Along the banks of the Volga sits a tiny republic, struggling for independence since the middle ages, this land has a culture and bloodline starkly different to mainland Russia. This is the land of the Tatars, a.k.a., the Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan.
A Quick History
First established as Volga Bulgaria in the 7th century, it was eventually conquered by the Mongols and absorbed into the Golden Horde for several hundred years. Through intermarriage between Mongols and Bulgars, the Tatar race was born, and after the fall of the Golden Horde, the first true Tatar state was established, the Khanate of Kazan.
Since inception, the Khanate had been at war with Russia. Ivan the Terrible conquered the nation in the Siege of Kazan, signalling a long history of Russian rule. Since annexation, there have been several struggles for independence, the Tatars unsuccessfully fought for this during the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War.
The Tatarstan Soviet Socialistic Republic was becoming autonomous in 1990, and in the years followed a constitution was drafted and a president elected. Tatarstan declared independence from Russia in 2008, however no country recognises them as a separate nation.
The most famous Tatar legend is the story of the Kazan’s tower. Prior to the Siege of Kazan, there lived a Tatar princess called Söyembikä. The ever-persistent Ivan the Terrible wanted to take Söyembikä as his wife, she was however hesitant. After the Siege decimated her city, she eventually agreed to marry, provided that Ivan complete an impossible task: build a seven-tier tower in seven days. Ivan obliged, and the tower was built that week. Unable to bear her future marriage to the short-tempered ruler that crushed her city, Söyembikä climbed her tower, took her last look over her city and hurled herself over the ledge. With her resilience, Söyembikä is considered a national hero and gives her name to the tower.
Things to Do
The destruction of Qolşärif Mosque during the Siege of Kazan symbolised a loss of national identity. The Qolşärif Mosque that stands today is a replica of the former, showcasing architectural styles ranging from Volga Bulgarian to renaissance, and stands as a national Tatar symbol.
The visually confusing Temple of All Religions was designed by an eccentric artist turned alternative healer. With a fusion of the world’s major religious styles, it is intended for people of all faiths. The end result resembles a Wonkaesque, fairy-tale castle.
For some USSR quirkiness, head to the Soviet Lifestyle Museum near central Kazan. immerse yourself in 1980s Soviet Union, play dress-up amongst the collection of soviet art, propaganda and underground music (i.e. rock and roll).
Chak-chak, the national dish are deep-fried doughballs, stacked, drenched in honey, then cooled and hardened into a crunchy doughnut cake-thing. There are several Tatar restaurants in town, many tourists head to the chak-chak museum (bookings are essential). For something savoury, try kystybyi, a simple yet delicious potato pie.
Make sure you check out some of the towns away from Kazan. Bolgar, former capital of Volga Bulgaria is steeped in legends, and the historic town of Sviyazhsk sits on a tiny, picturesque island in the Volga.
Sabantuy is a cultural festival occurring around the summer solstice. Traditional games and sports such as pot crashing and Kurash towel-wrestling take centre-stage. Sabantuy is often combined with Tatar-pop music festivals. Being held in various regional centres give great opportunity to head off the beaten path.
Tatarstan is investing heavily in tourism. Kazan is well connected by airline (including international airlines), rail (about 12 hours from Moscow) and river cruises. Land transport around Tatarstan is better developed than most Russian regions and has a growing number of tour operators and hotels.
Tatarstan has a high level of safety, and should be considered safe enough to walk around during daylight. Your accommodation may give you a letter to carry around, should you get into trouble, hand this to the police (It was several years since I went, so this may not apply anymore).
Tatarstan really is a unique corner of Russia, if not the world. It is suitable for most travellers and deserves to be on your Russian itinerary.