Kazan: Peace in the "Cauldron"

After seeing the new mosque nestled inside the Kazan Kremlin, I found myself wondering why Muslim Tatars get along so well with Russians while their fellow Muslims, the Chechens, have an ongoing blood feud with them. Over the centuries, both ethnic groups suffered slaughter and pillage at the hands of Russian invaders -- so, what's the magic formula that seems to bond Russians and Tatars?

We spent part of the day walking around Kazan -- which means "cauldron" in Tatar -- asking people on the street what they thought. One thing we heard repeatedly was that "mixed marriages" abound here, apparently more so than in other ethnic enclaves. About half of the Tatars we stopped reported being married to Russians, and vice versa. "How can you hate Tatars when your own children are half-Tatar?" one woman asked me.

Delyara, a historian, described a centuries-long tradition of tolerance in Tatarstan. (David Hillegas)

Yet that still didn't get to the root of the question. There have always been Russians in Chechnya, too, yet there are far fewer mixed marriages there. Why is it that Tatars, unlike Chechens, seem so content to coexist with Russians?

In Kazan, the question is such a non-issue, people don't even know how to answer it. An 18-year-old Russian named Mark who was walking with his Tatar buddy Artur told us, "It's always been this way. We don't even think about it." Looking at them, I couldn't help but think that if they'd been born further south, in Chechnya, they might well be aiming guns at each other rather than strolling around town together.

We happened to stop a historian named Delyara, who gave us a short discourse on Tatar history. "There have been many governments here over the centuries," she said. "The Bulgars, the Golden Horde, the Kazan Khanate. There was always a certain amount of tolerance to other religions. Under the Kazan Khanate, no churches were ever destroyed. So we have a history of tolerance here."

The she added another comment, about the Chechens themselves: "People from the Caucasus are different. Our blood doesn't run as hot as theirs."

This was something we heard repeatedly. A middle-aged Russian woman named Lyudmila told me, "They're emotional people, very fiery." And a 20-year-old Tatar woman named Aigul said, "The Chechens are Caucasian -- they're hot-blooded, they want to be free. Tatars are not like them. We're calm people."

Mikhail, a self-described "pure-blood Tatar," believes you can't generalize about ethnic groups -- except for Azerbaijanis. (David Hillegas)

In Russia, generalizations about Chechens abound, many of them far more disparaging than simply "hot-blooded." Dark-haired, olive-skinned men are routinely stopped and harassed by police in Russian cities, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks by Chechen extremists. Many Russians openly express prejudice against Chechens, often in crude and insulting terms, in a cycle of hatred and mistrust that is unlikely to break anytime soon.

Of all the people we talked to, a taxi driver named Mikhail offered us the best sound bite of the day. A "pure-blooded Tatar" (as he put it), he told us, "I went to kindergarten and school with Chechens, Tatars, Russians, everyone. We all got along. Listen, there are no bad nations, only bad people. You can't generalize."

"Although," he added after a pause, "I really don't like Azerbaijanis. They're rude, disgusting and don't keep their word. That's just based on the ones I've met, of course."

Coming up: Ten-years-later updates on Vladimir Muzychenko, Mila Aituganova, and the family of soldier Zhenya Mamykin.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 25, 2005; 10:05 AM ET
Previous: Kazan: The Mosque Inside the Kremlin Walls | Next: Two Journalists in Kazan, Ten Years Later


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I guess Osama bin Laden is also "hot-blooded" guy, "wanting to be free".

Great job, Lisa!

Posted by: oleg | October 25, 2005 03:31 PM

I was born and raised in Kazan, although I now live in Washington. One important point is that Kazan has been under Russian/Soviet/Russian rule for 450 years, and had a few rebellions. The Caucasus is a much more recent Russian conquest.

Second is terrain. During the Soviet times Russians and Chechens in Chechnya got along. But Chechens had a chance for independence with their location on Russia's fringe and their mountains, so they went for it. The bitterness in Russo-Chechen relations largely started there, albeit there might have been some latent bad feelings. Ten years and two wars later, it's even worse. The Tatars never seriously contemplated independence and rebellion is impossible in the plains of Tatarstan even if a few hotheads had decided on it.

Posted by: Mikhail Zeldovich | October 25, 2005 04:26 PM

Actually, the Tatars came to the Central European plain as invaders in the 13th century, they destroyed a lot of Eastern Slavic cities, and almost all Eastern Slavic (future Russian and Ukrainian) states had to pay contributions regularly to the Khans of the Golden Horde and a huge part of the population were slaves in the Horde. That period lasted for 2,5 hundred years, you don't have a word about it in your Tatar history!!!
And you know, Lisa, when you're back to the USA, may be you will go and ask Indians or Mexicans at southern states don't they want get independence and start to fight for their freedom...

Posted by: Ivan | October 26, 2005 03:42 AM

A very good article, Lisa! Thanks. I will disregard Ivan's comments - a typical Russian compilation of lies, ignorance, hatred towards all non-Russians, Americans, minorities, etc. A result of the fact that the Russians have never been free, that they realize this deficiency of theirs and, as a result, that some of them tend to hate the entire world because of this. Only a fool does not know that today's Tatars are the descendants of Bulgars, Cumans, etc., who have been living in Eastern Europe since 3-5 centuries B.C., when nobody had even heard about the Russians.
Anyway, the reason why Tatars live peacefully with the Russians is exactly because Tatars are a PEACEFUL NATION (brutally conquered by their bellicose neighbour - the Russians). Have always been peaceful, except for Russian history text-book, a brazen compilation of lies, propaganda and hatred towards neighbours. Second, the Tatars know, that if they make any rash move towards freedom, the Russian tanks will roll into Tatarstan (just like it happened in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chechnya, etc. in the past and present), and the Russian will begin doing what they have always done and do best - KILL, KILL, KILL... 453 years of colonization of Tatarstan and other native Tatar lands (which have been artificially excluded from the borders of Tatarstan) have witnessed brutal genocide, forced christianization, expropriation of land, properties, etc. from the native Tatar (Bulgar, Cuman, Misha'r, etc.) population. Stalin even planned mass deportations of the Idel-Ural (Volga) Tatars to Siberia (in addition to the actual deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1994 when 50% of them - women, children, old people - died on the way to and in exile)!

But the Tatars have not abandoned the dream of freedom and of an independent state. We do our best to achieve this through political means, despite the fact that dealing with the Russians is an extremely difficult business! Especially, if the Russians are your colonial overlord!! But we try, we keep smiling and dreaming about the day, when we join the proud family of independent nations!! Insh-Allah!

Posted by: Tatar | October 26, 2005 07:51 AM

Well, Tatar, the theory that the Tatars are the descendants of Bulgars, Cumans etc., doesn't regect the fact of the Tatar/mongolian invasion in the 13th century and the fact that then they KILL, KILL, KILL the slavs. Proto slavs-praslavs-slavs-russians lived on the territory between Oder and Dneper more than 3 thousand years.
Well, Stalin... Don't you know about millions of Russians killed in the Stalin's death camps.
And you surely can dream about your independence.

Posted by: Ivan | October 26, 2005 08:49 AM

LOL, the battels of Russian imperialism/tartar independence (or vice versa) being waged on the electronic pages of Washington Post! How ironic ;-)

If I wasn't ammused and took this stuff serriously, I'd say that graves must be churning all across the Eurasian continent!


Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 26, 2005 01:40 PM

I guess it's unfortunate that it's starting to degenerate into shouting match.

All I have to say to "Tatar" is this:

Drop on your knees and thank Allah that your "colonial overlords" are Russians...
If your land was overran by Anglo-Saxon settlers, few thousand of Tatars that were left alive, would be living today on a tiny reservation behind a barbed wire.
Roads would be better, though - outside of it...

As for independence, don't aggravate yourself. Half of Tatarstan would secede from it and join Russia, and the rest would collapse back into stone age, since it's surrounded by Russian territory.

I wish it would happen, though. It'd be great show.

Posted by: oleg | October 26, 2005 04:20 PM

All I can say about the comments above is that it is obvious who is able to conduct an intelligent, fact-based dialogue, and who is only capable of throwing around generalizations, accusations, and personal attacks.

Lisa, thank you for your coverage of Tatarstan.

Posted by: Liliya | October 27, 2005 10:03 PM


Kol Gali, a classic of Tatar literature, was killed by the Mongols in 1236 in the City of Bulgar. If you've ever heard about Kol Gali and events surrounding his life, then persisting in mixing up Tatars and Mongols is a malicious act on your part and further discussion of this topic with you is useless. If you haven't heard about Kol Gali and his epoch, then there is hope, because you can still educate yourself.


You logic is faulty. Among the major democracies of the world are the U.S. and India. Both were English colonies at one point in time. India's population is approaching 1.5 billion people. Despite your accusations of Anglo-Saxons of exterminating all their non-Anglo-Saxon subjects, India is the second-largest country in the world in terms of population (if we include Pakistan and Bangladesh, would probably be the largest), which testifies to the fact that Anglo-Saxons did NOT exterminate everybody as indiscriminately as you've written... :) In the US, where Anglo-Saxons, indeed in the 18-19 centuries did a lot of harm to Native Americans, currently, these Native Americans have MORE RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS than Tatars have in Tatarstan and in Russia. What's more important, all ex-Colonies of Great Britain are fully functioning democracies NOW, where human rights are respected, where independent mass-media exist, where people can vote as they wish, etc., etc.. NONE OF EX-COLONIES OF RUSSIA (except for the Baltics and Georgia and Ukraine recently) IS A DEMOCRACY. RUSSIA ISN'T EITHER. So, I won't follow your advice, because it's misguided and evil. Russia's colonization of Tatars is the biggest tradegy in the history of the native peoples of Idel-Ural, including present day Tatars, and I am pleased to be aware that the US Government realizes that: Captive Nations Week, 2005 (third week in July) - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/07/20050715-12.html. Decolonization in the last century witnessed two ways: peaceful decolonization (India) and armed struggle (Algiers, etc.). This duality can be applied to Tatarstan and Chechnya, but I would not jump to conclusions as to why each nation has chosen its own way towards freedom.

Posted by: Tatar | October 28, 2005 05:46 AM

Thank you, Tatar. It was very educating to read your postings. As for the Russians, it would be helpful for them to stop being so defensive. It is obvious that for them asking for forgiveness is a sign of weakness not of strength. They are destroying themselves and it is sad. Russia could be a wonderful and great country.

Posted by: Estonian | October 28, 2005 04:49 PM

Ivan, I don't know who you are obviously, but you really need to read some history. Modern Volga Tatars are not the Mongols who invaded Russia. First, original Tatars were conquered by the Mongols and were in the Mongol armies as forced soldiers (much as Russians were later forced by Mongols to fight alongside them). Second, the modern Volga Tatars are mostly of Bulgar and Finno-Ugrian origin. This has been shown linguistically, physiologically, culturally, etc. Khan Ulu-Muhammed, a descendant of Chinghiss Khan came to the Bulgar town of Kazan in the 1430s with several thousand Kipchak horsemen from the Golden Horde, killed the Bulgar prince ruling over Bulgar peasantry and townsfolk, and created the Kazan Khanate. No one but the rulers and a few military officers of the Khanate had much of a relation to the people who ravaged Russia in 1237 and thereafter and whom you call tatar/mongol. the only reason you think that is soviet history classes which did not bother teaching very well. It is true that some Tatar nationalists today, looking for glorious imperial past, claim to be of the same blood as the Mongol conquerors. They are better informed, but make a choice of misrepresenting history. Third, the history of Moscow-Kazan interaction was 75% Russian aggression, 25% Tatar by the number of episodes. Now, I am neither Russian nor Tatar, I am Jewish and think am fairly objective. I hate people talking about history with little more than vague memories of middle school history class.

PS Lisa, thank you for covering my hometown with so many stories. It's great to read!

Posted by: Mikhail Zeldovich | November 1, 2005 04:38 PM

Thank you, Mikhail, for your objective comment. Very much appreciated. Some of us, just like some Russians, descend from the mysterious and legendary Mongol warriors, but just like the Russians, we are a minority amongst the modern Tatars... What I am wondering about is whether Tatars' patience was inherited from our Jewish Khazar ancestors? :) Thanks again for your fair comment.

Posted by: Tatar | November 7, 2005 10:44 AM

On the topic of Americans adopting Russian orphans: what would opposing Russians prefer to become of these children? Do they see orphanage life as preferable to American family life? Or do they not really care about the children so much as their national pride? ie. "We keep our blood here even if we can't take care of it? Better to die miserable in Russia than to live happy in America??"

I adopted a baby girl in 2003 and am madly in love with her. She is a dream-come-true for me. I never did get a full handle on the Russian perspective on these adoptions, though. We were interviewed for Moscow TV at the time as this particular station was trying to cover the "happy" adoption stories as a counterpoint to the bad news. I don't know how it was received.

The babies we saw were relatively well cared for...the orphanage workers did their very best with extremely limited resources. Still, many of these children end up on the streets in prostitution and drug dealling by pre-adolescence.

I'd definitely anyone who is considering adopting from Russia (or anywhere) to go for it! We've had the most fabulous experience of our life.

Posted by: Linda | November 7, 2005 01:58 PM

Mikhail,tatars isnt finno-ural origin,ural-altay origin...and turkic people...Ivan and u dont know about something about history i think....There wasnt mongolian army in this world,there was cengiz khans army,and this armys constitution was turks,mongols etc...Mongols was minority,some of commander was mongol.Some years later they melted amongst turkics....Thats all...Tatars relative of mongols but more near to turkics...

Posted by: Turan | November 27, 2005 01:52 PM

it's just sad and disheartening to see otherwise intelligent people stooping to trading insults. from rinkside, it looks every bit the tape measuring contest it undoubtedly is. you live side by side in one country, and your ancestors have for generations. at the very least you owe one another a modicum of respect. if not for yours, then for your children's sake. keep in mind, it's but one step from hate speech to hate crime, and from there it's one helluva slippery slope to internecine warefare, ethnical cleansing, and the like. peace, astana-kazakhstan

Posted by: astana.kz | March 7, 2006 03:06 AM

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