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.
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."
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."
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