Founded by Volga Bulgars, developed by local Tatar khans and Russian tsars, and now reinvigorated by cosmopolitan leaders to attract visitors from near and far, it would be a cliche to describe the capital of Tatarstan as a “melting pot”, were that not the meaning of Qazan, the word the Tatars chose for their town. Distant and accessible, Russian and Muslim, Kazan is a treat for explorers, with spotless avenues and open spaces to complement its cultural credentials.
Operas and plays at its dozens of theatres are performed in Tatar, Russian and sometimes English, while there is a nostalgic Museum of Soviet Life as well as a handful of cutting-edge art galleries. The Kazan International Festival of Muslim Cinema has been held every year since 2005, showcasing new films from within Russia and locations further afield like Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile the ever-changing roster of restaurants feature the food of Tatarstan’s European and Central Asian diasporas.
Positioned on the bank of picturesque Lake Kaban — legendary for the myth of the Khan’s lost treasure which allegedly still lies at the bottom of the lake — and surrounded by the buildings of the Old Tatar Quarter, this modern hotel is ideal if you want to stay immersed in Tatar culture. The Tatar State Academic Theatre, an iconic modernist building from the Soviet period, is just opposite.
A craft coffeehouse, run by its bartender-owners, with a small bar counter and a three-seater table. In addition to the excellent coffee you can also order yourself a cup of herbal tea, sample some handmade confections, or pick up a souvenir or an attractive map of the city.
Dating back to Soviet times, this second-hand market is teeming with all sorts of out-print editions, postcards from the pre-revolutionary, communist and perestroika periods, antique toys, coins, stamps, wooden icons, clothes and everyday objects. You can find anything and everything here, from the avant-garde artist Alexander Deineka’s famous drawing manual, published in 1961, to a tabletop bust of Russian post-punk star and Kino frontman Viktor Tsoi; from late-nineteenth-century engravings to Stalin-era Christmas decorations.
The Kazan Kremlin is one is the most important tourist sites in the city. The main mosque of the Republic, the tower of Syuyumbik (which is inclined a few degrees, and which according to legend Ivan the Terrible wanted to take for his wife after victory over the Kazan Khanate), an affiliate of the St Petersburg Hermitage, the gallery Khazine, and the Blagoveshenskii Church are all located within the Kremlin. Also within the Kremlin there is a viewing platform from where one can see the Kazan River divide the city in half. The Kremlin has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.
A mix of European and Middle Eastern cuisine: meatballs, falafel, hummus and masala chai in addition to daily specials announced on Instagram the moment they’re cooked and appear in the counter window.
One of the few surviving examples of the city’s Constructivist architecture. In the 1930s, all the principal national bodies involved in the book industry were housed here, and namely the Union of Tartary Writers, which in the middle of that decade was headed by the famous Tatar poets Kavi Nadzhmi and Musa Dzhalil. In the late 1990s, the arch of the building became a major meeting point for Kazan’s metalheads, punks and hippies, who’d wheedle change out of passersby for their poor renditions of perestroika-era rock songs while tanking up on cheap booze.
Kazan’s only centre of modern art with regular exhibitions of currently active artists from Russia and abroad. Alongside its exhibitional endeavours, Smena also operates an education auditorium and an independent bookshop which stocks small-circulation books, including English-language titles on the subject of 20th- and 21st-century Russian art.
Having opened in 2005 as part of the commemoration of the Tatarstan capital’s 1000-year anniversary, the Kazan metro has now expanded to 10 stations and connects the city’s northern and southern outskirts. Its central stations, decorated with Tartar-folk-themed mosaics, boast free wifi, and station announcements are made in three languages: Russian, Tatar and English.
The concept of the shop is for producers to rent not floorspace, but a surface; that is, in order to become a participant in the project, one cannot take a section of the shop, but instead must choose a shelf. A great variety of Kazan designers and artisans sell their goods here at very acceptable prices.
Having really taken off in recent years, Kazan’s halal industry has enriched the city with an extensive series of stores specialising in female Muslim attire of both everyday and religious varieties. Alongside shops selling mass-market clothing, the city boasts several boutiques that stock Muslim finery by local designers and are often patronised by non-Muslim women.
One of the few wine bars in Kazan, this establishment features an interior reminiscent of an entrance to an ordinary Russian residential house, the lower half of its walls painted green, the upper half whitewashed. A cute little place offering auteur cuisine, it’s equally good for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The number in the name is borrowed from the address of the bar.
Bar ‘What is to be done?’
Christened in honour of the philosophical novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, written while he was in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and situated on the street that bears his name, this small bar serves craft foreign and Russian beer and plays host to regular live gigs by local bands.
Text: Kirill Maevsky
Images: Mikhail Kolchin