April/May 2013 – Kazan, Russia


Kazan is a city that we originally had not planned to visit –  not because we didn’t want to visit but because our intended path was to divert south from Moscow through Western Kazakhstan on our way to Uzbekistan before returning north to Novosibirsk.  But then the Russian consulate took a month to process our visa application, by which time we had to immediately go to Uzbekistan due to their visa’s strict dates of entry and exit. So we have the strict visa requirements of the Uzbek government and the inefficiency of the Russian government to thank for our visit to Kazan.

And Kazan did not disappoint, it is a wonderful introduction to the history of Russia and a place where two religions and cultures, the Russian orthodox and the Tatar Muslims, have lived side by side for the last half millennium under various levels of peace and oppression. It is also a place where the old city is being surrounded by new oil-funded growth,  immediately evident to the new arrival who steps from the glistening new futuristic train station and looks to the right towards the  beautiful old all-brick station which it has replaced.

Agriculture building, one of Kazan’s more daring new buildings

However, on the whole Kazan seems to design newer buildings in a way that does not detract from the nearby historical buildings, and in fact many of the newer buildings themselves are very attractive unlike that flat fronted glass and concrete buildings that seem to be the fad in many cities. And this is not just Kazan but something we have noticed in a number of Russian cities.  They seem unlikely to look back on these development projects with regret, whereas some places might (I’m looking at you, Melbourne waterfront city).


Almost everyone who visits Kazan comes in part to see the town’s historic kremlin, a hilltop fortification that looks out over the Volga River which at this southerly downriver stage of its existence is so vast and slow-moving that may as well be called the Volga Sea. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed kremlin was built following Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s victory over Kazan’s khanate in the mid-1500s and its blue-domed star-spotted Annunciation Cathedral was built on the a rubble of a razed Tatar central mosque, so the hilltop’s role as the town center predates even this kremlin.

The entrance to the kremlin is now guarded by a dramatic and incredibly large bronze monument in honor of Musa Dzhalil, a Tatar poet killed by the Nazis, in which Dzhalil is breaking free from a heavy nest of barbed wire which has set itself around his legs.

The Kul Sharif mosque is the striking centerpiece to the kremlin,  a enormous structure of white marble and blue tiled domes topped with golden crescents that glisten in the evening sun. It was built only in 2005, a worthy attempt by the authorities to return this land to its original spiritual owners after Ivan the Terrible razed the original mosque that stood on this hill, replaced it with the Annunciation Cathedral and instituted a ban on Muslims traveling north of the Bulak canal, effectively evicting them from their religious center. It was a strong attempt at eliminating the native religion, but as our later account of Staro Tatarskaya Sloboda will reveal, Islam persisted in relative exile south of the canal.

Kul Sharif mosque, Kazan

The beauty of the mosque’s interior matches that of its magnificent exterior, as geometric patterns of blues and gold cover the intersecting arches that divide the large central dome. Additionally, a large semitransparent blue and gold glass chandelier in the shape of a flower hangs down the center of this dome. Despite it being but a youth in a place of 500-year old buildings, the mosque is the unquestionable center of the kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral is well known for its blue onion domes that are scattered with golden stars, but it also has a beautiful interior with many religious icons and paintings. Originally built as a wooden church in the 1500s it was the first Orthodox church within the walls of the kremlin, built as something of a victory trophy for Ivan the Terrible. And this wasn’t the only church built to commemorate the defeat of the Kazan khanate, the colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral was also erected on Moscow’s red square. The Russian orthodox church has a long history of canonizing military heroes and glorifying tsars, and perhaps it’s not so difficult to see how the soviets in general but Stalin in particular were able to harness a religious like following here. And we’ve heard from more than one person while here that they feel the cooperation of the government and church has resumed under Putin. Of course it is not so different in some other places, though perhaps the cooperation is less tangible where dominant religious ideology is taught by many churches that are not so centrally controlled as the Russian Orthodox Church.

Annunciation Cathedral, Kazan

Next to the cathedral is the popular Syuyumbike Tower. A legendary love story is associated with the tower in which the daughter of the Kazan khan, apparently a spoil of war and destined to wed Ivan the Terrible, threw herself from the top rather than succumb. If true, it would have been a painful tumble down this many tiered tower, each a potentially violent and temporary hindrance to a falling object or princess.

Inside another of the kremlin’s buildings is the Hermitage Center, a small extension of St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum and our first taste of what we would later see at the parent museum. The rotating display during our visit here focussed on the Olympics, as Sochi is hosting next year’s winter Olympics and Kazan is participating by hosting the Universiade later this year. The display included historical artifacts from the original Olympics dating to the 1st to 5th century AD, most of which were in such good condition it was almost difficult to believe they were authentic.

Peter and Paul Cathedral, Kazan

Peter and Paul Cathedral

While the Peter and Paul Cathedral is not located in Kazan’s historic kremlin, this 18th century church is without a doubt the city’s most beautiful.  Its blue and white checkered domes are visible from many places around the city, but it’s true beauty is not apparent until its pastel coloured walls and beautifully painted trim are viewed up close.

The cathedral has two separate altars and they differ from each other quite significantly.  The altar in the lower level is hidden behind an all wood iconostasis and the wall murals are devoid of the gold leaf paint we’d come to expect, trading it for a more humble golden yellow. The upstairs altar was more typically hidden behind a grand gold gilded iconostasis which was surrounded by murals heavily coated in gold leaf paint.

Theophany Church and belfry, Bauman Street, Kazan

Bauman Street

Bauman street is a long pedestrian mall that is the most lively part of Kazan, a collection of eateries and shops tucked in between old churches and historic buildings. One of the most prominent structures is the Theophany Church and belfry, the belfry towering over the street.

Old homes in Staro Tatarskaya Sloboda, Kazan

Staro Tatarskaya Sloboda

Staro Tatarskaya Sloboda is the part of Kazan south of the Bulak canal, the part to which Muslim Tatars were confined from the time immediately following Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Khan until the ban on travel north of the canal was lifted by  Catherine the Great some 200 years later. The rift is still visible and this is still decidedly the Tatar side of town. While there are plenty of domestic tourists visiting this part of town for its still very functional mosques and beautiful brightly colored old Tatar homes, this area that Lonely Planet kindly refers to in passing as the “dumpy side of town”  seems to have remained largely off foreign tourist itineraries. It’s a shame that so many miss this lovely part of town.

We walked along the canal where a number of historic homes and buildings have been labelled as historically significant, some in beautiful condition or even still lived in and some in near ruins. The preservation efforts in this part of town are in early stages, but they are underway.

As is the case at every Islamic site we have visited, we were warmly welcomed inside the Mardzhani mosque, the area’s main mosque. The domestic tours groups seemed to stop outside for a photo and then continue on their way, so perhaps the people here were just happy to have us inside. But in general we have found that Muslims are very welcoming and indeed want people to see their religion, though its difficult to know how much this attitude is one inherent in the religion’s teachings versus a new need to educate people about their religion to combat the extremist viewpoints that get so much international press.

Mardzhani Mosque, Kazan

As we entered the mosque’s upstairs prayer area, we found a very stark and peaceful place. A praying man in the adjacent room sang beautifully, his semitonal hymm echoing through the open chamber.We sat in the prayer room for some time listening and felt a pleasant calming sensation and also a slight feeling of loss knowing that this may be our last opportunity to hear this beautiful sound as the train out of Kazan would take us away from the land where Islam is the primary religion.

Mardzhani Mosque, Kazan

Greenpoint Hostel

We stayed at a newly opened hostel called Greenpoint, which was experiencing perhaps it’s first few full nights as the Russian domestic holidays started while we were in Kazan.  The staff were really friendly and helpful and the facilities were nice and new and included a sauna.  The only drawback was the clientele, mostly young Russian girls who didn’t seem to grasp that living in a ten person dorm room requires some level of respect for those around you. One group of three girls in particular  had conversations in the dorm room at 3am while seven others were asleep. They also each brought about three large bags, the contents of which they had no qualms about spreading throughout the room including onto the beds of others. We were pleased with the hostel, but definitely glad to get away to a quieter place.

Click here to see more Kazan


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