Kazan: The Mosque Inside the Kremlin Walls

David and I arrived in Kazan on a brilliant, sunny Saturday afternoon, perfect for wandering around the city. We decided to start with the city's Kremlin, a massive 16th-century fortress perched on the banks of the Kazanka River.

As I stood on a grassy slope outside the Kremlin, I was shocked to find I'd completely forgotten about the giant turquoise-domed mosque towering over the walls. I've forgotten plenty of things since the 1995 trip, but this seemed extreme -- it's a pretty bizarre sight, seeing a mosque's dome and minarets looming over such a classically Russian setting. That's it, I thought -- no more vodka shots for me, ever.

The Kul Sharif mosque, completed earlier this year, towers over Kazan's Kremlin. (David Hillegas)

This was a short-lived resolution. When we went inside the Kremlin, we found a small monument commemorating a decree by the President of Tatarstan to "recreate the Kul Sharif Mosque." The decree was dated November 13, 1995 -- just five days after Gary and I left Kazan on the first Russian Chronicles trip. The mosque had been designed and built within the last ten years.

This was no small accomplishment, as the Kul Sharif mosque is not only exquisitely ornate, it is also apparently one of the largest mosques in Europe. The minarets soar 187 feet into the air, and the gleaming cupola rises 128 feet. The cavernous prayer hall reportedly can accommodate 1,500 people, in addition to another 9,000 out on the square.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, religious faiths of all kinds have seen a gradual resurgence in Russia. It's not so surprising that a new mosque was built here, as Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, an autonomous republic with more than 2 million mostly Muslim Tatars. But I did find it surprising that the new mosque was built right inside the Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kul Sharif's ornately decorated interior can reportedly hold up to 1,500 people, making it the largest mosque in Europe. (David Hillegas

As it turns out, the mosque was built on roughly the same spot as an earlier Kul Sharif mosque, which was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible's armies in 1552. The Russian tsar had stormed across Tatarstan, slaughtering Muslims and razing their mosques in an attempt to bring Russian Orthodoxy to the land. Four and a half centuries later, the Russian and Tatar governments combined forces -- with some financial help from a few oil companies and thousands of private donors -- to recreate the largest and most beautiful of the mosques that were destroyed.

This bloody history, and the subsequent rebuilding of the Kul Sharif mosque, left me wondering once again about the relatively warm relations between the Muslim Tatars and Russians -- especially as compared to the unbridled hatred between Muslim Chechens and Russians. In the next few days, we'll be asking people here what they think of the Chechnya conflict and the status of Islam in Russia.

We'll also try to track down the family and fiancée of Zhenya Mamykin, a young soldier who was killed in Chechnya in 1995, to find out how their lives have changed over the last 10 years.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 24, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
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I like the diary, but... is it proper to say that Ivan the Terrible didn't charge through Tatarstan in an attempt to install Orthodoxy? I thought it was just part of the long process of expansion of Muscovy, and the Tatars (as part of the Golden Horde) had historically been antagonists to all of Russia's princes.

Posted by: Jack Perry | October 24, 2005 01:03 PM

Sorry: meant to say, "is it proper to write that Ivan the terrible charged through Tatarstan in order to..."

Editing messed up the meaning...

Posted by: Jack Perry | October 24, 2005 01:08 PM

Russians do dislike Chechens, it's true. But so do pretty much all other people who come into contact with them.
A month or so ago there were violent skirmishes between Chechens and Kalmyks, one Kalmyk killed. Ossetians hate them. Dagestanis - Muslims as well - call Chechnya a "cursed land".
Kazakhs and Kyrgyz - both have sizable Chechen diasporas - prefer "infidel" Russians to their Muslim Chechen brethren.

So, along with asking Tatars about Chechnya, please ask them as well about Chechens as people.
That should explain you a lot.

Posted by: oleg | October 24, 2005 01:53 PM

I have been following your journey since day one. I thought you guys had problems with the internet over the past two days, as you didn't post any entry. But now I see you may have been on the road those two days.

Tatarstan is one of the places (the other region is the Urals, particularly Ekaterinborg) I am hoping to visit and live in for sometime sometime in the next few years. Russia has always fascinated me, and I see it as a country that's well worth visiting and living in. Having lived among Russians people in the former Soviet Union for a year (not in Russia), I could just say that there's a pull factor -- an attraction -- in the Russian peoples' culture, language and both contemporary and distant histories.

If you have time, could you please do something on the international student community at Kazan University and find out what they think about the studies and the city. It would be great to hear something about that. Znaete, ya hochu prodolzhat veiuchit russki v russie u, esle vozmozhno, v tatarstane.

spasibo eshe za vashei horoshei blog u ydachi!

Posted by: Jan | October 24, 2005 06:52 PM

I think Islam is not really an element in Russian-Tartar (or even Russian-Chechen) Relations. Tartars are, after all, the largest ethnic minority in Russia - there's even a proverb to the effect that every second Russian is a tartar.

Tartars are a heterogeneous people - dispersed as they are, all across Russia (I myself belong to the Siberian Tartar stock, through my dad) - their history and location predisposes them to friendlier relations with their Russian neighbours. The ethnic origin of the Tartars is still a hot topic, from what I understand, and many experts seem to agree that the Tartars are a Slavic people - related to the Bulgars. (Correct me on that one; it has been a long time since I studied this).

Chechens are a more homogenous lot, confined as they are to their tiny mountainous region. They also practice a different form of Islam than that of the Tartars. My grandfather claims to be a Sunni, though I would imagine that he is a Sunni Muslim with a Siberian Tartar flavour.

As for the Chechen conflict, it seems to be evident that it is about land, power, history and testosterone: religion is merely a pretext. Apart from centuries-old prejudice and the inability to think practically, there is little that is stopping the two sides from coexisting.

Artem K. Khamzin
(the every second Russian)

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 24, 2005 06:53 PM

Does your schedule include time to visit and report on orphans/orphanages. After all, it's a huge industry and touches many American lives.

Posted by: lori | October 24, 2005 09:35 PM

Dear Ms. Dickey and Mr. Hillegas:

Thank you for your interesting reflection about Kazan. I am a Kazan Tatar, studying in the US, and I am curious as to why, of all things, you decided to write about the Kul Sharif Mosque.

I agree that the new mosque stands out against the old architecture of the Kazan Kremlin, but I would not find such juxtaposition an anomaly. To me, it symbolizes the complexity of coexistence of two worlds: Tatar and Russian; Christian Orthodoxy and Tatar Islam; an attempt to revive traditional Tatar language and culture and an ambition to be part of a modern global picture...In fact, you'll find this coexistence of two seemingly opposing worlds everywhere throughout Kazan - in its architecture, culture, people. It has become part of us over the centuries.

I reflected on this in my NPR commentary:

(by the way, there are other recent stories about Kazan on NPR).

If I may, I would like to respond to the comments posted above.

Mr. Perry:
you probably know that Ivan the Terrible was a religious fanatic (along with his many other idiosyncrasies), so what you describe as "just part of the long process of expansion of Muscovy" inevitably came with an attempt to install Russian Orthodoxy, and, naturally, resistance on the part of the Tatars. And blood.

I would also refrain from the statement that "the Tatars (as part of the Golden Horde) had historically been antagonists to all of Russia's princes" unless it is supported by historical facts.

I graduate from the Department of Philology of Kazan State University, and a number of my friends and colleges teach Russian as a foreign language there. I know you wanted to hear about what other international students think about the program, but if my words are worth anything, it is one of the strongest programs in the country. Feel free to e-mail me if I can be of help.

I think Islam IS an element when it comes to any inter-religious relations, including the Tatar-Russian relations. It's just not on the surface in the Russian-Tatar relations AND relationships - you just have to scratch the surface to see it. But like I said earlier, we, Russians and Tatars, have learned how to live with it and how to live side by side - I don't think there was or is a better option.

Thank you,

Posted by: Liliya | October 24, 2005 10:15 PM

if sacking Russian cities, killing Russian people, building scull pyramids and collecting tribute for some 300 years is not considered "antagonistic" by graduates of Kazan State University, then I don't know what that word means.
Second, if Ivan the Awesome ("Terrible" is wrong translation) was a religious fanatic, all Tatars would be Christians today.
I've never heard of Russians stoning Muslims to death, even in medieval times - while in Saudi Arabia they kill people for converting into any religion other than Islam even today.

the saying is "scratch a Russian, find a Tatar".
It refers to centuries of intermarriage.
And Tatars are Turkic people, not Slavic. The only reason they don't look very Mongol anymore, is, again, because of intermarriage.

Posted by: oleg | October 25, 2005 02:34 AM

It is dangerous and unfair to stereotype, and to judge groups based on history. We are all in the privileged position to transform the ways we interact with our neighbors based on genuine relationships. I wish you peace and hope you will take the time to get to know.

Posted by: K | October 25, 2005 10:02 AM

Dear Oleg:
Thank you for your interest in my post and for your comments. I would like to respond to you, if you don't mind.

"...sacking Russian cities, killing Russian people, building scull pyramids and collecting tribute for some 300 years" is your interpretation of Mr. Perry's statement that "the Tatars (as part of the Golden Horde) had historically been antagonists to all of Russia's princes." Let's refrain from putting our own words into someone else's mouth.

I never said that "sacking Russian cities, killing Russian people, building scull pyramids and collecting tribute for some 300 years is not considered 'antagonistic'." Again, this is your personal interpretation of what I said and, again, let's refrain from putting our own words into someone else's mouth.

I am very flattered that you consider my personal opinion representative of all graduates of Kazan State Univeristy, but that's, unfortunately, just not true. Let's refrain from making generalizations.

By stating that "if Ivan the Awesome ("Terrible" is wrong translation) was a religious fanatic, all Tatars would be Christians today," you are making a speculation that cannot be supported or refuted - it's just a speculation. We can find plenty of examples from the past and present when attempts of brining a foreign religion to a nation rarely ended up successfully and without blood. The fact that ALL Tatars are not Christians today doesn't deny the historic attempt to Christianize them. And, if you've ever been to or will have a chance to visit Tatarstan, you'll find plenty of Baptized Tatars there.

I simply don't know if there are or there aren't historical facts of "Russians stoning Muslims to death, even in medieval times." But there, sure, are historical facts of other forms of killings - stoning is not the only way to kill a human.

I would encourage us to differentiate our personal opinions and interpretations from historical facts. I would encourage us to refrain from skewing others' words and offering our personal interpretations of them. I would also encourage us to refrain from making speculations and generalizations, without supporting them with evidence. That's how many conflicts start, anyway.


Posted by: Liliya | October 25, 2005 10:03 AM

History is full of "successful" religious conversions. It's only a matter of resolve and amount of applied violence.
Spain,Latin America, Africa, Ulster, Albania, Bosnia, Pakistan - list could probably continue...
Russians - as I see it - were actually the least successful of all in converting anyone.
So much for Ivan IV's "religious fanaticism"...

I absolutely agree that generalizations and stereotyping don't help.
But I have no clue as to where you found anything of that kind in whatever I wrote.

Posted by: oleg | October 25, 2005 02:35 PM

Oleg, Ivan-the-Terrible was a blood-thirsty monster, a maniac, a sadist and psychopath. And he did more than what the Spaniards did in North and South America in their missionary zeal to convert the natives into Catholicism - to convert the Muslim Tatars into Russian Orthodoxy. He and and the subsequent generations of tsarist maniacs failed in their frenzied efforts to force us, Tatars, into Orthodoxy exactly because our people are independent-minded, free spirited, hate violence and value traditions. Apparently, you've never read "Zo'la'ikha" written by Ayaz Iskhakyi, a Tatar classic of the first half of the 20th century. If a regular American reads even the first 5 pages of this famous play, he/she will be shocked by the brutality of the attempted "Orthodoxization" of the Tatars. Mind you, the events described in "Zo'la'ikha" took place at the end of the XIX century (in the XVIth century Tatars were simply slaughtered by the Russians for refusal to convert - and Tatars had and have never done that to the Russians!!!)! Tatar women were forcefully "married" to Russian men, Tatar children were taken away from their parents and sent to Russian Orthodox monasteries, Tatar dead were buried against their will on Russian cemeteries, etc., etc.!!! Is that not "religious fanaticism"? Some colonized native nations like Maris, Mordvas, Chuvashis, etc. resisted the Orthodox onslaught until the XIXth century, but then surrendered for fear of being annihilated. Russian "apparatchiks" of the XV-XXth centuries treated all non-Orthodox as cattle and sent them to Siberia or executed at every opportune moment. Don't forget about Peter I's motto: "We should kill as many Muslims as possible, but quietly, so that they would not know how many of them we've killed." And he was referring not even to "foreign" Muslims, but to Tatars, Bashkorts, etc., i.e. "citizens" of the "Russian" empire!!! Think about it, Oleg, before you make your hypocritical statements.

Posted by: Tatar | November 10, 2005 05:08 AM

All people,all nation wanna freedom and their own territory,i believe that all tatars wanna freedom,but they cant do anything in central russia...Armed fight is not suitable for tatars like chechens,chechens have got a lot of mountain,geography is for created guerilla war...if chechens live in tatarstan land they would be peacefull people,and if tatars live in kavkasia they would be agressive people.What can tatars do in central russia for their generation,for always be in this world?Tatars should be clever,they can only do pshycologic war,they should love their history,they should love islam,most important thing they should love their ancestors, and free in their brain...İ hope tatars always be in this world...
Sorry for my bad english,i hope u understood me....

Posted by: Turan | November 27, 2005 02:08 PM

Oleg, you are trying to mix the facts. "Russians never stoned anyone..." but they killed many peoples of North Kavkaz", abandoned them from the Earth surface or diminished. You are the Hitler follower and your fate will be the same as Adolph's one. Killing thousands civillians in Chechnya is the greates crime of Russia.

Posted by: ams | March 22, 2006 09:10 AM

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