Eastern promises: Owen Hatherley takes a tour of Kazan’s architectural multiculturalism

As capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan has long been a staging ground for a meeting of Russian and Tatar cultures

14 June 2018

Right at the centre of the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan stands the Qolşärif Mosque, allegedly the largest in Europe outside Istanbul. It was opened in 2005 for the city’s thousandth anniversary, a date which long precedes the invasion and sacking of the city by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, and its annexation to the Russian Empire. Qolşärif now commands the Kazan Kremlin, standing as an emblematic image for a city that has been rebranding itself as the Russian Federation’s “third capital”. What, you might ask, is this giant mosque doing here? You quickly realise in walking around Kazan that Qolşärif is only the most obvious example of a peculiar experiment in architectural multiculturalism, resulting from a “sovereignty movement” for linguistic and (to a minor degree) political autonomy in the most powerful of the Russian Federation’s Autonomous Republics. That project is now unravelling, with an official decision last year that the Tatar language would no longer be compulsory in schools. As a building project, however, its effects are all over Kazan, which has been transformed over the last 20 years from just another big Russian/Soviet city, into a fairytale kitsch city of Postmodern Orientalism — deeply incongruous in an era that otherwise seen a resurgence in Russian nationalism.

The blue dome and minarets of Qolşärif come into view across the Volga as the eastbound train pulls into Kazan’s main station, over a fairly standard post-Soviet panorama of mass-produced speculative towers and cheap business parks. The Kremlin is on a ridge above these, its walls whitewashed, with blunt, conical towers, designed by architects from distant Pskov, near the Baltic. The minatory, ethereal Spasskaya Tower forms the main entrance for tourists. Outside is a memorial to Russian and Tatar fighters in the Red Army, with inscriptions in Russian and in Tatar in both Arabic and Cyrillic script. Inside you can find the Soyembike Tower, the most distinctive structure in the Kremlin, a tiered, leaning red brick spike, the classical buildings that make up the Presidential Palace, the Annunciation Cathedral of 1562, whose clustered simple and beautiful blue and gold domes belie a busy and dull Victorian interior, an exhibition centre and of course the Mosque.

The polished newness of Qolşärif, designed in 2001, makes it immediately incongruous with the historical buildings, but it gets round this by creating around it a distinct, enclosed urban space, with a public square of decorated tiles and a colonnaded arcade. There was a mosque on this site before Ivan the Terrible destroyed the city and slaughtered its inhabitants, when Kazan was the capital of a powerful Khanate, a successor state to the Golden Horde, but little is known about its design other than the fact it had eight minarets. Qolşärif has six, four of them tall, two smaller, around a full, bulb-like dome. The Library and Imam’s Office alongside has a shell-like dome that makes clear a derivation from pop architecture of the 60s nearly as much as Turkic mosque design — Mimar Sinan and Eero Saarinen, together at last. Inside, this Sunni mosque is relaxed, with worshippers and tourists in roughly equal number, a gift shop and theologically questionable representative mosaics of old, pre-Russian Kazan. An illuminated model of the Mosque stands in the centre of the prayer hall, as if it were the real focus of worship. Evidently, this place meant a great deal — enough to risk the ire of UNESCO and Russian nationalists to get it built.

Kazan is a peculiar experiment in architectural multiculturalism

The Republic of Tatarstan was never a full Union Republic (SSR) in the Soviet Union, but an Autonomous Republic (ASSR), a lesser designation in terms of the enforcement of the native language and culture in the education system; until recently, Tatars and Russians were of roughly equal demographic weight. Under Gorbachev, the Tatar ASSR pressed for Union status, and from 1990 declared “sovereignty”, with the agreement of Yeltsin — roughly equivalent in practice to devolution in the French or Spanish sense. This has been severely circumscribed since 2000, with the Republic commanded again to give the majority of the tax receipts from its oil and industry to Moscow. Soviet nationality policy, early theorists of which included Tatar socialists like Mullanur Vakhitov (killed by the White Armies in 1918) and Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev (killed by Stalin in 1940), initially stood strongly against Russification, but demographics were not on their side. Whereas Union Republics had the right to secede — one which they availed themselves of in 1991 — Autonomous Republics like Tatarstan (and of course Chechnya) did not.

Walking around central Kazan, you can see the difference between being the capital of a Union and an Autonomous Republic. The distinct local schools of architecture you can find in Union Republic capitals — Tbilisi, Yerevan, Almaty — are wholly absent. What you find instead is Soviet design of a straightforward kind, the same stuff as anywhere else in Russia. Because of this, the Republic’s government has been building itself the grandiose governmental buildings it has hitherto lacked, and it has done so in the common style of post-socialist states, a style that could roughly be described as Postmodernism without the irony. Just outside of the Kremlin you’ll find the Palace of Agriculture, designed in 2008 by Leonid Gornik. It’s a work of demented aggression and historical syncretism, a crescent of masonry cladding capped with domes and dragons, giant order columns and a stylised four-storey high “tree” at the entrance. It’s horrible architecture, half-understood classical components shoved together randomly, but the scale and confidence are impressive in their unnerving way, with the symbolic lions and pointed arches attempting a historical Tatar style for which the evidence is scant.

As in similar projects of its kind in other post-socialist cities like Skopje, these mock-historical essays are about creating new histories, frequently through overwriting the old ones. In Lenin Square, the surviving statue of Vladimir Ilyich, who had family connections here, stands in front of a classicised governmental block bearing Tatarstan’s lion emblem. Opposite that is a small park, and the city’s old Lenin Museum, a fine modern building designed by Anatoly Polyansky in 1987, in the shape of stylised red granite flags fluttering; it has long been reconsecrated as a Museum of Tatarstan. Walking in the other direction, away from the river, you’ll see unexpected little remnants of what must once have been a pretty little city, wooden houses and flats with great cantilvered bay windows; plaques reveal that Rachmaninov and Lenin lived in some of these. This is crushed soon enough with an avalanche of kitsch hotels, offices and shops in an eternal late-80s of multicoloured stone and mirrorglass. This road will lead you to the city’s busiest junction, where the pedestrianised Bauman Street meets the wide, arterial Tatarstan Street.

Close by, past some horrendous new malls, is Lake Kaban, commanded by the most impressive Soviet building in the city, the Tatar State Academic Theatre, designed by Gorlyshkov, Korneev and Agishev and opened in 1986. This is a Brutalist public building of real quality and, extremely unusually for the USSR’s construction industry, impressive attention to detail, with the fine concrete work of its public terraces extending right down to the embankment. On the main street are some standardised Soviet blocks, and some symmetrical neoclassical flats, evidently part of an unfinished Stalinist grand plan, and a hideous neoclassical University building that manages to ignore everything else around it. In the side streets around these are more interesting things. There are two large mosques, the Marcani Mosque of 1770, and the Nurulla Mosque, built in the 1840s, both in a style which combines the lightness of St Petersburg’s neoclassicism with the need for minarets and domes. These denote the “Tatarskaya Sloboda”, outside which Tatars were not allowed to live until the late 19th century. This place still feels fairly distinct, though more for its wooden houses and relatively “authentic” architecture than for its ethnic specificity; its mosques didn’t try to be exotic, but instead establish a continuity with Russian imperial architecture of the same time.

Kazan’s mosques didn’t try to be exotic, but instead establish a continuity with Russian imperial architecture of the same time

Bauman Street itself is one of those pedestrianised streets common in large Russian cities, modelled on the 80s renewal of the Moscow Arbat, that have comprehensively drained themselves of any perceptible atmosphere via over-restoration and kitsch street furniture; there are interesting buildings nonetheless, such as a 1930 Printing House by the unfortunately homophonic Constructivist architect Semen Pen, with Corbusian ribbon windows and pilotis, an open ground floor and a curved concrete stair-tower. Nothing “eastern” here — for Soviet modernists, Kazan was to be treated as an industrial city like any other.

At either end of Bauman Street are Metro stations, and it’s here that you can see the architecture of “sovereignty” at its most complete. The Kazan Metro’s first stations were planned in 1997 and opened in 2005 as part of the city’s Millennium celebrations, and it has the interesting honour of being the only Metro system in Russia to be entirely post-Soviet. You wouldn’t know, but for subtle differences in the iconography: the generous dimensions and lush, glittering materials are all exceptionally Soviet. Some of the stations — especially Tuqay Square, named after the national poet Gabdullah Tuqay — are decorated with mosaics and murals from local mythology, all of it figurative, but all of it distinctively “Tatar” in terms of the costumes, the script and the world that is being evoked.

The Kazan Metro tells tales about a culture the city has spent much of its history consciously suppressing, and it may now start moving back towards that suppression. In some of the more recent stations, this imaginary Tatarstan is being replaced with more futuristic architecture, grey concrete halls reminiscent of London’s Jubilee Line. Tuqay Square station leads into an underground mall. The initial unfamiliarity of this city may be deceptive. Kazan’s ecumenical, multicultural architecture and planning coexists with all the usual things about Russian cities: crass commercialism, poor public spaces, kitsch, adverts and a vast gap between rich and poor. The wager of the Sovereignty Movement in Tatarstan was that “cultural” concessions could always be made so long as the central power stayed the same, and the taxes kept going to Moscow. That may not be enough anymore. If the government was ready for war to enforce the (largely imaginary) infringements of Russian speakers’ rights in Ukraine, how could they tolerate the de-Russification of a city in the very heart of Russia?