagtai Khanates( Kazakhstan, and Russian Steppes of Central Asia).
This article is about Kazan, the focus of my journey that belonged to the Golden Horde Khanate. It was ruled by Juchi Khan, son of Genghis and expanded by his son Batu Khan. At its peak the Golden Horde’s territory extended from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the steppes of Siberia( See Map). On the south, the Horde’s lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Iranian territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Il-Khans.
That December morning of 2013 was quite chilly on arrival at the Kazan station, a very ornate building built in 1896. I soon arrived at my hotel on the grand boulevard Kremlivskya, a walking distance to the World Heritage Kremlin which I had primarily come to visit. The population of Kazan is equally divided between mild practitioners of Sunni Islam and orthodox Christianity. The old city has some beautiful churches including the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, which is one of its most valuable architectural monuments. Built on an elevated site it is built on the Russian Baroque style of the 17th century. I caught my first site of the mighty Volga river from its steps in its frozen splendor just a few miles away.
Having arrived around 4:00 AM on that cold winter morning , my anticipation and excitement kept me from falling asleep. Leaving my hotel at day break, I took a quick look around the Kremlin and was excited at the prospect of spending more time visiting the palaces, mosque and churches inside. The Kremlin dominates the city. Built on an ancient site near the Volga, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Archeological excavations on the territory of Kazan Kremlin provided evidence that the first fortress of Kazan was founded at the turn of 9th-10th centuries by Volga Bulgars. In 1438 Kazan became the capital of Khanate of Kazan, in 1552 the city was conquered by Ivan IV and became a significant and integral part of the Russian state.
The Tartars (or Tatars) controlled the trade routes between Scandinavia and the Caspian Sea and extracted tributes from Russian rulers and other Christian enclaves that was in their vicinity. Tired of Muslim aggression and the demands for tributes over the Eastern Orthodox Empire, Ivan the Terrible amassed an army of 150,000 soldiers and launched an attack that would permanently weaken the Islamic/Mongol-Turkic dominance of the Volga region. Muslims were massacred, converted or exiled to Siberia. This ethnic cleansing was one of the most severe in Russia only to be paled in comparison by the deeds of Stalin in the 1930s.
The Kazan Kremlin was built after the siege of Kazan on the ruins of the former Bulgar/Mongol castle. Ivan built many churches in Kazan and it became the Christian See of the Volga Land. Today, the only surviving Tartar fortress in Russia the Kazan Kremlin consists of an outstanding group of historic buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, integrating remains of earlier structures of the 10th to 16th centuries. The site and its key monuments represent an outstanding example of a synthesis of Tartar and Russian influences in architecture, integrating different cultures (Bulgar, Golden Horde, Tatar, Italian, and Russian), as well as showing the impact of Islam and Christianity.
Lyudmila, an English tutor in the University of Kazan moonlights as a guide. She arrived at my hotel around 8:00 AM and we were off to explore the city by foot. Within 1/2 a kilometer I came across a campus of ornate buildings with post modern Soviet buildings ringing its outer perimeter. I had arrived at the well known Kazan University, that began over 210 years ago. Lenin and Tolstoy attended classes while scientific research yielded new discoveries such as Ruthenium, popular methods for petroleum extraction and above all the science of magnetic resonance. Since Lyudmila had access to the buildings I chose to visit all the historic buildings from 200 years ago. This was not a part of my tour and it turned out to be very enriching. Moments such as these are only possible when traveling alone. The administration building had a museum showing the dresses of royalty, military personnel and professors over the years. They had curated a fine collection of scientific and literary dioramas showing the University's achievements. Despite visiting several prestigious schools in the USA, I had not seen something even close.
The Chemistry department was thrilled to note that I was a Chemical Engineer and gave me several publications in Russian, to take back with me. The University administrator personally showed me the halls where lectures, sometimes attended by the Tsars and nobility, were conducted. I even got to sit in the classrooms of Tolstoy and Lenin(expelled from the University of Kazan for revolutionary activities).
Another mile from the University was the historic Kazansky street with a large pedestrian shopping street that one would encounter in western Europe. This part of Kazan had been destroyed and rebuilt to showcase this city that has a future. There were many Tatar restaurants serving spicy lamb, dumplings and all kinds of Turkic foods that reminded me of my time in Kashgar in Xinxiang Province. We had a delicious meal costing no more than $5 for the two of us. I visited the magnificent Cathedral of Epiphany of Our Lord, the seat of the Russian Orthodox church. However, it became the gymnasium of the Universe of Kazan University in the 1950s during the peak of the revolution.
It seems to me that many ideological philosophies such as Communism and fundamental Islam have one thing in common. A penchant for destruction of civilization and preventing the evolution into arts, architecture and the sciences. In Russia, China and now in the Middle East, the silent victims of such creeds are some of the historic monuments once built by great conquerors and rulers whom the world remembers as game changers. I have shed many a tear for the number of monasteries burnt in Tibet, Buddha images desecrated in Xinjiang and Shaanxi provinces and magnificent churches reassigned to the common man for mundane purposes as in the Soviet Union and above all the execution and debasement of scientists and scholars everywhere. This does not include many Shamanic and Tribal cultures whict stood against their oppressors.
The Mongols under Genghiz Khan destroyed 500 years of learning in Central Asia in the 14th century, the Uzbeks under Timor cleaned up where the Mongols left. The raids into India, first by the Afghans then by Turks and the Mongol-Turkic Mughals destroyed many parts of an ancient land from the 12th to the 19th centuries. The Greeks and the Spartans and the Romans and the Persians were no better. The Jews were persecuted as long as there has been history. Yet despite all these wanton destruction, now in the 21 st century, we have still not learned from our past mistakes and crimes. Yet mankind has a penchant to survive these calamities with grit, guile and perseverance to allow someone like me to visit and review our past history in all these previously ravaged areas from China to Russia to Central Asia to the Middle-East and India.
With such thoughts in my mind I walked along the banks of a tributary of the Volga that cuts Kazan city into two; the old Islamic section and the European section. My first stop was the Islamic center established in the 1700s to understand the severity of Islam followed there. Islam in Russia has been clobbered into submission and at this point it is in synch with other religions of that nation. I fanned through the neighborhood of beautiful old houses, some in poor repair while many were being rebuilt to the specifications of their original splendor. When compared to the European side, it felt like being in the bad sections of Istanbul. After sampling some street foods I took a local bus to visit the banks of the mighty Volga; Europe's longest River. Its banks have played a major role in history including being the home to 11 of Russia's largest cities located in its watershed. This river was home to the Proto-Indo Europeans- land to the early Aryans; Iranians, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans , Mongol-Turkic tribes, Huns and the later settlers like the Tatars and other Turko- Finnic Tribes.
The Volga in winter has an ice thickness of 8 to 12inches. Every winter, a highway is cut across the river to avoid a longer route to gain access to bridges. This was a common sight I saw all over Russia especially on Lake Baikal were trucks of all kinds were seen navigating through frozen lakes with large surface areas
Reserving most of the following day for the Kremlin (Russian for fortress), I set off to see the magnificent fortress, only 500 meters from my hotel. Built on an ancient site, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate (13-15th centuries)
From the 10th to 13th centuries Kazan was a pre-Mongol Bulgar town. For the uninitiated reader, the Bulgars were a semi-nomadic warrior tribe from present day Kazakhstan steppes. They are a group such as the Aryans, Scythians and Huns who left the eastern Steppes of Siberia and moved westward around the 7th century AD( due to Chinese aggression). The Bulgars eventually split into two groups; one moved along the Volga river( Volga Bulgaria) while the other took refuge along the Danube river ( today's Bulgaria). The Kazan Kremlin hill consisted then of a fortified trading settlement surrounded by moats, embankments, and a stockade. A stone fortress was built in the 12th century and the town developed as an outpost on the northern border of Volga Bulgaria. They practiced a pagan religion with strong influences from Christianity and Islam .
The fortress was demolished on the instructions of the Mongols in the 13th century. A citadel was then built as the seat of the Prince of Kazan, including the town's administrative and religious institutions. By the first half of the 15th century, the town had become the capital of the Muslim Tatar Principality of Bulgaria, with administrative, military, and trading functions.
Having survived repeated destruction first by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Tsarist Russia in the 15th century Kazan's modern desecration came at the hands of Stalin in 1922. The ensemble of historic buildings lost many of its compositional dominants, which were pulled down on by the communist fanatics-the belfries of the Annunciation and Savior- Transfiguration Cathedrals, the church of Cyprian and Justinia, the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery complex, the dome of Bishop's House, and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral. The Kremlin however retained its status as a centre of Soviet state power and as garrison.
Well maintained, this masterpiece of Russian architecture is yet another achievement by Postnik Yakovlev most famous as one of the architects and builders of Saint Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow (built between 1555 and 1560). According to legend, Ivan the Terrible blinded Yakovlev so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. However, this is probably a myth, as Yakovlev, in cooperation with another master, Ivan ShirIai, designed the walls of the Kazan Kremlin and the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan in 1561 and 1562, just after the completion of St. Basil's.
Spending time inside one of the many beautiful churches, especially the Church of Annunciation, I could not help but realize that I was also walking over the fallen remains of the Khanate's army. Eight Christian churches were built over the remains of thousands of Muslim warriors by Ivan the Terrible..Many unearthed tombstones are displayed inside the Kremlin. Visiting places such as Kazan, one tends to reflect on imperialism and its effects the world over. The Museum of Islamic Culture and The History of Statehood of Tatarstan within its confines helped me understand the gradual reemergence of Tatarstan in the 450 years past the wake of its destruction.
After forcibly converted or relocated to Siberia in the 1500s, the Tatars got their first foothold under Imperial Russia when they were given increased rights as citizens in the 1700s during the liberal reign of Catherine the Great. By the 1860s a Tatar language newspaper was circulated in Kazan and other Muslim areas of Russia.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, during when Russia was in a civil war, forced the Tatars to join the Bolsheviks. Under the new Soviet rule the state of Tatarstan was ruled under TSSR ( Tatar Socialist Republic), where they were repressed again due to religion conflicting with communism. With the ultimate fall of USSR, Tatarstan liberated itself as an independent entity in 1990. But not wanting to face the problems of Chechnya in the Caucuses region which came under the weight of Russian aggression under Putin, Tatarstan decided to be an autonomous region within Russia and in 1994 became the Republic of Tatarstan.
The spiritual mosque of the Tatars, Qol Sharif, which was razed to the ground by the armies of Ivan the terrible was rebuilt in 1996, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Today it is the largest mosque in Europe located adjacent to the historic Church of the Annunciation, inside the Kremlin. Tatarstan is an unusual example of a Russian region where the majority of the population is Muslim, but where interethnic and interfaith strife is rare. According to the latest census, 52.9 percent of Tatarstan's 3.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Muslim Tatars; 39.5 percent are predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians.
On Kazan, Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, believes "
"This is a brand of Europeanized Islam, westernized Islam, that is Islamic yet functions in a Western society. As part of the ongoing engagement of the Muslim world, there could be benefits there.".
In conclusion, I must confess my fascination with the history of the Eastern and Western Steppes region with my readers. It is one of the most neglected portions in history text books of western learning, but in my opinion one that has shaped mankind. This history starts with Genghis Khan and the Chinese states, Mongolia, Indo-Europeans, Turkic peoples, Scythians , Parthians, Huns and Kushans It also includes the history of the Silk Road, Ottoman Empire and that of Persia until the conquest of Asia Minor by Alexander.
After witnessing ancient sites as a companion to reading written history, I boarded my train to Moscow 500 miles to the west. Staying a walking distance from the Red Square on the old Arbat street, my first foray was to see St.Basil's church built by Postnik Yakovlev who also rebuilt the Kazan Kremlin.
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UNESCO web site
Foriegn Affairs" Russia's Muslim Reality"- Vasily Rudich
ADDITIONAL PHOTOS FROM MY KAZAN EXPERIENCE