I have always wondered why Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, was never the recipient of a Constructivist piece of architecture. Or why during Soviet times, the attempt to transform cities according to the socialist ideal never quite made it to Kazan with the same scale and ambition as other places on the Volga. In fact, this list of childish questions that follow a why-in-all-the-neighbouring-towns-and-not-in-Kazan format is endless. The most obvious explanation is that in Kazan, a city inhabited by Russians and Tatars in equal numbers, Tatar traditionalism has always been strong. Even under Soviet rule, traditional national dishes were never missing from the window displays of public canteens.
Historically, Tatarstan and Kazan have always strived to exist autonomously, with their own internal rules, while at the same time finding a place for themselves within the structure of a vast entity whether that be the Russian Empire, the USSR or modern-day Russia. This has influenced the mentality here in many ways. Thus, in the last few years and despite persisting in its own thrall to Moscow, Kazan has also managed to develop several specific trends of its own.
One of the most obvious is the booming halal industry. A well-known Russian publisher once joked that I should set myself the task of making the word “halal” fashionable. He reckoned that “halal” could become a synonym for “cool”; following this logic, popular phrases could include, “Everything’s halal”, “That’s a halal outfit” and so on. This isn’t entirely implausible given the number of halal services that have sprung up in Kazan over recent years including specialist hairdressers and dentists that allow for the separation of men and women. As stipulated by the Quran, the hairdressers bury cut hair in the ground while the dentists eschew medical products that contain alcohol, or pig tissue or blood.
Elsewhere, an online retailer, Odyenu Musulmanku (We dress Muslim Women) was founded “for Muslim women, to ease the process of finding clothes (hijabs) in ordinary secular shops”. “Today a young Muslim woman might spend four hours looking for a skirt and still not buy anything,” explains the founder Rustam Kashapov. “So we go to big brands, like Zara, H&M, Mango and so on, and select the clothes that comply with Sharia law. That way, we make shopping a whole lot easier.” Then there’s Kazan’s aqua park, which organises Muslim days and until recently Habibi, a taxi service that banned the transport of pigs and dogs and played recordings of Islamic teachings on request.
For more, simply download HalalGid, a smartphone app, and check out the list of organisations in Kazan. You’ll find all manner of businesses from tourist agencies to solicitors to estate agencies. Most of these businesses are difficult to Google; you can only find them with the help of a halal directory, which incidentally covers most other major Russian cities. But it’s not just little-known Muslim businesses that don’t appear in search engines. Enter “rehearsal rooms” and you get a bunch of links to VK pages for spaces that have been shut for ages. For six years now, Kazan’s music scene has centred around Yuldash, a concrete-and-glass garage complex in a residential part of town. According to Philip Zaripov, formerly a guitarist for a metal band and now the owner of two rehearsal rooms in Yuldash, this single building contains more than 20 music rooms which are used by around 100 Kazan-based groups. “The garage complex works as a rehearsal space for two reasons,” says Zaripov. “The first is the low rent, which is passed on to the musicians. The second is that garages are practically the only place you could get away with such loud music.”
Yuldash is a tightly-run ship with a secure entry-pass system, CCTV and fastidious security guards. Inside, there’s a unique cross-section of almost every musical genre: the emo kids give the Tatar rappers homey handshakes while the punks drink beer with the blokes in the white-power T-shirts. All this within a garage complex with an outdoor loo and a sushi bar on the ground floor.
Not that there’s anything surprising about the latter. Kazan has not been immune to the love of sushi that has taken hold of Russian cities. What’s unique to Kazan is the ever-growing number of informal, almost underground, sushi delivery outfits. One day a young man appeared in the gallery I work in, panting and drenched in sweat. He introduced himself as a neighbour, announced a 40% discount on any order, handed us a menu-flyer and shot off. Their business hasn’t got a retail space or a website. It too isn’t mentioned on the internet but is run out of a kitchen. Occasionally he arrives with our order, bums half a cigarette, sucks it down in a couple of tokes and shoots off again, shouting as he goes that for one week only, avocado rolls are on at 20 roubles only. It’s this kind of mix, of ethnicities, of musical tastes, of religions, that makes Kazan what it is — a city that has largely followed its own path.