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National and Religious Revival in Tatarstan

Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, is one of the most distinctive cities in the Russian Federation. What makes Kazan distinctive is that it is a site of integration, collision, and amalgamation of two worlds and two cultures: Orthodox Russian and Islamic Tatar. In Kazan the tall minarets of mosques stand next to the onion domes of Orthodox temples, historical Russian monuments neighbor traditional Tatar buildings, and old Tatar enclaves adjoin Russian neighborhoods. The population of Kazan is almost equally divided between Tatars and Russians and each ethnic group considers the city its historic home.

For the vast period of its history Kazan has been a city populated by people of two different cultures; however, the sharp contrast between Islamic identity of the city and Christian identity began to manifest itself in the early 1990s when Soviet Union collapsed.  The collapse of Soviet Union produced an immense paradigm shift in the society as combined revival of nationalism and religion took place in all parts of post-Soviet space. Russia’s ethnic republics have experienced especially vivid religious revivals. A vigorous wave of nationalism and religiosity has swept over young generation of Tatar people in Tatarstan, while previous generations have experienced the resurgence of national sentiments and religious consciousness. The revitalization of religion and nationalism resulted in profound changes in the people’s way of life, their opinions, preferences, demands and behavior. Changes in the society in turn produced immediate transformation in the urban form of Kazan.

A significant number of mosques, madrassas, Islamic organizations and other religious institutions were established in Kazan since the 1990s. Besides making Tatars more religiously aware, these places have performed an important function: they united Tatar people under their main common attribute – Islam. In just two decades Kazan has been transformed from a typical Soviet city into a spectacular site of Islamic enlightenment and a Muslim island in a predominantly Christian part of the world.

The process of cultural and religious revitalization in Kazan has been going hand­ihand with ideological changes happening throughout the whole post-Soviet space. Like many other cities in the former Soviet Union, Kazan has attempted to get rid of its Soviet identity. These changes largely affected the urban environment of Kazan. Most Soviet monuments and statues of communist leaders have been taken down and old Soviet regions and streets of Kazan have been renamed. These transformations coupled with Tatar revitalization of Kazan have resulted in the fact that city has completely changed since the Soviet Union collapse.

My thesis is about the changes that were unfolding in Kazan over time when the Soviet Union ended and Kazan was presented with new opportunities. Although my main focus is to analyze changes happening in post-Soviet times, I will examine each important earlier period in Kazan’s history as well in order to analyze how political forces, dominant ideologies and relationships between Tatars and Russians affected the structure and the landscape of Kazan. The starting point of the analysis is going to be the historic period when Kazan was the capital of the Islamic country the Kazan Khanate (1436-1552). Then I will analyze what the city was like during pre-Imperial Russia (1552-1704), Imperial Russia (1704-1929), Soviet Union (1920-199), and most importantly, during the post-Soviet period since 1990.

My main research question is “What changes have happened in Kazan in the post-Soviet period?” I will examine such changes as construction of new landmarks, memorials, buildings, establishments, institutions and organizations which are directly linked with the revival of Islam or Tatar nationalism. Changes in the city reveal many important processes. Monuments, museums, architectural ensembles and memorials play an important role in defining people’s political, national and religious identity. Any changes made in the city’s built-up area and landscape demand huge resources and legitimate approval. Therefore, by looking at how symbolic places in the city are manipulated, it is possible to determine who possesses the power and which political ideology rules. Control over symbolic public places may be an important part of a nation’s political agenda. Therefore, changes in the city’s landscape may reveal strategic decisions of political leaders.  I focus strongly on the post-Soviet changes, because they represent the most powerful national revival Tatars have experienced since they were conquered by Russians in 1552.

Another important question of my thesis is: “Which forces and factors explain the extraordinary level of the Tatar revival today?” I call this revival ‘extraordinary’, because there are tremendous differences between Tatars in Soviet period and Tatars today. Similarly, there is a huge difference between Soviet and post-Soviet Kazan. Certainly, there are many important political, economic and social factors that affected today’s Tatar revival, but some of them were more important than others. In answering this question, I want to analyze which factors were the most important in causing the Tatar religious and cultural revival.

Liliya Nigmatullina received her Master’s degree in Geography and Urban Development from Temple University

  • January 31, 2021