Tales from Tatarstan

I took a trip last week to the Tatar village Aktanish. It’s located about 400 kilometers from Kazan, any further east and you’d be in the neighboring republic of Bashkortostan. Aktanish the village, you could liken it to a small midwestern town, is the ‘capital’ of the Aktanish region which consists of small clusters of villages spread over the countryside.

The first day we went to the birthday party of a woman turning 80. The festivities began at 10 in the morning and lasted well into the evening. We arrived a bit late and were quickly shuttled into the main room of the house where we were fed a bounty of dishes: carrot salad with mayonnaise, beet salad with mayonnaise, fish salad with mayonnaise, and meat and potato pie, to name a few. I learned early on that the key to surviving a Russian feast is to never take anything for yourself and eat very, very slowly. The first feast I attended, I made the mistake of piling my plate with the 14 various salads on the table, only to learn that this was the first course of four and that a plate cannot remain empty for more than about 15 seconds before someone notices that you’re not eating, plops something in front of you and utters the command “Eat. Eat.”

We finished eating and I thought perhaps that this was the end of the celebration since we had arrived an hour late, but I was greatly mistaken. The party moved outside to picnic bench near the road that leads to and from this very tiny village. In earlier times, this Tatar village had about 40 houses, a small one-room school and corner store. Now there are but 20 houses, the schoolhouse is a ruin of wood and building materials and the corner store is closed. As the elderly villagers pass away one-by-one, the village gets smaller and smaller. Russia is changing. Village life is disappearing. During Soviet times, it was in these very villages where ancestral customs, religion, and language were kept alive. Now people are free to move, free to practice their religion and speak their mother tongue. The young people move to the city and only visit when a certain occasion calls them back. I try not to label this as either “good” or “bad” but just accept it as fact. Perhaps it is from my own romantic views of Russian villages with the ornately decorated wooden houses, multicolored picket fences and miles of green pasture (I will NOT mention the babushkas!), but I feel a certain sadness about this. I guess it’s another reminder of just how fast and how extensively our world is changing.

Back to the party…where the feasting continues. Millet porridge, shashlik-vinegar marinated chicken grilled over an open flame, Tatar blini- similar to pancakes, more salads, fruit, chocolates and a welcomed gift at any Tatar feast..Chak-Chak. It’s difficult to describe chak-chak, so here you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Çäkçäk. Accordion playing, singing, dancing, arm wrestling, eating and drinking, a proper feast was enjoyed by all. I would be remiss to not mention that vodka and wine are a part of every feast and toasting is not only customary, it’s obligatory. Each person stands, drink in hand and speaks at length about the person or persons for whom the feast is held. Do not let the age of the guest of honor fool you; she was able to keep up with just about everyone, even strutting her stuff to Russian techno that blasted from a car’s stereo speakers. She was probably one of the most joyful people I have ever encountered. After a number of hours, the weather turned and we moved back inside where were were treated to homemade pilmeni- meat filled dumplings in soup topped with dill and sour cream. And accordion playing, singing and dancing commenced inside. Hours later, leftover chak-chak in hand, we plopped ourselves into the car, bellies distended.

The next day was the May 1st celebration. May 1st is not only International Worker’s Day, but in Tatarstan, they also celebrate their own version of May Day, commencing the beginning of spring. There are various games and antics involving eggs, many of which are brightly colored and ornately decorated like Easter eggs. May Day is celebrated in various parts of the world and has it’s roots in pre-Christian pagan celebrations. I made several attempts to find out where the Tatar tradition of May 1st came from, but nobody seemed to know how or why.

P.S. This post was featured in the June edition of Nazar Look!