For the past couple of weeks, I decided to take a step back and spend my time looking at the bigger picture of life in the city. If Russia, by its sheer size and geographical location, is said to bridge East and West (although I have heard this noble title used to describe various places around the world), then there would be no greater place to see this bridging than in Kazan. It seems to me however, that Russia won’t give up that easily to either the East or the West, but will remain, at least for now, somewhere defiantly in between.
European-style cafes are starting to slowly sprout up around the city, although despite there being a large pedestrian walkway through the heart of the city center, the culture of lounging in cafes, sipping coffee on the patio has yet to really take hold. It goes without saying that there are numerous McDonald’s around town but many are surprised to hear that there is an IKEA, two H&Ms and…dare I even mention it..even a Coyote Ugly (if you’re not familiar with this establishment, feel free to Google, but I assure you it won’t be pretty). There is a yearning among the youth to bring modern art and international rock concerts to Kazan, and when they do occur the events are met with great passion and excitement. In the warmer months, concerts of local rock groups are held in the Kremlin, sometimes setting up stage on the steps of the Museum of Islam, with the minarets of the Qul Sharif Mosque towering overhead.
As reluctant allies to the West, the government, particularly the Tatarstan government is looking more to the East, especially when it comes to financial matters. Kazan recently hosted a financial summit, inviting guests from Kuwait, UAE and other parts of the Muslim world. There is even talk about setting up Kazan as a center for Muslim banking, a separate banking system with its own laws and regulations. Tatar art often draws inspiration form the East and the various murals that decorate subway stations, Tatar cafes and other sights around town reflect this influence.
Kazan in every way attempts to be balanced in its representation of both the Russian and the Tatar traditions. If a mosque is being built in town, you can bet that a church will follow shortly after. There are numerous theaters in the city where you can see both Russian and Tatar plays, operas, ballets and classical music concerts. All street signs are written in both Tatar and Russian and the streets themselves are named after both Russian and Tatar national heroes. For example, I live on Pushkin Street which runs through Tukai Square, a Tatar national poet; Pushkin Street also runs past Lenin’s Garden, Karl Marx Street and ends at Freedom Square…remnants of the Soviet Era are also alive and well.
Everyday it seems I step out my door and something has changed, physically, in Kazan. Construction sites are everywhere and the traffic rivals mid-town New York at 5pm on a rainy day. All over the city, but particularly in the city’s historical center, old buildings are (sic: regrettably) being torn down and replaced by new ones. Somewhat incongruously, the Tatarstan government is pushing to make Kazan the sports capital of Russia, hosting the 2013 Universiade and the 2017 World Cup, for which a new stadium is being built.